New template drives Notre Dame to No. 3 in first CFP rankings of 2017

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Perhaps the most interesting chunk of intrigue involving the Notre Dame football team Tuesday night was not its landing spot at No. 3 in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2017 season.

But how coach Brian Kelly coaxed the Irish there.

Not only did the template that led to a 4-8 bottom line in 2016 get marked obsolete this past offseason, but apparently also the one that produced a 12-1 record and title game appearance in the old BCS format in 2012, as well as the one that drove the 2015 ND team that flirted with playoff inclusion.

“The blueprint is different,” Kelly said during ESPN’s hour-long standings reveal show Tuesday night. “This is a plan that we wanted to enact, so we could sustain and be there at the end and challenge for a national championship.

“And it’s built on a physicality of controlling the line of scrimmage, and playing great defense. That’s who we are right now, and we’re getting better each and every week.”

The Irish (7-1) are the top-rated, one-loss team in the CFB standings, with the team that beat them — unbeaten Georgia, 20-19, back on Sept. 9 — earning the No. 1 spot. Alabama (8-0), the darling of the AP and coaches poll, is No. 2.

Defending national champ Clemson (7-1) is No. 4, with Oklahoma (7-1) and Ohio State (7-1) Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, and the top two teams on the outside looking in, for now.

“The discussion we had with teams 3 through 7 was as passionate as any discussion that I can remember the selection committee having,” said Kirby Hocutt, CFB selection committee chairman and athletic director at Texas Tech.

“When you looked at No. 3 Notre Dame — three wins against CFP Top 25 teams, only loss coming against No. 1 Georgia.”

The three Irish wins over ranked CFP teams are No. 17 USC (49-14), No. 20 N.C. State (35-14) and No. 24 Michigan State (38-18).

In the twisted world of playoff résumé-building, Irish fans cheering for USC makes sense, moving forward, even to the point of the Trojans capturing a Pac-12 championship.

Notre Dame hosts Wake Forest (5-3) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT (NBC-TV), with matchups against CFB ranked teams in two of its final three regular-season games — and both of those on the road (Nov. 11 vs. No. 10 Miami, and Nov. 25 vs. No. 21 Stanford).

“Clearly, as an independent, after our loss to Georgia, we have to be aware of our situation,” Kelly said. “We’ve been in a one-game playoff (every week) since that loss. So our guys are aware of their situation, but they have not listened to the noise and they have a great mindset coming into each and every week.

“We’ve got to play well in the next four games. We’ve got great teams on our schedule, and we know it’s only two-thirds of the way through.”

The top four teams have some interesting statistical similarities. All four are in the top 25 in rushing offense nationally and in the top 20 in rushing defense. None of them has a prolific passing offense, with Clemson the highest-ranking team among the four in passing yards per game at 66th.

The five metrics that national championship teams have consistently excelled in during the BCS/Playoff Eras (1998-present) are rushing offense, rushing defense, passing efficiency, turnover margin and total defense.

Alabama is the only team among the top four that checks all five boxes, with a top 15 ranking in all. The Irish fall short only in passing efficiency (110th), and Georgia only in turnover margin (49th). Clemson has a shortfall in two — 54th in passing efficiency and 64th in turnover margin.

All but Alabama are playing with a first-year starter at quarterback.

Notre Dame, for one, has to be relieved the old BCS formula has been thrown out. Only two of the six computers used to determine one-third of the BCS ranking, had ND as high as third this week — Massey No. 2 and Wolfe No. 3. The others: Sagarin No. 5, Anderson & Hester No. 6, Colley Matrix No. 6 and Billingsley No. 9.

The coaches poll, which also counted for a third in the old formula, ranked the Irish eighth this week. The third component, the Harris Interactive poll, is defunct.

Kelly said he wasn’t sure before the reveal where the Irish might rank.

“It wasn’t really that important,” he said. “I feel like if we continued to win football games, we would create our own story at the end of the year.

“There’s only been one narrative for us, and that’s been each and every week have a dominating mindset when we came to play. We haven’t talked much about winning football games, wins and losses, as much as how we play each and every week.

“Our guys are excited. They’re 18- to 21-year-olds. They’re on social media. They watch ESPN. They’re excited, but they have been grounded to the point where each and every week, they know what they need to do if they want to continue to have the kind of success that they’ve had.”

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Notre Dame players take the field before the Notre Dame-N.C. State game last Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)