Is playoff spot the best result for this Notre Dame team?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

PALO ALTO, Calif. — If an 11-1 Notre Dame football team is left on the outside looking in at the College Football Playoffs, Irish fans will have no reason to whine.

It would be a situation the Irish brought upon themselves.

Such a predicament would hardly be a call for Notre Dame to junk 127 years of competing without the oversight of a conference in order to put itself in a more viable position to secure a spot among the elite four.

Fact of the matter is, the Irish just haven’t proven to be elite.

Such are the perils of a front-loaded schedule.

Almost four months ago, before the season ever kicked off, this was a hypothetical scenario that became a concern. What if…? What if the Irish lose a game early? There’s nowhere to make up for the loss, while other teams (i.e., Michigan State over Ohio State; Oklahoma over any of the contenders in the Big 12) will have opportunities to find forgiveness.

Let’s start from the assumption (Didn’t Brian Kelly graduate from there?) that Clemson and Alabama aren’t going to lose between now and Dec. 6, when college football’s postseason finally shakes out. That leaves two spots for everyone else.

Whether it’s Michigan State (currently No. 5) or Iowa (No. 4), or maybe even Ohio State (No. 8) if some crazy things happen this weekend, the Big Ten will be in the mix.

That leaves one opening. Oklahoma (No. 3)? Notre Dame (No. 6)? Baylor (No. 7)?

In the “fool’s gold” portion of the College Football Playoff selection committee’s early polls, Notre Dame held the inside track to one of the remaining opportunities. Doesn’t mean a thing. It changed in a hurry.

While the Sooners (9-1 heading into last weekend) were holding on to beat TCU (9-1) by a point, Notre Dame (9-1) was committing five turnovers in a three-point victory over Boston College (3-7), and Oklahoma State (10-0) was getting spanked by 10 by Baylor (8-1).

Got that?

Tough scenario. The closest thing to a playoff boost that Notre Dame will have experienced since Steve Sarkisian got bagged at Southern Cal is the opportunity to play a 9-2 Stanford team Saturday night that still has plenty of national respect. After an early loss at Northwestern, the Cardinal seemed to be destined for mediocrity. After a long recovery, a two-point loss to Oregon a couple weeks ago also impacted their season.

The rub is, heck, there are certainly no guarantees the Irish can win on The Farm. They haven’t left the Bay Area with a win since 2007.

This is a complicated situation for Notre Dame.

There’s a tough question that has to be asked. It’s sorta like a woman asking: Does this dress make me look fat?

Is making the playoffs the best thing for the Notre Dame football program?

Right now, with 10 starters missing for one reason or another — mostly injuries — this isn’t the same team that played a great fourth quarter against Clemson and — were it not for Kelly’s early panic — could have made up for three bad quarters and taken the Tigers to overtime in Death Valley. It’s not the same team that took advantage of Southern Cal’s vulnerable situation and beat a more talented unit by 10. It’s not the same team that demolished Texas.

This one sleepwalks through Senior Day against Wake Forest and bumbles its way through a win against a bad BC team.

Is there enough life left in the Irish to conjure some magic at Stanford?

No one will disagree that Notre Dame has been dealt a difficult hand this season. A personnel revolving door. That’s the last time Kelly will ever crow about his depth in the preseason.

Bad juju.

It’s not a sign of weakness to say, “Hey, we had a good run. Our guys will be thrilled to play a very winnable game in either the Fiesta or Peach bowl.” Most programs would give the TV rights for the Louisiana-Monroe game for such an opportunity.

Notre Dame was a championship contender in October. Not now.

The BCS National Championship loss to Alabama after the 2012 season was devastating. The world witnessed the gap between good and great. It was a measuring stick the Irish misplaced on their way out of South Beach and didn’t find for a couple years.

Sustaining a championship level of competition is the ultimate goal of a program. Following a national championship game berth with 9-4 and 8-5 proves stability was lacking.

Why make this season about the whole enchilada? Unless the Irish get a whole lot better in the next couple weeks, the experiences from this year may be better suited to establish a solid foundation, rather than fuel a quick ascent to the penthouse.

One misstep and the fall can be pretty drastic.

And really hard to recover from.

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) leaps as USC’s Marvell Tell III (7) tackles him during the Notre Dame-Southern Cal football game on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN