Notre Dame football analysis: Irish appear to control BCS destiny

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Given the opportunity to either whine or pound the pulpit Sunday over Notre Dame’s largely tepid reception from the football poll voters, Irish head coach Brian Kelly did neither.

“We've got to win more football games,” Kelly said after his team missed getting into the AP poll this week by a single point, with two teams the Irish have beaten (Michigan State and Arizona State) both rated ahead of them

“We're only 6-2,” Kelly continued. “I think if we take care of business and win week after week — we've got some quality teams in front of us — I think we're right where we need to be.”

CBSSports.com BCS-ologist Jerry Palm, who analyzes such things mathematically, agrees.

The Irish did crack the top 25 in the rankings that matters most, at least for what’s left of this season. The Irish, with four games to go, are 25th in the latest BCS Standings — 11 spots lower than the minimum needed for them to be considered for one of four at-large spots in the 16th and final Bowl Championship Series lineup.

ND comes in with a No. 19 average from the computers, which comprises one third of the BCS formula. ND is 25th in the coaches poll and 26th in the Harris poll, which combine for the other two-thirds.

Next year will be the first year of the new four-team playoff at the top of the postseason pyramid.

“If Notre Dame wins out, yeah I think they’ll reach the top 14,” Palm said of ND’s BCS chances. “Now, not very deep into it. It depends on what other teams do, of course. The Stanford win alone would give them some juice, provided that’s not Stanford’s fourth loss. But through winning and attrition, I think they’d make it.”

The Irish play the BCS-ranked No. 5 Cardinal (7-1) Nov. 30 in Palo Alto, Calif., to close the regular season, after games with Navy (4-3), Pitt (4-3) and BYU (6-2)

And if the Irish do make the top 14, their most likely landing spot among the BCS bowls would be the Orange Bowl, Jan. 3 in Miami against the Atlantic Coast Conference Champ. If the season ended today, that would be No. 3 Florida State (7-0).

Also if the season ended today, No. 1 Alabama would meet No. 2 Oregon in the BCS National Championship, Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif. The bowls that lose teams to the title game get first picks to replace them.

Thus, the Sugar and Rose would get first and second pick of the at-large pool of teams. Then the pecking order goes Orange, Sugar, Fiesta. The Sugar would likely be politically correct and take another SEC team with its first of two picks. Same with the Pac-12 and the Rose.

Should the Irish fall short of the top 14 — and Palm cannot see a scenario in which even a 9-3 Irish team would make it — Palm projects Notre Dame to play an American Athletic Conference team — likely Rutgers (4-3), Cincinnati (5-2) or Houston (6-1) — in the Yankee Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 28 in New York.

ND would take the Big 12’s contracted berth, since it appears unlikely that league will produce enough bowl-eligible teams to fulfill that commitment.

“I think New York and Notre Dame are a good match,” Palm said. “I think they’ve got a lot of fans in New York. And it’s got a decent payout that would be attractive to Notre Dame.”

The projected payout for the Yankee Pinstripe Bowl is $1.8 million, decidedly higher than ND’s other likely dumpster-dive options at the moment: Independence ($1.15 million), Little Caesars Pizza ($750,000), Military ($1 million) or Poinsettia ($500,000).

“Obviously, Notre Dame needs to get the attention of the voters,” Palm said, “but beating Stanford would definitely do that.”

Beating Stanford is certainly the biggest of many “ifs” that comprise ND’s November stretch run, but at least the math appears to align so that the Irish control their own destiny when it comes to those ifs.

Kelly, the person who most affects whether the Irish can convert those ifs into definites, is 28-7 in the FBS portion of his career in regular-season games in November and December (at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and ND) and 27-3 in his last 30. That includes a 10-1 mark while at Notre Dame.

Here’s a look at five others who may have some say in whether the Irish are able to get to 10-2:

Trent Murphy, Stanford: The 6-foot-6, 261-pound junior outside linebacker leads a menacing Cardinal defensive front seven that matches up well both with what ND likes to do offensively as well as the Irish offensive liabilities.

A former three-star recruit who counts steer wrestling among his hobbies, Murphy has a team-leading 13.5 tackles for loss, an interception, three pass breakups and a blocked kick. His 9.5 sacks rank third nationally, and he’s one of four Stanford players with more sacks than ND’s leader in that category, Stephon Tuitt (5.0).

Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame: The 6-6, 322-pound junior defensive end had a seemingly quiet four tackles in a 45-10 throttling of Air Force Saturday at Colorado Springs, Colo., but by Kelly sliding him inside to nose guard, the Falcons largely abandoned trying to attack up the middle.

It’s a coin flip with regular nose guard Louis Nix on whether Tuitt is ND’s best player, but if he can continue the recent surge that started with the Arizona State game on Oct. 5, the Irish defense may have a counterpunch for mobile Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan and BYU rapidly improving QB Taysom Hill.

Taysom Hill, BYU: The 23-year-old sophomore could very well be Stanford’s starting quarterback at this juncture, but after committing to the Cardinal out of high school and then taking a Mormon Mission, then-Cardinal head coach Jim Harbaugh left Stanford for the San Francisco 49ers.

Hill switched his choice and enrolled at BYU. He is the wildest of wild cards on ND’s schedule. The 6-2, 221-pounder, named after a park in his native Pocatello, Idaho, is the nation’s 21st-leading rusher (105.1 yards per game, 5.9 per carry), and, yes, that includes running backs.

He’s been an erratic passer, with an efficiency rating of 122.9, good for 83rd in the country, and BYU is 107th out of 123 FBS teams in sacks allowed, a mind-numbing stat given Hill’s mobility. But his ugliest numbers have been improving lately as the Cougars have surged into a Nov. 9 showdown with Wisconsin after a bye this coming weekend.

In a 37-20 waxing of Boise State on Friday night, Hill accounted for 415 yards of total offense with three passing TDs and a running TD.

“The BYU-Notre Dame game could end up being a BCS elimination game, depending on what they (the Cougars) do against the Badgers,” Palm said.

Tommy Rees, Notre Dame: The way Kelly kept his starter in until roughly two minutes remained in the third quarter at Air Force, six days after not knowing if the senior would even be able to play (neck strain), shows the coach is all in with Rees.

If the complementary quarterback concept ever shows up again, it will likely be in small, largely insignificant doses. And if Rees gets knocked out of a game because of injury for more than a few plays, Kelly will just deal with semi-struggling backup Andrew Hendrix at that point rather than forcing him into games now on meaningful downs.

As impressive as Rees’ numbers were against the Falcons (17-22-0, 284 yards, 5 TDs) — the best numbers from an Irish QB from an efficiency standpoint in four years — his performance against USC before getting injured (14-21-0, 166 yards, 2 TDs) is more encouraging when you look at the bigger picture.

There are only two teams in the FBS playing worse pass defense than Air Force (Eastern Michigan, UTEP). However, the Trojans’ defense is configured similarly to BYU’s and Stanford’s in terms of strengths and how they can stress ND’s offense. And even with its meltdown, coach-getting-fired 62-41 loss to Arizona State, the Trojans still rank as a better pass defense (20th) and total defense (11th) than anything the Irish will see the rest of the season.

Harry Hiestand, Notre Dame: The Irish offensive line coach and running game coordinator has been charged by Kelly to mix ND’s zone-blocking scheme with alternative methods (gap blocking) to help kick-start the Irish running game.

If offensive guard Chris Watt’s knee injury is recurring or more serious than first thought (he’s listed as probable for Navy on Saturday), that becomes much more significant challenge.

As it stands, the Irish are 95th nationally in rushing offense, 57 spots down from last season. They averaged 3.6 yards per rush Saturday against the nation’s 107th-ranked rushing defense, with juniors George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle doing most of the struggling.

Time for more of Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston?

For some historical perspective, only 12 of the 94 teams that have played in BCS bowls over the past 10 seasons had a rushing offensive ranking of 70 or worse. One of those was Kelly’s 2008 Cincinnati team.

That team lost to Virginia Tech, 20-7, in the Orange Bowl.

Linebacker Trent Murphy,right, is one of the reasons Stanford is a top five team. AP Photo/George Nikitin