Analysis: Notre Dame at midseason and how asterisks, Michigan and cheeseburgers figure in

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — If there were no such things as asterisks and what they signify in the world of sports records, Notre Dame would roll into Ann Arbor, Mich., for a Saturday night clash as the winningest college football program of all time (.7312).

Instead, thanks to 20 vacated victories and a vacated loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Saturday’s opponent — Michigan — has that distinction (.7294), followed by Ohio State (.7288), Boise State (.728) and the amended Irish (.7273).

The most relevant history, though, as it pertains to this Irish team (5-1), ranked No. 7 in the latest coaches poll and No. 8 in the AP rankings, is the history it hopes to make over the second half of the season. Specifically, that would mean a second straight appearance in the College Football Playoff.

How realistic is that? Reality becomes much easier to assess once Notre Dame finishes with 19th-ranked Michigan (5-2) Saturday night (7:30 EDT; ABC) and vice versa.

In the meantime, here are the most relevant questions swirling around the Irish, as they embark on the second half of their schedule, and a stab at the answers.

If the season ended today, what would Notre Dame’s postseason destination be?

Since the first set of College Football Playoff rankings don’t come out until Nov. 5, we’ll use the AP poll for this hypothetical exercise.

Notre Dame would land in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30 opposite the highest-ranked ACC team not in the playoff, which at the moment is No. 25 Wake Forest.

The other New Year’s Six matchups would be No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Clemson and No. 2. LSU vs. No. 3 Ohio State in the CFP semifinals; No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Florida in the Sugar Bowl; No. 6 Penn State vs. No. 11 Oregon in the Rose Bowl; and No. 9 Auburn vs. No. 16 SMU in the Cotton Bowl.

If Notre Dame missed the playoff, are there any New Year’s Six bowls besides the Orange to which the Irish could be assigned?

Only the Dec. 28 Cotton Bowl, where the Irish would face the Group of Five representative. No. 16 SMU has the inside track now, after Boise State’s 28-25 loss to BYU on Saturday night.

Kelly’s former School, 18th-ranked Cincinnati, is also very much in the mix and also controls its own destiny (provided the CFP committee ranks teams similarly), since it would play SMU in the American Athletic Conference title game if both continue on their current paths.

What else you got?

A 10-2 record might still be good enough to get ND into the New Year’s Six, but it might not. A lot of things affect that, including who the Irish lost to and when they suffered the second loss.

A 9-3 Irish team would end up in either the Citrus Bowl or the Camping World Bowl, both of which are played in Orlando four days apart (Jan. 1 and Dec. 28). An 8-4 mark probably would be good enough to get the Irish into the latter.

What would an Irish playoff scenario look like?

First, Notre Dame would need to finish 11-1 and look good doing so. Yes, that means dreaded style points. It still likely won’t be enough.

USC and Virginia winning the Pac-12 South and the ACC Coastal, respectively, would help, and they both control their destinies to do so. So would Georgia fixing its sagging offense and winning the SEC. Having conference champions with two losses or more in the other Power Five leagues would also work to ND’s advantage.

What does Notre Dame do well and what doesn’t it do well that could affect an 11-1 trajectory?

The Irish lead the nation in two statistical categories — red zone offense and turnover margin. Turnover margin is one of the five key metrics in which teams that play for national championships and win them tend to rank at least top 30 nationally among the 130 FBS teams.

The other four key stat categories and ND’s ranking in them: Rush offense (41), rush defense (64), total defense (41) and passing efficiency (15). So ND checks two of the five boxes.

But of the teams in the AP top five this week, Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma only check three. LSU is in the top 30 in everything but rush offense (79th) in the five key categories. Ohio State is not only top 30 in all five, it’s in the top 10 in all five.

Also significant with regard to the Irish, they’re in the top 15 nationally in both scoring offense (13) and scoring defense (15), No. 21 in pass-efficiency defense and sixth in tackles for loss.

Kickoff coverage (14) and punt coverage (25) are both in the top 25.

The only key categories (of 24) in which the Irish rank lower than 42nd nationally at midseason besides run defense are red zone defense (123), kickoff returns (52), punt returns (78) and net punting (49).

Do the first set of playoff rankings carry much significance?

Through the first five playoff cycles, 13 of the 20 teams in the top four of the initial rankings eventually made their way into the playoff. Last year it was three of four: Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame — with LSU the exception.

Does Michigan have a better chance of making the playoff than Notre Dame?

Not after losing 28-21 at Penn State on Saturday night. The playoff has yet to include a two-loss team. Certainly if it did, it would be a conference champion. And the Wolverines have an almost impossible path just to get to the Big Ten Conference title game.

The Wolverines, however, are favored to win Saturday night against the Irish. The line opened at 4 Sunday, but moved to 2 1/2 very quickly.

Are there numbers to support Michigan being favored?

The home team in this series has won four of the last five and seven of the last nine played on its respective campus. Also, the Wolverines are 6-1 in night games in Michigan Stadium history.

However, the Irish are coming off a bye week and, as an added bonus, are on fall break this week. That means zero academic demands as they prepare for Michigan.

Coach Brian Kelly, regardless of how the academic calendar syncs up, is 22-2 in his career and 11-1 in his time at ND in games immediately following a bye week.

Is “bye week” a grammatically correct term?

Actually no, but it’s so ingrained in college football vernacular that you actually get more snarky emails from fans when you use a term like “open date” than you do from English teachers whose heads explode when you use “bye week.”

Isn’t there some sort of connection between bye weeks/open dates at Notre Dame and eating cheeseburgers?

In 2006, Notre Dame rallied to beat UCLA 20-17 and got jumped in the coaches poll the next day by a team with a bye week. Then-head coach Charlie Weis lamented in his Tuesday press conference how a team that “was home eating cheeseburgers” could leapfrog his team.

Did the 2019 Notre Dame team eat cheeseburgers this weekend during their bye?

The media didn’t have access to the team this past week to ask that pivotal question. But it should be noted that when backup offensive guard Dillan Gibbons was in high school, he nearly polished off a 10-inch high triple-cheeseburger and fries in 30 minutes at an eating challenge at a restaurant in Tampa, Fla.

Which alleged cheeseburger-eating team jumped ND in 2006?

Florida — the same team that jumped the Irish in this week’s AP poll when the situation was reversed — the Gators rallying past South Carolina while ND was off. It should be noted that the Florida team went on to win the national championship.

Does that mean Florida jumping the Irish this season means Notre Dame will win the 2019 national title?

If you believe in karma … just maybe.

Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem (53) chases down Michigan’s Shea Patterson (2) during ND’s 24-17 win on Sept. 1, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium. 

WHO: No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. No. 19 Michigan (5-2).

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Michigan Stadium; Ann Arbor, Mich.


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Michigan by 2 1/2