College football is known for its unpredictability, a trait that has caused an explosion of popularity for the sport. But no one could have foreseen the strangeness of Notre Dame’s 2014 season to date. Shutting out Michigan for the first time in Notre Dame’s history on primetime television, a last second come-from-behind touchdown pass against Stanford – a program that has won 10 or more games in four consecutive seasons – and taking the defending national champions down to the wire on the road would be as impressive as it gets for any college football program’s resume in a normal season. But not this year.
Michigan, perhaps still struggling to regain its balance after being knocked out of Notre Dame Stadium in September, has had one of its worst seasons in decades and currently sits 4-5 on the season. Stanford, likely due for an inevitable fall after several years as one of the nation’s best teams, has uncharacteristically fallen to 5-4. And despite Florida State requiring a penalty to stay undefeated against Notre Dame, the loss failed to impress voters of the new College Football Playoff Rankings.
With such a rigorous schedule – Notre Dame was rated by respected prognosticator Phil Steele as having the toughest 2014 slate heading in the nation heading into the season – it would have been impossible to foresee that Arizona State would be the lone ranked opponent left during the month of November. Even the perceived “weaker” portions of the schedule were far from such a label. The Rice Owls were coming off a 10-win 2013 campaign that led them to a conference championship. In fact, overall, Notre Dame scheduled six programs with ten or more victories from last season.
Perhaps the biggest slight came courtesy of Navy. Head coach Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish squad dropped two spots to No. 8 in the AP Poll after defeating Navy 49-39, making Notre Dame the only team to win last week and still drop in the polls. Michigan State even managed to jump Notre Dame on its bye week. The Irish receive no credit for beating Navy, and take heat for scheduling them, despite the fact Navy has managed to be bowl eligible two years in a row, a feat that over half of the Big Ten has been unable to accomplish (eight Big Ten teams have failed to make back-to-back bowl games during the past two seasons).
Arizona State, led by head coach Todd Graham, is Notre Dame’s last shot to impress the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, a fact that should make Irish fans nervous. Brian Kelly and Todd Graham have a competitive history with one another, and in the three instances where they clashed the largest margin of victory was a mere three points. Graham’s 2010 Tulsa squad defeated Notre Dame 28-27, whereas Kelly gained revenge the following year by narrowly inching past Graham, who had since moved on to coach Pittsburgh, 15-12. Last season Notre Dame traveled to Dallas and upset the Sun Devils, 37-34.
Saturday’s top ten matchup will test Notre Dame as it attempts to defend an explosive team that has managed victories over USC, Utah, and a convincing 26-10 defeat of Stanford. The 7-1 Sun Devils possess the No. 22 ranked offense in the country, averaging 483 yards and 34 points per game. Star quarterback Taylor Kelly, who lit up Notre Dame’s defense for nearly 400 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2013, will look to once again team up with go-to wide receiver Jaelen Strong who caught 8 passes for 136 yards and one touchdown against the Irish defense.
The path for Notre Dame to secure a spot in the first ever college football playoff is a tricky one, and it involves winning out while catching some breaks along the way. Saturday’s showdown in Tempe may not be “win and you’re in”, but it’s certainly “win to survive another day” for the Fighting Irish.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.