The Irish were 4-1, but even those four victories looked either shaky or closer than anticipated. The defense wasn’t settled. The offense was hit or miss. There was even a debate about who should play quarterback.
Maybe most important, Notre Dame’s usually impressive schedule lacked any opponents who could provide a signature victory. USC and Stanford were a mess. UNC hadn’t panned out. Even the teams it defeated — Florida State, Toledo, Purdue and Wisconsin — appeared just so-so at the time.
Yet here we are, not even two months later, and the Irish are very much alive in the playoff chase, a slow and steady climb back into contention fueled by the fact Notre Dame hasn’t lost another game and, in part, because just about everyone else in America has.
Notre Dame is 10-1 heading into a season-ending game with Stanford. Beat the 3-8 Cardinal and the Irish will sit back and hope for multiple paths to the playoffs to open up for them.
While predicting what a human committee will decide is imperfect, it stands to reason Notre Dame probably needs any two of the following to happen:
The winner of Oklahoma-Oklahoma State to lose in the Big 12 championship game.
The winner of Ohio State-Michigan to lose in the Big Ten championship game.
A Cincinnati loss.
None of these are far-fetched. And if any two happen, then the playoff committee is about out of obvious contenders. It would likely need to put a two-loss team in ahead of the Irish and while there may be some debate on that, would the committee really?
The two-loss Tide? That would mean an SEC title game rematch between No. 1 seed Georgia and No. 4 seed Alabama. If the first one isn’t all that close, then why do it again? It’s not like this has been a vintage Nick Saban team.
A two-loss non-Big Ten champion — either Ohio State or Michigan? Perhaps, but that wouldn’t be an easy sell considering that team would be ending the season with a loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. The same Wisconsin team that Notre Dame defeated 41-13 in September.
This certainly isn’t a vintage Notre Dame team. It isn’t one of Brian Kelly’s best — although it has shown a lot of young talent and an admirable ability to win. It doesn’t have that impressive of a resume.
But there aren’t any other options.
If the Big 12 cannibalizes itself and Georgia rolls the Tide, then this is pretty viable:
1. Georgia. 2. Big Ten Champ. 3. Cincinnati. 4. Notre Dame.
Improbable? Well, it once felt that way. That was October, though. This is November,w and in a season with so many unexpected results, here we are, with the Fighting Irish somehow, some way pushing for a third playoff appearance in four seasons.
Other topics discussed on this edition of the College Football Enquirer podcast:
The coaching carousel is going to be crazy, too many good jobs available, too few obviously qualified candidates.
How Cincinnati can get into the playoff. And how the Bearcats might still be kept out.
A People’s Court controversy from China.