Analysis: Now on the outside, Notre Dame must redefine itself

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Hours before the College Football Playoff Selection Committee evicted Notre Dame from its No. 4 perch in the rankings Tuesday night, Brian Kelly lamented the lingering flaw that finally caught up with the Irish.

“If we have a weakness,” the ND head football coach began, “when we feel the game is in our hands, we let up a little bit. That's unfortunate, but it's a little bit of who we are.

“And I'd like to have a little bit more of a killer instinct, as a football coach. I look at our football team and they have so many other great qualities as a football team, that if that's our weakness where we feel like we've got the game in control, we'll try to work through that one.”

They'll get one more chance to do so Saturday night (7:30 EST, FOX), though now as the No. 6 team as they take on CFP No. 9 Stanford (9-2), in need of not only winning impressively but now needing help from teams such as Nebraska (5-6), Penn State (7-4) and Oklahoma State (10-1).

Notre Dame hasn't won at Stanford since the losingest team in school history (3-9) accomplished the feat in 2007, and in a stadium where Cardinal head coach David Shaw has fashioned a 29-4 record.

Clemson (11-0) and Alabama (10-1) held steady at No. 1 and 2, respectively. Oklahoma (10-1) leaped from seventh to third, with Iowa (11-0) rounding out the top four, up one spot from last week. Michigan State (10-1), No. 9 last week, also jumped over the Irish, to No. 5.

The Irish (10-1) in September let a 30-7 domination of Georgia Tech morph into a less-impressive 30-22 victory in the game's final 48 seconds, a 42-17 crushing of Pitt on Nov. 7 become a 12-point win in the final 4:44, and a 19-3 command over Boston College last Saturday night de-evolved into a 19-16 survival of a 3-8 team.

“The Boston College game didn't add a lot to their résumé,” committee chair Jeff Long understated.

And if Notre Dame loses to Stanford, depending on the score, that could drop the Irish entirely out of the New Year's Six picture — think Peach or Fiesta — and into a Dec. 29 date in the Russell Athletic Bowl with one of the Big 12 teams they'd been comparing résumés with (perhaps TCU, 9-2).

The Irish still have some strong arguments for inclusion into the playoff, should they defeat Stanford. Should Temple, Navy and USC win this weekend, the Irish will have beaten four division champions and will guarantee they'd have beaten two conference titlists (AAC and Pac-12), with a two-point road loss to a possible third (Clemson in the ACC ).

They have favorable comparative outcomes involving Texas (when comparing scores vs. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) and Pitt (vs. Iowa's three-point win). And they certainly have the best loss, to No. 1 Clemson, of anybody in play for a playoff spot.

“A loss is a loss,” Long said. “But we certainly look deeper and see how a team lost, how they played in that game. The closeness of that loss is something that's discussed.

“But more importantly, how those teams played in those losses. We don't speak in terms of bad loss/good loss. We certainly evaluate those losses. All losses are not the same.”

Oklahoma, Long said, essentially muted its loss to Texas by its impressive play recently. The Irish appear to have done just the opposite to its strongest assets, with the BC scare.

But Notre Dame does have a chance to redefine itself Saturday night, to clear up a schizophrenic November pocked with confusing scores, personnel shuffling due to injuries and a defense that's statistically the worst among the top six in total defense (40th) and rushing defense (68th).

The committee will re-rank the teams next Tuesday and again, for the final time, on Dec. 6, after the conference championships have been played.

So this weekend for Irish fans it will be cheer, cheer not only for Notre Dame, but for the Nittany Lions to take out Michigan State, Nebraska to sideswipe Iowa, and for bedlam to prevail in the Oklahoma State-Oklahoma matchup in Stillwater.

But most importantly, for a team juggling health and correctable flaws all season to finally transcend all that and reinvent itself.

Notre Dame wears their custom Shamrock Series uniforms during the first half of the Notre Dame-Boston College NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, inside Fenway Park in Boston, Mass. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. EST

Where: Stanford Stadium; Palo Alto, Calif,

TV: FOX

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Stanford by 4