As long as Notre Dame has only one loss, every piece of national chaos can be considered a positive for the Irish and their Playoff hopes. Not every weekend will include an upset of such magnitude to be deemed chaotic, but the last two have.
“Chaotic” may not even do enough justice in describing the absurdity of Wisconsin’s 24-23 loss at Illinois on Saturday. The Badgers were favored by more than 30 points, and the Illini were simply toiling away until head coach Lovie Smith could be fired with a reasonable buyout. Instead, Wisconsin fell a touchdown short of 30 and Smith’s career might have been elongated by a last-second field goal.
The now-No. 13 Badgers head to No. 3 Ohio State this weekend as the key pieces to a few Big Ten scenarios, all of which could impact Notre Dame’s thread-clinging hopes. From best for the Irish to worst …
Scenario 1: Wisconsin loses this weekend, wins the Big Ten West, and then beats Ohio State in the conference championship game. This is a Notre Dame ideal, particularly if it comes complete with the Buckeyes falling victim to some chaos themselves (maybe at Michigan the weekend after Thanksgiving). Implicit to this possibility is Ohio State beating current No. 7 Penn State and keeping the Nittany Lions out of the Big Ten title game. Notre Dame might have an argument for Playoff pondering over a one-loss Penn State.
Scenario 2: Wisconsin wins this weekend, wins the Big Ten West, and then loses to Ohio State in the conference championship game. The key difference between these first two possibilities is not who wins the Big Ten, but that this order of operations would prohibit the Buckeyes from a second conference loss. In the interest of increasing those odds and recognizing the psyches of 18- to 22-year-olds, perhaps Irish fans should pull for the Badgers to end the season with a victory rather than the Buckeyes, unless …
Scenario 3: Wisconsin wins this weekend, wins the Big Ten West, and then beats Ohio State in the conference championship game. At that point, the Badgers would have two wins more impressive than Notre Dame’s best and would undoubtedly get into the Playoff before the Irish.
Scenario 4: Penn State is still 7-0, but also has to play Ohio State yet. That Nov. 23 matchup could render this weekend moot. As long as the Nittany Lions keep winning, they fit into the looming Big Ten triumvirate.
That all means Notre Dame still needs to worry about outpacing at least one of the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC champions, and perhaps two of them. The latter thought is too unlikely to spend any more time on, and the Big Ten remains the best bet to catch any one of the three, given the lack of apparent competition for Oklahoma and Clemson.
Consider who they face this weekend, along with the other top contenders for Playoff spots …
No. 1 Alabama: vs. Arkansas, favored by 32.5, even without starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (ankle).
No. 2 LSU: vs. No. 9 Auburn, favored by 11.
No. 3 Ohio State: vs. No. 13 Wisconsin, favored by 14.5.
No. 4 Clemson: vs. Boston College, favored by 34.5.
No. 5 Oklahoma: at Kansas State, favored by 23.5.
No. 6 Penn State: at Michigan State, favored by 6.5.
The Sooners and Tigers should be just fine this weekend, but three of those other games are expected to be within two possessions. That’s closer than usual at that point in the pecking order.
Louisville (4-3): The Cardinals had no chance against Clemson, falling 45-10 while giving up 551 yards, getting out-gained by 288. Louisville now hosts Virginia as 3.5-point underdogs (3:30 ET; ACCN) as of late Tuesday night. The 53.5-point combined point total over/under suggests a 28-25 conclusion, but the Cavaliers have given up more than 24 points only once this season, making that an unlikely amount of success for the Cardinals offense.
New Mexico (2-5): The Lobos lost 23-10 at Wyoming, despite gaining 27 yards more than the Cowboys. New Mexico simply could not stop the run, giving up 259 rushing yards on 55 carries. That will not be as much of a concern against pass-happy Hawaii, favored by 10 points (4 ET; Facebook). An over/under of 70 makes for easy math in a 40-30 Lobos defeat.
Georgia (6-1): The Bulldogs rushed for 235 yards while passing for 35 yards on 12 attempts in an utter downpour, turning a scoreless first half into a 21-0 lead against Kentucky. They now have plenty of time to dry off with an off week.
Virginia (5-2): The Cavaliers are back in the driver’s seat of the ACC Coastal thanks to a 48-14 walloping of Duke. Every week matters in that nonsense of a division, though, so winning at Louisville will be vital. It could also be enough to bump Virginia back into the top 25, currently second among “others receiving votes.”
Bowling Green (2-5): The Falcons returned to familiar ways in a 38-20 loss to Central Michigan, done in by quarterback Grant Loy’s 13-of-29 passing for 166 yards with three interceptions compared to only one touchdown. More of the same should be on the way, this time at the hands of Western Michigan (12 ET; ESPN3). The Broncos are favored by a mere 26.5 points, the over/under of 63 setting up a 45-18 finish.
USC (4-3): Don’t look now, but the Trojans are in first in the Pac 12 South and just eased through what was expected to be a challenge, blowing past Arizona, 41-14. USC initially led 34-0, in part thanks to quarterback Kedon Slovis’ efficient 19-of-28 passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns.
The Trojans should not be tested Friday at Colorado (9 ET; ESPN2), favored by 13.5 points with an over/under of 62. If the scoreboard reads 38-24 at the end, USC will presumably be pleased.
Michigan (5-2): The Wolverines 28-21 loss at Penn State does not qualify as a moral victory, but at least Michigan got up off the mat after falling behind 21-0 and even 28-14. In a season going as much sideways as forward, that was no sure thing.
It is also undoubtedly part of why the Wolverines remain a one-point favorite against Notre Dame (7:30 ET; ABC). With only 51 total points expected, the defenses may star in a 26-25 scrap.
Virginia Tech (5-2): In a game for the ages, one that will forever be known as a first because it reached a fifth, the Hokies beat North Carolina 43-41 in six overtimes. The first usage of the new overtime rules, in which only two-point conversions are run beginning in the fifth overtime, Virginia Tech won when its third-string quarterback plowed in from three yards out. (To clarify, as was needed on the patio of Saturday’s wedding reception, the new rules do not mandate a two-point conversion attempt after a touchdown. That already existed in the third overtime. The new rules mandate only two-point conversion attempts, one after another, in a dramatic form of football unlike anything else in the game.)
Starter Hendon Hooker should be back in action after an idle week.
Duke (4-3): Virginia utterly shut down Blue Devils fifth-year quarterback Quentin Harris, holding him to 13-of-26 for 88 yards and one touchdown against two interceptions. If Harris cannot bounce back from that, then North Carolina (4 ET; ACCN) may not have much trouble making good on being favored by 3.5 points with an over/under of 55. That forecasts a 29-26 result, but don’t be shocked if the Tar Heels score more than that.
Navy (5-1): The Midshipmen rushed for 434 yards on 59 carries, a 7.4 yards per attempt average, in a 35-3 rout of South Florida. Life will not be so easy against Tulane (3:30 ET; CBSSN), though Navy is still favored by 3.5 points. The over/under of 53 works out to a 28-25 result.
Boston College (4-3): The Eagles would have had to make perfect use of their off week to do much against Clemson this weekend (7:30 ET; ACCN). Frankly, if Boston College scores the 12 points innate to a 58.5-point over/under, that will be more about the Tigers easing up than anything else.
Stanford (3-4): The chances are slim the Cardinal can reach its season win total over/under of 7, but it will need to prevail as a one-point underdog against Arizona (3:30 ET; Pac-12 Network) to keep those hopes alive. However that is to occur, Stanford will have to do better than losing 27-26, as projected by a 53.5-point over/under.