While last night’s release of the most recent playoff rankings did indeed deal a crushing blow to Notre Dame’s playoff hopes, the Irish are not out of the playoff race by any means although at this point they do almost certainly need help in addition to a victory on the Farm this weekend.
First off, Notre Dame has to take care of business this weekend as an underdog on the road against Stanford – a venue in which the Irish have not won since that disastrous 2007 campaign. If the Irish don’t take down the Cardinal, then all of this conjecture over rankings is moot to begin.
So for the sake of this argument, let’s say Notre Dame does indeed win this weekend. Notre Dame will need to find a way to jump two spots in the rankings to get into the playoffs and all of the teams ahead of them do have tough, potentially lose-able games left on their slates.
Let’s start with media darling Oklahoma. Ever since the first playoff rankings were released and the Sooners were outside the top 10, media types like Kirk Herbstreit, have been singing their praises as a darkhorse playoff contender. Well a few weeks later the Sooners have jumped all the way up to #3 – improving 4 spots this week alone – thanks to wins over Baylor and TCU. We won’t get into the merit of those wins right now because its clear the committee values them and their opinions are the only ones that matter.
Oklahoma will face off against #11 Oklahoma State this weekend and it is far from a forgone conclusion that the Sooners will walk over their in-state rivals. Oklahoma State only suffered their first loss of the season this past weekend and would love nothing more than to ruin Oklhoma’s season. What’s important here though is that while Notre Dame can impress the voters this weekend, with the Sooners also facing a team ranked right in the vicinity of Stanford its hard to imagine anything short of an absolute Notre Dame blowout being enough to get the committee to place Notre Dame back above Oklahoma in the event both win. So in short, root for Oklahoma State here.
Note, while Oklahoma leads the Bedlam Series 84-18-7, Oklahoma State has won two of the last four meetings including an upset of #18 Oklahoma last year. Four of the last five n the series have also all been decided by 9 points or less The only ne that didn’t? Oklahoma State’s 44-10 drubbing of Oklahoma in 2011. Two have also gone into overtime.
The only other path to the playoffs assuming Oklahoma wins out would be for some chaos in the Big 10 or SEC. Alabama is firmly the #2 team, but if they were to say lose this weekend to unranked Auburn, they would have two losses – both to unranked teams and just a single win over a top 25 on their resume even if they still won the SEC.
In the Big 10, only Iowa remains unbeaten. The Hawkeyes face off against the same Nebraska team that has given Michigan State its only loss of the season. Perhaps lightning can strike twice for the Cornhuskers. For Michigan State, the Spartans have to beat Penn State this weekend to punch their ticket to the Big 10 Championship. Penn State is coming off back to back losses but can salvage their season with an upset of the Spartans.
Again, just for argument’s sakes, let’s say Penn State upsets Michigan State this weekend and Michigan takes down Ohio State. If that happens, Michigan would go to the Big 10 Championship to take on Iowa. Would a 2-loss Michigan team go to the playoffs over the Fighting Irish? That would be an argument for the ages if it were to play out that way.
Before you discredit all of these upset scenarios as unbelievable or impossible remember that the road to the national championship is paved with the broken dreams of teams who got upset in the final week(s) of the season. It might not happen every year, but it happens in a lot of them.
So you see, in poker terms, Notre Dame still has a lot of out cards left in the deck. We’re just not sitting pretty with the “nuts” heading into the river this weekend.
Aside from all of the potential upsets above that could help the Irish, Notre Dame absolutely needs its good wins to remain looking “good” this week by having its opponents win. Temple can cap off a 10-2 regular season with a win versus Bobby Diaco’s UConn. Navy can pick up its 10th win of the season if it can take down Houston on the road as well. Pitt can get to 9 wins this weekend by taking care of tailspinning Miami. If all three were to win this weekend, Pitt will likely be ranked in the top 25, Temple should move up closer to the top 20, and Navy will likely creep up into the low teens.
With such a scenario, Notre Dame, assuming a win this weekend, would then have four wins over ranked opponents on its resume. That’s a pretty solid resume.
So while yesterday’s rankings are indeed a bummer – especially since it looked like Notre Dame had some semblance of control over its own destiny just two weeks ago, there is still a good chance the Irish still get every male Notre Dame fan with a girlfriend in trouble for having to make New Year’s Eve plans around a playoff game.