Notre Dame football's postseason picture already relevant — and it's not a blur

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In Notre Dame’s perfect postseason-scenario world, Irish fans are advised to root for Michigan, hope Syracuse’s 4-0 start isn’t a mirage and smile if USC continues to rebound from a 1-2 start.

All perhaps as naturally palatable as turpentine. All, though, in the interest of strength of schedule.

“You look at the teams on their schedule beyond this weekend’s game with Stanford, and suddenly it’s much different than any of us had imagined,” said Jerry Palm, a self-proclaimed “sports geek” for CBSSports.com who analyzes and predicts playoff fields and bowl games, even this early in the season.

“I don’t think Notre Dame has to worry about making the playoff field at 12-0,” Palm continued. “Unless there are five other 12-0s, they’re not going to get left out of the playoff. That schedule could become a problem at 11-1, though. Michigan (3-1) is probably the second-best team on the schedule, and they could finish 8-4.”

Five of the remaining eight teams on the Irish schedule already have two losses, and three of the four teams they’ve already played have at least that many. Notre Dame had five opponents in the preseason AP top 20, but now have just two in the top 25.

The schedule this Saturday night, though, brings something that has never happened in Brian Kelly’s previous 106 games at Notre Dame’s head football coach — a game against a top 10 team at Notre Dame Stadium (at the time of the matchup).

In fact, No. 7 Stanford (4-0) and No. 8 Notre Dame (4-0) meet as unbeatens for the first time since the Four Horsemen were suiting up for Knute Rockne for one final time, which happened to be in the 1925 Rose Bowl. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. (EDT). NBC has the telecast.

For the record, Palm’s postseason projections this week, which include every bowl game and playoff spot, have the Irish ending up in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29 in a rematch of last January’s Citrus Bowl against LSU. He has Stanford playing in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF on Jan. 1.

Both are New Year’s Six games that are not serving as playoff semifinals this season.

“I calculate every win and loss for every team to make these projections,” Palm said. “I have the Irish finishing 10-2, losing to both Pac-12 teams (Stanford and USC).”

The release of the first official College Football Rankings is still more than a month away (Oct. 30). With that in mind, here are a few things to keep in mind when playing the speculation game.

• There have been only a total of three undefeated Power 5 teams in the four years of the playoffs, with none last season. And there’s some precedent with 13-0 Florida State in 2014 that an unbeaten Power 5 team does not have to worry about strength of schedule or margin of victory.

A one-loss team most certainly does.

“An 11-1 Notre Dame is going to be part of the playoff conversation, but ultimately being Notre Dame isn’t going to get them anything.”

• Palm believes for an 11-1 Notre Dame team to get strong consideration for the playoff, the résumé must include a victory over Stanford.

“If you’re 11-1, you want to beat the best team on your schedule, and then lose to a good team. Stanford is the best team on Notre Dame’s schedule.

“Let’s say you lose to Virginia Tech and they turn out to be a decent team, that’s a scenario that might work for them at 11-1. Here’s what you don’t want. You don’t want to lose to a bad team, and you don’t want to be in a position where you’re competing with Stanford for a playoff spot, and they beat you at your place.

“Other than that, I don’t think it really matters which 11 games you win. But if you have a chance to beat a team that you could be competing with at the end, then that could be useful.”

• If the Blake LaRussas of the world have taught us anything, though, it’s that a team’s postseason trajectory can shift dramatically without warning. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound career backup came on in relief at quarterback for four-touchdown underdog Old Dominion last weekend against 13th-ranked Virginia Tech.

The Monarchs entered the game winless, including a 52-10 loss to Liberty in their opener. Liberty, in turn, hasn’t won since — dropping games to Army and North Texas by a combined 85-21.

LaRussa, a former walk-on, passed for 495 yards as Old Dominion rolled up 630 total yards, the most ever in the 24 seasons Bud Foster has been coordinating the Hokies defense and 19 days after Tech’s defense made touted Florida State QB Deondre Francois look like, well, a current walk-on.

Virginia Tech, which hosts the Irish on Oct. 6, also lost starting quarterback Josh Jackson indefinitely to a fractured fibula in that game. Head coach Justin Fuente then dismissed leading pass-rusher Trevon Hill the day after.

Replacing Jackson this Saturday against Duke, and presumably against the Irish as well, is Kansas transfer Ryan Willis. In the what-a-small-world department, Willis verbally committed to former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis in 2014 before Weis was fired as Kansas’ head coach four games into the 2014 season.

That same fall, Willis teamed with Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong, then a wide receiver, for a Kansas state high school championship at Roeland Park Bishop Miege.

Northwestern, like Virginia Tech, recently suffered a key personnel loss. Sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin announced his retirement from football on Monday after being diagnosed with a spinal condition.

Already struggling to balance its offense as the nation’s No. 113 rushing team, Northwestern loses a player who had accounted for 346 of its 351 rushing yards this season and was the team’s second-leading receiver with 19 catches for 127 yards.

“On top of all that USC is playing a freshman quarterback,” Palm said. “This looked like a schedule that was really going to be strong, and now it’s not looking as good as we thought.

“That’s not something you can control if you’re Notre Dame, so you control what you can. That’s winning and losing, and winning Saturday night is most important.”

Stanford head football coach David Shaw and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly meet at midfield following the 2013 Cardinal-Irish game at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

STANFORD (4-0)

Aug. 31 San Diego St. W, 31-10

Sept. 8 USC W, 17-3

Sept. 15 UC Davis W, 30-10

Sept. 22 at Oregon W, 38-31 (OT)

Sept. 29 at Notre Dame

Oct. 6 Utah

Oct. 18 at Arizona St.

Oct. 27 Washington St.

Nov. 3 at Washington

Nov. 10 Oregon St.

Nov. 17 at California

Nov. 24 at UCLA

VIRGINIA TECH (2-1)

Sept. 3 at Florida St. W, 24-3

Sept. 8 William & Mary W, 62-17

Sept. 15 East Carolina Cancelled

Sept. 22 at Old Dominion L, 35-49

Sept. 29 at Duke

Oct. 6 Notre Dame

Oct. 13 at North Carolina

Oct. 25 Georgia Tech

Nov. 3 Boston College

Nov. 10 at Pittsburgh

Nov. 17 Miami (Fla.)

Nov. 23 Virginia

PITTSBURGH (2-2)

Sept. 1 Albany W, 33-7

Sept. 8 Penn St. L, 6-51

Sept. 15 Georgia Tech W, 24-19

Sept. 22 at North Carolina L, 35-38

Sept. 29 at UCF

Oct. 6 Syracuse

Oct. 13 at Notre Dame

Oct. 27 Duke

Nov. 2 at Virginia

Nov. 10 Virginia Tech

Nov. 17 at Wake Forest

Nov. 24 at Miami (Fla.)

NAVY (2-2)

Sept. 1 at Hawaii L, 41-59

Sept. 8 Memphis W, 22-21

Sept. 15 Lehigh W, 51-21

Sept. 2 at SMU L, 30-31

Oct. 6 at Air Force

Oct. 13 Temple

Oct. 20 Houston

Oct. 27 Notre Dame#

Nov. 3 at Cincinnati

Nov. 10 at UCF

Nov. 17 Tulsa

Nov. 24 at Tulane

Dec. 8 Army

#At San Diego

NORTHWESTERN (1-2)

Aug. 30 at Purdue W, 31-27

Sept. 8 Duke L, 7-21

Sept. 15 Akron L, 34-39

Sept. 29 Michigan

Oct. 6 at Michigan St.

Oct. 13 Nebraska

Oct. 20 at Rutgers

Oct. 27 Wisconsin

Nov. 3 Notre Dame

Nov. 10 at Iowa

Nov. 17 at Minnesota

Nov. 24 Illinois

FLORIDA STATE (2-2)

Sept. 3 Virginia Tech L, 3-24

Sept. 8 Samford W, 36-26

Sept. 15 at Syracuse L, 7-30

Sept. 22 N. Illinois W, 37-19

Sept. 29 at Louisville

Oct. 6 at Miami (Fla.)

Oct. 20 Wake Forest

Oct. 27 Clemson

Nov. 3 at N.C. State

Nov. 10 at Notre Dame

Nov. 17 Boston College

Nov. 24 Florida

SYRACUSE (4-0)

Aug. 31 at W. Michigan W, 55-42

Sept. 8 Wagner W, 62-10

Sept. 15 Florida St. W, 30-7

Sept. 22 Connecticut W, 51-21

Sept. 29 at Clemson

Oct. 6 at Pittsburgh

Oct. 20 North Carolina

Oct. 27 N.C. State

Nov. 3 at Wake Forest

Nov. 9 Louisville

Nov. 17 Notre Dame^

Nov. 24 at Boston College

^At Yankee Stadium; New York

USC (2-2)

Sept. 1 UNLV W, 43-21

Sept. 8 at Stanford L, 3-17

Sept. 15 at Texas L, 14-37

Sept. 21 Washington St. W, 39-36

Sept. 29 at Arizona

Oct. 13 Colorado

Oct. 20 at Utah

Oct. 27 Arizona St.

Nov. 3 at Oregon St.

Nov. 10 California

Nov. 17 at UCLA

Nov. 24 Notre Dame