Notre Dame will most likely lose yet this season. Looking at the next six opponents, logic may disagree, but there is a reason so few teams finish a season undefeated. Not only is winning hard, but doing it week after week after week for three months is improbable.
Nonetheless, the No. 5 Irish (6-0) have a better chance of making it to 12-0 than just about anyone else in the country. That dichotomy sums up the expectations of unexpected outcomes in October and November.
Thus, there are three paths to the College Football Playoff in front of Notre Dame with a fourth route involving national upheaval.
THE OBVIOUS: Finish undefeated with no more than one or two other teams doing so. How much more needs to be said? If the Irish reach 12-0 and only two Power-Five champions get to 13-0, even undefeated Georgia handing Alabama its first loss of the season in the SEC Championship Game would not knock Notre Dame out of the Playoff.
Advanced analytics systems projecting the future give the Irish a 43.7 percent chance (Brian Fremeau’s Efficiency Index), a 38.3 percent chance of going undefeated (ESPN’s Football Power Index) and a 32 percent chance (Bill Connely’s S&P+). It remains more unlikely than not, but that is also the case for every team in the country except for Clemson in the S&P+ (51 percent).
THE EXTREMELY UNLIKELY: It remains possible all five of the Power Five conferences boast undefeated champions at season end, but common sense laughs at the concept, and not just because No. 19 Colorado (5-0) is a touchdown underdog this weekend at USC. In the four years of the Playoff era, a total of three Power-Five teams have finished undefeated: 2016 Alabama, 2015 Clemson and 2014 Florida State. Wondering if that number will be exceeded, let alone doubled, this year is, to be blunt, preposterous.
Want an estimation of that possibility? First, remove Colorado. No outlook grants the Buffaloes a significant chance at running the table. If that projection does not become a reality this week, then expect it next at Washington.
That would leave four undefeated conference champions and Notre Dame as the maximum possible. The best chance of that being the case BEFORE conference championship games? The FEI suggests it is 0.18 percent. S&P+ projects it at 0.15 percent. The FPI comes in at 0.038 percent. It would be an unprecedented occurrence in not just the Playoff era or college football history but in sports and statistics and gambling and this list could go on for awhile. For that matter, it would still leave conference championship games to restore order to the world’s understanding of what is possible.
AN SEC ISSUE is more likely and presents a similar concern as it applies to the Irish. Suppose Georgia did reach 13-0 with a victory over Alabama to knock the Tide to 12-1 while both Ohio State and Clemson finish 13-0. Using the FPI odds and giving Georgia a 40 percent chance at that upset while the Buckeyes and Tigers remain strong favorites in their respective championship games … there is about a 0.21 percent chance of this becoming a December conversation.
Both Alabama and Georgia would have to win at No. 13 LSU. Then, the Bulldogs would come back from their subsequent bye week with three more consecutive top-25 opponents awaiting them.
Ohio State would need to make it through a three-week close to the regular season of at Michigan State, at Maryland and vs. Michigan. No. 15 Wisconsin could next await in the Big Ten title game.
And remember, this thought process holds up only if Georgia beats Alabama for the SEC crown. Reverse that and the selection committee will not think twice about leaving out the Bulldogs. Nick Saban’s current battering rod is clearly the class of the SEC; that is the only reason an Atlanta upset would lead to thought of entering two SEC teams.
12-0 Notre Dame; 13-0 Georgia; 13-0 Clemson; 13-0 Ohio State; 12-1 Alabama.
Or 12-0 Notre Dame; 13-0 Alabama; 13-0 Clemson; 13-0 Ohio State; 12-0 West Virginia.
Why presume the Irish would get in? It is becoming a mantra in this space … No undefeated Power Five team has ever been left out of the Playoff, and the first excluded undefeated team will not be the one that does not need a conference to be considered “Power Five.” That may break poorly for the Tigers or the Mountaineers, or perhaps the one-loss Tide. It will not be Notre Dame that gets the short straw.
THE MOST LIKELY, THE LOSS: None of the remaining six Irish opponents should beat Notre Dame, but one probably will. S&P+ expects the toughest remaining game to be at USC, giving the Irish a 67 percent chance of winning, a projected margin of victory of 7.6 points. The FPI largely agrees, offering 69.8 percent chances for the weekend after Thanksgiving. Northwestern warrants mention. Maybe a loss at Yankee Stadium is ironically inevitable given the hand-wringing over moving the Syracuse game away from South Bend.
This is where the struggles of the Notre Dame schedule make things frustrating for the Irish argument. Notice Florida State’s lack of mention in the previous paragraph’s pondering of pitfalls? That is how far the second half of this fall has fallen compared to its preseason hype. S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 90 percent chance of a positive binary result on Nov. 10, and FPI skews even higher to 91.2 percent.
While the SEC’s best are likely to emerge with more quality wins than need to be counted and Ohio State could have positive data points against TCU, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin, Notre Dame will be able to claim … Michigan, and that may be it.
Stanford is now 4-2 and the heart of its Pac-12 slate awaits. Run the table in the North, and the Cardinal again becomes a win to be proud of. Otherwise, Irish fans will need to retract everything they said after this weekend and insist Lane Stadium was an extremely intimidating environment and to beat Virginia Tech there was an accomplishment unparalleled.
BUT WHAT ABOUT CHAOS? This is college football, after all. Given its remaining schedule, let’s grant Clemson clear path to 13-0, and, as a nod to its dominance to this point, let’s do the same for Alabama.
Maybe Ohio State loses to Michigan who has looked the part of Big-Ten challenger since its season-opening loss. Perhaps West Virginia wins at Texas to start November but loses to the Longhorns a month later. USC could beat Notre Dame and then fall to one-loss Washington in the Pac-12 championship. That would leave:
11-1 Ohio State with a loss to Michigan.
12-1 Michigan with a loss to Notre Dame.
11-1 Notre Dame with a loss to USC but a win over Michigan.
12-1 Washington with a loss to Auburn but a win over USC.
11-1 West Virginia with a loss to Texas.
11-2 Texas with a loss to Maryland.
12-1 Georgia with a loss to Alabama.
11-1 Colorado with a loss to USC.
11-1 N.C. State with a loss to Clemson.
Individually, none of that seems absurd. All together, the likelihood ends up back in the zero-point percentages again. How would the Irish fare? They might join Georgia in filling out the semifinals bracket.
It would be easiest to just get a seventh win against a team that has shocked a top-five opponent in each of the last two seasons, then add the eighth against the triple-option before continuing on one-by-one-by-one to 12.