No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0) will learn its real standing Tuesday evening at 7 ET (ESPN) when the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its first ranking. The Irish will certainly be in the top four, and any order beyond that is a debate in semantics before top-10 matchups like this weekend’s between Alabama and LSU.
Of course Notre Dame would rather slot in ahead of LSU, creating a glimmer of hope that the Tigers could beat the Tide and the Irish remain ahead of them, moving up to No. 2. If LSU begins the rankings season ahead of Notre Dame, then there is suddenly the vague possibility of a Tigers victory not dropping Alabama behind the Irish, keeping Brian Kelly & Co. at No. 4 and nervous on the bubble.
Again, this wondering will end — and thus begin all over again — tomorrow.
Until then, after then, every moment until the weekend, one on-field concern should keep Kelly awake at night … Will fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill be able to play against Northwestern?
Tranquill (pictured above earlier in the season) suffered a sprained ankle early in the 44-22 victory against Navy. Initially, the injury looked much worse than that, though replays quickly began soothing any concerns as it was clearly an ankle issue and not one threatening either of Tranquill’s surgically-repaired knees.
The Wildcats (7:15 ET; ESPN) have an atrocious running attack, ranking No. 127 in the country with 91.13 yards per game. Their average yards per carry actually rates worse, 2.58 ranking No. 128 nationally. (Is this where Florida State gets mentioned as No. 128 and No. 129 in those categories? The Seminoles rush for 83.50 yards per game and 2.46 per carry.)
Even in recent weeks as Northwestern has found a semblance of a ground attack, gaining 182 yards against No. 20 Wisconsin this past weekend, it has been inefficient, averaging 3.7 yards in that 31-17 victory. Isaiah Bowser led the way, running for 3.4 yards per carry on 34 attempts for 117 yards.
So Tranquill may not be desperately needed against that half of the Wildcats’ offense, but he is still the leader of the Notre Dame defense and every play without him is one in which the defense is less potent than it could be.
A player who may be desperately needed would be senior kicker Justin Yoon, who stayed on the sidelines against Navy due to a groin injury.
Yoon spent the idle week and much of the week leading up to San Diego resting, not kicking at all. Beginning Wednesday, he worked three of four days, and Kelly felt he could have kicked if needed against the Midshipmen. Fortunately for all involved, he was not needed.
“This was not going to be a field goal game,” Kelly said afterward. “As you saw the way the game was called, what we were doing, we were going for it on fourth down.”
Indeed, perhaps as best exhibited early in the second quarter, the Irish had little intention of kicking field goals Saturday, though that may have perhaps tied somewhat to sophomore Jonathan Doerer not yet having attempted one. A 4th-and-3 from the 24-yard line would usually be a field goal moment, for example. Yoon is nearly automatic from 42 yards. It would have given Notre Dame a 16-0 lead.
Instead, senior quarterback Ian Book found senior receiver Chris Finke for seven yards and a first down, leading to senior running back Dexter Williams’ second touchdown three plays later.
Northwestern may be a close game. Really, if any of the remaining games are short for points, it is likely to be this one. A healthy Yoon could be quite an advantage in such a situation.
And what is the situation with freshman cornerback TaRiq Bracy?
He did not travel to San Diego, reportedly due to a “coach’s decision.” Bracy replaced junior Donte Vaughn as the third cornerback against Pittsburgh, and it seemed at least possible the change would be for good.
Admittedly, facing the triple-option is a moment more made for Vaughn’s length and physicality than for Bracy’s coverage and inexperience, but not even making the trip indicates the coach’s decision involved a transgression or a frustration, not simply a schematic choice.
The Wildcats make up for their lack of a running game by dropping back to pass over and over and over again. (Saturday night might be a late one.) Having three viable cornerbacks could prove crucial for Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea, even if one of them is a freshman.
To be clear, Bracy has appeared in more than four games. He has used a season of eligibility. This coach’s decision was not an attempt to utilize the new NCAA rules.