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Notre Dame’s Opponents: A path to a Cotton Bowl return

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This will be the last time “Notre Dame” and “College Football Playoff” go into the same sentence again this season: No. 16 Notre Dame (5-2) no longer has any College Football Playoff hopes remaining after its no-show at Michigan on Saturday. That does not, however, mean it has no “New Year’s Six” hopes.

Why the quotations around New Year’s Six? Because that is, itself, a misnomer. Only two of the six Playoff-access bowls will be played on New Year’s Eve or Day this winter. Anyway, …

Reaching one of the six best-known bowls remains a possibility, and those are worthy ends to most seasons, even if that does not seem understandable only four days after that 45-14 drubbing at Ann Arbor. To be more precise, reaching the Cotton Bowl remains a possibility, and only the Cotton Bowl.

Returning to Dallas on Dec. 28 — the one-year anniversary of the last public Irish faceplant — first requires Notre Dame to win its last five games. It also requires the Irish finish behind only …

— A combined total of three non-Playoff SEC and Big Ten teams.
— Only one non-Playoff ACC team.
— Only one non-Playoff Big 12 team.
— Only one non-Playoff Pac 12 team.
— And only one Group of Five team.

If Notre Dame finishes 10-2, it should finish ahead of some of these teams in the Playoff polls, but it is only an interloper, like a second Pac-12 team, that matters. That exact pecking order will first be revealed Tuesday (9 ET; ESPN). Using the AP top 25 poll in the interim, the teams competing with the Irish for that Cotton Bowl slot will be …

Utah: May not be challenged again until the Pac 12 conference game, which it won’t reach unless USC loses.
Auburn: A distinct underdog against No. 8 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama this coming month.
Baylor: Still to face No. 10 Oklahoma, something it may have to do twice.
Minnesota: Readying for a stretch against No. 5 Penn State, No. 19 Iowa and No. 18 Wisconsin.
Michigan: Soon to be favored in its next three before facing No. 3 Ohio State.
Cincinnati: Rolling, but with a tricky end to November thanks to Temple and at No. 24 Memphis.
Wisconsin: The second piece of the Big Ten West mess, also hosting Iowa on Nov. 9.
Iowa: Keep an eye on the Big Ten West.

While Notre Dame will be favored in its remaining games, seven of those Cotton Bowl hopefuls will be an underdog at least once. The exception is Cincinnati, which would then essentially face an elimination game in the AAC title game.

The path is there for the Irish to return to the Cotton Bowl. If they get there, they will face a Group of Five opponent — still most likely No. 20 Appalachian State, because the AAC should tear itself down — giving Notre Dame detractors plenty of reason to claim it would not be a major bowl win. Those used to be considered victories in any bowls of a particular historical brand or on New Year’s Day, but when the Irish won the 2018 Citrus Bowl against No. 17 LSU, those goalposts were moved to include only the “New Year’s Six” games.

Of course, if Notre Dame makes the Cotton Bowl and beats the Group of Five representative, that narrative will have a convenient loophole to continue to cite the lack of an impressive postseason win since the 1994 Cotton Bowl.

To put a bow on this postseason conversation, if the Irish cannot climb high enough in the polls to ponder a trip to Dallas, they can focus on the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28. The only other option would be a return to the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, a contingency dependent on one Big Ten team (note that Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa round-robin) rising past the second SEC team to miss the Playoff. (Yes, that sounds unrelated, but that’s how bowl tie-ins work.)

By making life difficult for Virginia star quarterback Bryce Perkins, Louisville continued its rise under first-year head coach Scott Satterfield. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Louisville (5-3): The Cardinals beat Virginia, 28-21, thanks largely to 227 rushing yards on 45 carries, a 5.04 yards per attempt average. Louisville will have to wait at least a week to get bowl eligible in Scott Satterfield’s first year.

New Mexico (2-6): A 45-31 loss to Hawaii sounds a lot closer thanks to 21 Lobos points late in the fourth quarter. New Mexico faces a reasonable hill to climb this weekend at Nevada (10:30 ET; ESPNU) as only 3.5-point underdogs with a combined point total over/under of 58.5 as of Wednesday predawn. That projected 31-27 final could flip if the Lobos put together another strong finish.

No. 8 Georgia (6-1): Coming off an idle week, the Bulldogs head to Jacksonville to face No. 6 Florida (3:30 ET; CBS). It will be the game of the week, and no matter what the rankings might suggest, Georgia is a 6-point favorite in what should be a low-scoring affair with a 45.5-point over/under. A 26-19 conclusion would be worth seeing thanks to Notre Dame’s earlier kick.

Virginia (5-3): That loss at Louisville came as a result of two turnovers, though the Cavaliers still got themselves into position for a last-second try at the end zone. The lead in the ACC Coastal will be up for grabs at North Carolina (7:30 ET; ACCN). The Tar Heels are 2.5-point favorites, but the over/under of 47.5 offers confidence in Bronco Mendenhall’s defense, suggesting a 25-22 Virginia loss.

Bowling Green (2-6): Despite giving up 574 yards in a 49-10 loss at Western Michigan, the Falcons are 6-point favorites against Akron (12 ET; ESPN+) this weekend. Bowling Green undoubtedly would not care how it came across a third win, 28-22 or otherwise.

Largely behind freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, USC remains atop the Pac 12 South, putting the Trojans in position to dream of a Rose Bowl berth. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

USC (5-3): The Trojans won, 35-31, at Colorado, largely thanks to freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis throwing for 406 yards and four touchdowns on 30-of-44 passing. Slovis connected with star receiver Michael Pittman twice for fourth-quarter scores of 44 and 37 yards.

USC’s grip on the Pac-12 South could be in jeopardy this weekend, as a loss to No. 7 Oregon (8 ET; FOX) would knock the Trojans behind Utah. The Ducks are favored by 4.5 with an over/under of 63. Does it count as #Pac12AfterDark if it is barely after dusk but the scoreboard reads something odd such as 34-29?

No. 14 Michigan (6-2): After their devastation of Notre Dame, the Wolverines head to Maryland (12 ET; ABC) as 21-point favorites. Unless Michigan lets up coming off back-to-back top-10 opponents, a 38-17 easy afternoon should be in its future.

Virginia Tech (5-2): After an idle week, the Hokies head to Notre Dame with bookmakers projecting a 38-20 loss, thanks to a 17.5-point spread and an over/under of 58.

Duke (4-4): The Blue Devils apparently figured gaining 100 yards on 37 carries was reason enough to try to dupe North Carolina with a halfback pass at the goal line in the final minute. The result? An interception and a 20-17 loss. Duke will now ponder that mistake for a week.

Navy (6-1): The Midshipmen needed a last-second field goal to slip by Tulane, 31-28. Per usual, Navy ran for 385 yards on 56 carries, a 6.9 yards per attempt average. There should be no such close call at Connecticut (8 ET on Friday; ESPN2), with the Middies favored by 27 points despite featuring a grind-it-out triple-option attack. The 54.5-point over/under indicates a 41-14 final, but that many points from a favored triple-option program is hard to envision.

Boston College (4-4): The Eagles never stood a chance against No. 4 Clemson, and it is hard to know which numbers were more embarrassing, the 59-7 score of the 674-177 yardage differential. Neither disparity should be afoot at Syracuse (12 ET; ACCN), even though Boston College is a field goal underdog in a contest with a 60-point over/under. A 31-28 ending would be entertaining, if nothing else.

Stanford (4-4): With quarterback KJ Costello back in action, Stanford topped Arizona, 41-31. Costello threw for 322 yards and three touchdowns on 31-of-44 passing. He will now have an extra week to keep working on his timing after missing most of the season thus far.