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Notre Dame’s Playoff Possibilities & Opponents: One looks better and the other still average

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It is an awkward time of year when looking outward. Most of Notre Dame’s opponents are not inherently good, and the College Football Playoff selection committee has long made it clear it cares most about good victories, not just okay wins or bad losses.

Meanwhile, that committee does not release its first ranking for another six days, so any suggestions of the national pecking order are conjecture at best, perhaps educated conjecture, but based largely in speculation, nonetheless.

Oh, and the engine behind this space has learned to never again host a bachelor party during football season because the food poisoning gods are undefeated in ways even Alabama cannot imagine. An awkward time of year, indeed.

Thus, for at least this week, let’s combine the look at the Irish opponents with the Playoff possibilities, minimizing them both as we bide our time until the first committee reveal on Tuesday.

Doug, I know you hate all of the pointless polls that come out before the Committee begins its meetings, and if I recall, you don’t care much for the early versions of the Committee polls either. But, if forced to engage in speculation regarding these meaningless events, what is your prediction about where the Irish land in the first poll? — Matthew C.

To be fair, Matt sent that in a little more than 24 hours before Ohio State lost to Purdue, removing some of the impetus to the question. Personally, I was not far from a Cajun dinner that may or may not be the source of my downfall this week.

To be clear, I do not have any issue with the early Committee polls. I do have issue with overreaction to items that will obviously sort themselves out. As an example, let’s say the Buckeyes had not lost, and the Committee put both Ohio State and Michigan directly in front of Notre Dame at No. 5. There would be an outcry, an unnecessary one. The Buckeyes and Wolverines play each other the final week of the regular season. It would seem safe to presume the loser would drop below the Irish. No need to be upset. The disrespect is not real. Also, that was an impossible hypothetical.

To offer an answer, Notre Dame should come in at No. 3 next week, barring any monumental occurrences this weekend. Unless granting real credence to Navy in a down year, the only chance of such an upset would come in Tallahassee, and let’s not go giving Willie Taggart too much credit on a one-game winning streak. (Wait, it can’t be a streak if it is only one? Whoops.)

To continue to the answer that matters, who will loom at Nos. 4 and 5? LSU and Michigan, in some order. Of note: LSU still has to face Alabama and Texas A&M (on the road) while Michigan awaits both Penn State and Ohio State (on the road). Even the Big-12 one-loss trio cannot result in more than one of them running the table.

This is where the Ohio State loss was a big deal for Irish concerns. It not only fell an unbeaten, but it reduced the possible pool of one-loss headaches in a tangible way. Rather than both Michigan and Ohio State conceivably finishing the season with one-loss and both elbowing out a one-loss Notre Dame, now only one can. Only one (non-‘Bama) SEC team can finish the regular season with as few as one loss. Only one Big 12 team can. Get the idea?

Even in the cleanest of conclusions, a path is emerging for the Irish to cruise to the Playoff even with a loss.

Now then, to those opponents, obviously beginning with …

Michigan (7-1): Overblown and obnoxious antics stole the headlines in Michigan’s 21-7 win at Michigan State, but the game itself was a lesson in dominance. The Wolverines had the ball for 41:03 and gave up only 94 total yards. Even though they lost the turnover battle 2-1, they cruised. In fact, one of those turnovers set up the Spartans for a 7-yard touchdown drive, their only points of the day.

Those off-the-field storylines will continue for the week in Ann Arbor, given the idle week in those parts.

Ball St. (3-5): The Cardinals lost 42-20 vs. Eastern Michigan, and even that includes Ball State breaking an 80-yard touchdown run with two minutes to go.

Ball State hosts Ohio (Thursday; 7 ET; CBSSN) as 10.5-point underdogs with a combined point total over/under of 64. Just enjoy the weekday football.

Vanderbilt (3-5): This space projected the Commodores would not score 19 against Kentucky, and that was accurate, but it would be a lie to call that anywhere near precise. Vanderbilt nearly upset Kentucky, falling only 14-7.

As a result, the ‘Dores are favored this weekend, just the fourth time they have been favored in an SEC game during Derek Mason’s five-year tenure. Hosting Arkansas (12ET; SEC Network) with a 1.5-point edge hints at a 27-25 result.

Wake Forest (3-4): The Deacons fell 38-17 at Florida State after jumping to a 10-0 lead. They now head to Louisville (12 ET) as 2.5-point underdogs with a lofty over/under of 65.

Stanford (5-2): Outgained by 101 yards, the Cardinal forced three turnovers and held onto the ball for 38:17 to beat Arizona State 20-13 on Thursday. Its Pac-12 North fate may be on the line this week against Washington State (7 ET; Pac 12 Network). Somewhat surprisingly, Stanford is favored by a field goal with an over/under of 53 suggesting a 28-25 result.

Virginia Tech (4-2): After a week off, Virginia Tech will get another long week once done hosting Georgia Tech on Thursday (7:30 ET; ESPN). As three-point favorites, the Hokies are expected to handle the triple-option to the tune of 31-28.

Pittsburgh (3-4): Duke is rarely given the credit it deserves for being a solid football program, and that shows in the spread setting Pittsburgh as only a 2.5-point underdog (3:30 ET) with an over/under of 46. Expect the Blue Devils to enjoy more of a cushion than 24-22.

Navy (2-5): Statistically, it looks like a normal Navy output, rushing for 349 yards on 67 carries, a 5.2 average, but it was not enough to overcome Houston’s 413 passing yards in a 49-36 Cougars victory.

Navy now hosts Notre Dame in San Diego (8 ET; CBS) in a game that had its time slot determined back in the summer. The Irish are favored by 23.5 with an over/under of 54 speaking to a 39-15 finale.

Northwestern may have finally found a running attack in Isaiah Bowser, who took 24 carries for 108 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers, including the game-winning, fourth-quarter score. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

Northwestern (4-3): It is a result of the schedule that the Wildcats remain in the division title conversation in the Big Ten West, but they do thanks to an 18-15 victory at Rutgers. Ahh, 2018, when “Big Ten West” and “Rutgers” logically fit in the same sentence.

Northwestern’s title hopes will be on the line against Wisconsin this weekend (12 ET; FOX) as touchdown underdogs with an over/under of 51. That feels like too many total points. This is still Big Ten West football, right?

Florida State (4-3): With the 38-17 victory against Wake Forest, the Seminoles are averaging 32.5 points per game in their last four games. They will need every one of those against Clemson (12 ET; ABC) as 16.5-point underdogs. The over/under of 51 indicates Florida State may hardly reach half that average, an expected final score of 34-17.

Syracuse sophomore Tommy DeVito may have wrested away the starting quarterback job from four-year starter Eric Dungey over the weekend. (Scott Schild/The Post-Standard via AP)

Syracuse (5-2): The Orange needed double overtime to beat North Carolina 40-37, turning to sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito to do so, benching four-year starter Eric Dungey. Their Saturday stat lines:
Dungey: 17-of-33 for 225 yards; 15 rushes for 42 yards and a score.
DeVito: 11-of-19 for 181 yards and three touchdowns.

Head coach Dino Babers has yet to commit to either quarterback against N.C. State (7 ET; ESPN2), indicating he has some loyalty to a four-year starter who has played through injuries throughout his career. Syracuse is a 2.5-point underdog, but that line will move quickly if a starter is leaked, especially if it is DeVito.

USC (4-3): The story is about the Trojans’ quarterbacks getting banged up. That ignores the fact that their defense gave up 541 yards, 27 first downs and 34 unanswered points in a 41-28 loss at Utah.

Arizona State (3:30 ET; ABC/ESPN2) will look to rack up similar damage even though USC is favored by 6.5 with an over/under of 54.5.

Thursday 7 p.m. ET: Ball State vs. Ohio on CBSSN.
Thursday 7:30 p.m. ET: Virginia Tech vs. Georgia Tech on ESPN.
Saturday 12 p.m. ET: Vanderbilt at Arkansas on SEC Network; Wake Forest at Louisville; Northwestern vs. Wisconsin on FOX; Florida State vs. Clemson on ABC.
3:30 p.m. ET: Pittsburgh vs. Duke; USC vs. Arizona State on ABC/ESPN2.
7 ET: Stanford vs. Washington State on Pac 12 Network; Syracuse vs. N.C. State on ESPN2.
8 ET: Navy vs. Notre Dame on CBS

Favorites: Vanderbilt -1.5; Stanford -3; Virginia Tech -3; USC -6.5
Underdogs: Ball State +10.5; Wake Forest +1.5; Pittsburgh +2.5; Navy +23.5; Northwestern +6.5; Florida State +16.5; Syracuse +2.