Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish debut at No. 2 in Playoff rankings, Clemson at No. 3

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If the season ended today, Notre Dame would be headed toward the Rose Bowl in a College Football Playoff semifinal, and if there is ever a year that opening “if” disclaimer is not entirely useless, it is 2020.

The initial Playoff rankings feature the Irish at No. 2, behind only Alabama and just ahead of Clemson and Ohio State. In order, Texas A&M, Florida and Cincinnati are looking in on the Playoff from the outside, likely to be the biggest Notre Dame fans when the ACC title game almost certainly features a top-4 matchup on Dec. 19 in Charlotte.

The Tigers being ranked ahead of the Buckeyes should be considered good news for Irish hopes. To whatever immeasurable degree, it improves the quality of a possible loss in that rematch and thus betters Notre Dame’s chances of remaining in the top four after such a hypothetical.

Obviously, the Irish (8-0, 7-0 ACC) need to log a few wins before then to maintain this comfortable Playoff status. That begins at North Carolina on Friday (3:30 ET; ABC), which debuted in these rankings at No. 19, the only other Notre Dame opponent in the top-25.

North Carolina (6-2, 6-2 ACC): The Irish head to Chapel Hill as 5-point favorites with a lofty combined points total over/under of 67.5 suggesting a 36-31 result. Notre Dame has given up 30 or more points only three times during Clark Lea‘s three years as defensive coordinator, twice to Clemson and once in a game more marked by offensive miscues than defensive liabilities at Michigan, but Sam Howell & Co. have averaged more than 50 points per game in the last month.

Both the Irish and the Tar Heels are coming off idle weeks, appropriate for this game coming on a Friday.

Syracuse (1-8, 1-7): The Orange — What is some pun that can fit here? Sunrise would be too flattering. Are real-life nuclear meltdowns orange? — The Orange meltdown continued last week with a 30-0 faceplant at Louisville.

Syracuse now faces North Carolina State (12 ET, ACCN) as a 14.5-point underdog, and given the continued lackluster showings from the Orange, there is every reason to think the Wolfpack will add to the misery with ease.

Wake Forest (4-3, 3-3): Positive tests and subsequent contact tracing within the Demon Deacons’ locker room canceled their game at Duke. An idle week will give Wake Forest a chance to get things back in order before finishing off the season.

Clemson (7-1, 6-1): The Tigers did not play this past weekend. The unnecessary drama and showmanship of a Clemson positive test leading to a canceled game at Florida State has been hard to avoid unless you have focused your football attention solely on the Irish.

To put that melodrama into terms pertinent to Notre Dame, the Tigers may now also have to play the week before the ACC title game, when the Irish will be facing Wake Forest. Head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged that possibility Monday without getting much further into it, whether he would prefer that for his conference championship game opponent or not.

In the immediate term, Clemson hosts Pittsburgh (3:30 ET; ESPN) as 24-point favorites. It will be star quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s first action in more than a month, giving the Tigers plenty of reason to work to find a rhythm. The Panthers are still within a mild COVID outbreak, though, so it is possible this game finds the scrap heap before kickoff.

Then again, given present realities across the country as a whole and trends within college football, that disclaimer applies to every game.

Pertinent games: With apologies to Duke, Florida State and Louisville, Notre Dame fans have little remaining reason to keep an eye on their progress. The Irish are No. 2. If they win out, they are in the Playoff. If they lose before then but beat Clemson, they are likely still in the Playoff given the value of beating the Tigers twice. If Notre Dame loses to Clemson, the other results on Championship Weekend Will Likely determine the fate of the Irish.

With all that in mind, this weekend …

12 ET — Kentucky at No. 6 Florida (-23), ESPN.
3:30 ET — Pittsburgh at No. 2 Clemson (-24), ESPN.
3:30 ET — No. 22 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama (-24.5), CBS.

ACC STANDINGS
Notre Dame: 8-0, 7-0 ACC
Clemson: 7-1, 6-1
Miami: 7-1, 6-1
North Carolina: 6-2, 6-2
NC State: 6-3, 5-3
Wake Forest: 4-3, 3-3
Pittsburgh: 5-4, 4-4
Boston College: 5-4, 4-4
Virginia Tech: 4-5, 4-4
Virginia: 4-4, 3-4
Georgia Tech: 2-5, 2-4
Louisville: 3-6, 2-6
Duke: 2-6, 1-6
Florida State: 2-6, 1-6
Syracuse: 1-8, 1-7

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