It took Notre Dame 12 wins in 12 games to earn a spot in the College Football Playoffs. With two other undefeated teams in the bracket, there was only room for a single one loss team and this year, that would have never been Notre Dame. So the Irish needed to win every game to get in and they did just that. They weren’t all pretty and they weren’t all easy, but they all had one thing in common – the Irish won every damn one.
Today we’ll rank all 12 wins from the worst to the best.
12. Ball State, W 24-16
This was easily Notre Dame’s worst game of the year and was the first time Brandon Wimbush’s limitations running the Irish offense were really highlighted. A week after engineering a 24-17 win over Michigan, the Irish never trailed Ball State, but they never put them away either. In fact, Ball State had the ball down 8 in the 4th quarter with a chance to potentially tie the game. Notre Dame held and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
At the time most thought there was a bit of a Michigan hangover and that everything would be fine the next week. It turned out it was a sign of things to come for the Notre Dame offense. It also had to be the first time Brian Kelly considered a move at QB.
11. Vanderbilt, W 22-17
A week after struggling against Ball State, the Irish struggled again with a team they were a heavy favorite over. This time it was SEC doormat Vanderbilt. The Commodores ended up salvaging their season and earning bowl eligibility, but this was another game that Notre Dame should have won handily. Instead, the Irish struggled again to move the ball consistently scoring just 23 points.
At this point, the Notre Dame offense had struggled for 10 straight quarters – after the initial outburst against Michigan in the first half – and a quarterback change followed for the following weekend.
10. Pitt, W 19-14
I thought about having this ranked higher on the list because this game has been referenced as evidence against Notre Dame for the last few weeks. This was also the first time we really saw Ian Book struggle in any capacity this season. Eventually Book turned it on and led Notre Dame back in the second half, but any time that Notre Dame’s playoff resume was discussed there was always a “yeah but they almost lost to Pitt” followed up.
Now, Pitt turned out to be OK and did make it to the ACC Championship game, but once there Clemson boat raced them. Clemson did scuffle momentarily against Pitt, but Notre Dame scuffled for 45 minutes. The Irish had numerous chances to take charge and make this an easy win, but kept shooting themselves in the foot.
9. Navy, W 44-22
When Notre Dame traveled to San Diego to take on Navy the Irish had a chance to earn some style points. At one point in the third quarter it looked like the Irish were going to hang a 50 burger on the Midshipmen while keeping them stuck in neutral. Instead, Navy turned a 27-0 Notre Dame lead into a two possession deficit by the end of the 3rd quarter.
The Irish could have used the style points at the time coming off the Pitt game, but they missed another opportunity to completely put away a team and get the entire 2nd string on the field for the 4th quarter. This was better than some recent nailbitters with Navy, but overall this was another opportunity lost.
8. USC, W 24-17
I initially had USC higher in the list here because it was a road win for Notre Dame over a rival, but this was a wounded USC team that was ripe for a blowout. Notre Dame was facing a true freshman quarterback who was struggling and a team that had little to play for other than trying for bowl eligibility. The Irish could have put down USC. Instead, the Irish trailed at half time and let USC hang around until the very end.
Notre Dame could have again used some style points here to shut the media up. Letting USC pull within a touchdown late though gave the talking heads ammunition to say “yeah but they struggled with a bad USC team”. This was a rivalry game and all bets are off in those, but overall in terms of the wins Notre Dame stockpiled this year, the best part of this one was it was a win and it was the 12th win. In terms of how the Irish played, it wasn’t one of their better efforts.
7. Virginia Tech, W 45-23
It’s amazing that a 22 point win on the road versus Virginia Tech is this low on the list, but by the end of the season it turned out that the Hokies were just not a very good football team. They were ranked at the time, but they needed to beat Marshall this last weekend just to reach bowl eligibility. This was a very good effort by Notre Dame though highlighted by Dexter Williams’s 97 yard touchdown run at the beginning of the 2nd half.
The Irish outscored the Hokies 28-7 in the second half of this one for the easy victory on the heels of their big win over Stanford. Even with the Hokies down, winning the week after a physical game like Stanford is always tough.
6. Wake Forest, W 56-27
This might seem to be too high for this game considering that Wake Forest was not a great football team this but this was the first start of the year for Ian Book and the first time we saw the offense start to live up to its potential. Without this game, I don’t think that 12-0 happens for Notre Dame this year. Brian Kelly could have easily stayed the course with Brandon Wimbush since the Irish were 3-0 already, but if he had, I don’t think the Irish would have been undefeated. They may have still beat Wake Forest, but they wouldn’t have been undefeated.
In his first start of the year, Book was at his best with a 5 touchdown performance (2 passing, 3 rushing). Amazingly, Book only had one more rushing touchdown the rest of the year – the game sealing score versus Northwestern.
5. Northwestern, W 31-21
When it was scheduled this game did not look like one of the tougher games for the Irish, but by the end of the year the Wildcats were one of three ranked opponents the Irish defeated. Northwestern gave Michigan all they could handle and made it to the Big 10 Championship game where they hung with Ohio State for a while before the Buckeyes blew it out at the end.
This game looked like it would be a blowout after Notre Dame opened up a 24-7 fourth quarter lead before the Irish let them back in it thanks in large part to more special teams snafus. The 31-21 final was not as impressive as this one should have been for Notre Dame, but since the Wildcats ended up being a pretty good team this year, a 10 point win on the road isn’t to shabby.
4. Florida State, W 42-13
Florida State was not a very good football team this year but this ranks as one of the best wins of the year given 1) the circumstances and 2) the fact that it was one of the best examples of Notre Dame controlling a game from start to finish. Playing without Ian Book after he suffered rib injury against Northwestern, Notre Dame reinserted Brandon Wimbush back into the lineup for Senior Day in what was likely the former starting quarterbacks last game in Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish jumped all over the Seminoles on Senior Day and didn’t let them back into the game the way they had with Northwestern and Navy. They even busted out the green jerseys upon request from the seniors for this one. All in all, it was a great game and moment for this team.
3. Syracuse, W 36-3
This game would rank higher if Eric Dungey had not gotten hurt and taken just a bit of the luster off of it. Syracuse came into this with a high flying offense that was supposed to test the stout Irish defense. Notre Dame nearly shut out The Orange before Dino Barbers decided to kick a meaningless field goal in the final minute to prevent the shut out. It was a pretty gutless move but it shouldn’t take away from the beat down that Notre Dame applied to the then #12 ranked Orange.
Amazingly with a schedule that included Florida State, USC, and Stanford; Syracuse ended up being the 2nd highest ranked opponent in the final rankings for Notre Dame. This was continually referenced as one of Notre Dame’s biggest throughout the playoff debate. This game very likely cemented Notre Dame’s 3rd place in the CFP rankings.
2. Stanford, W 38-17
Stanford may have had a down year, but this game was pretty sweet for Notre Dame and its fans. Stanford has been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side for years with The Cardinal edging out Notre Dame in close games each of the last three years – games that Notre Dame held 4th quarters lead in each time.
Dexter Williams made his triumphant return from suspension in this game and did so in grand style. He ripped off a 45 yard touchdown run on his first carry of the season. By the end of this game, Stanford had essentially given up and threw up the white flag. Considering their success over Notre Dame in recent years, this one was sweet.
1. Michigan, W 24-17
The only thing that could have been sweeter than a 21 point win over Stanford this season was an opening weekend win over Michigan. The Wolverines came in as a popular darkhorse playoff contender with transfer quarterback Shea Patterson and their vaunted defense. Then Notre Dame jumped all over the Wolverines in the first quarter. Before Michigan knew what hit them Notre Dame was up 21-0.
For weeks after this one the media and Michigan fans tried to argue that this game shouldn’t have counted against Michigan and that they were indeed a better team than Notre Dame and should thus be ranked higher. It was a ridiculous exercise in mental gymnastics at the time made even more ridiculous by the embarrassing performance they turned in Thanksgiving weekend against Ohio State.
Even with the egg that Michigan laid, it didn’t take away from just how sweet this win was for Notre Dame fans. Michigan will no doubt has next October’s visit from Notre Dame marked on their calendars already. Notre Dame on the other hand has the playoffs to prepare for beings as they won this game and then the next 11.