Analysis: Romanticism meets realism? That's still a viable pathway for No. 2 Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Five days before the College Football Playoff rankings transformed from progress reports to something with finality and bite, the most romantic of Notre Dame hypotheticals still had a chance to intersect with realism.

Not that it’s a likely conjecture. Not that the Irish, No. 2 in the penultimate CFP check-in Tuesday night, wouldn’t be underdogs in each remaining step, but there’s a heartbeat.

The top five in the CFP rankings — Alabama, ND, Clemson, Ohio State and Texas A&M remained unchanged. The shocker was previously No. 6-ranked Florida (8-2) dropped only one spot, to No. 7, after falling at home to a depleted and heavy underdog LSU team, 37-34, on Saturday.

Florida was 11th in both the AP and coaches polls on Sunday.

The Gators face Alabama in the SEC Championship Game Saturday night, thus with a chance to find a backdoor into the final four with an upset.

The most urgent read between the lines, as far as ND nation is concerned, in the last reveal before Sunday’s final standings and postseason assignments are unveiled is what is Notre Dame’s worst-case scenario?

The strange treatment of Florida could play into that, though it more likely would adversely affect a potential two-loss Clemson team, should the Irish sweep Saturday in Charlotte, N.C.

Most of TV’s talking heads postulated Tuesday night that the Irish (10-0) wouldn’t fall any further than No. 4, no matter how they fare in Saturday’s rematch with No. 3 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game (4 p.m. EST; ABC).

If they’re wrong, ND’s postseason safety net would be a berth in the non-playoff Orange Bowl Jan. 2 at Miami Gardens, Fla.

A historical point of interest, according to ESPN stats and info researcher Sopan Shah, there have been only three top 5 rematches in the same season since the inception of the AP poll in 1936.

All three have been won by the first-game loser and all three by 21 points or more.

Then again, this 2020 Irish team has been all about rewriting recent historical tendencies, which is both part of its charm and its swagger.

CFP committee chairman Gary Barta danced around the question Tuesday night as to whether the Irish (and Alabama) had earned some leeway this weekend, considering the first 10 data points on the résumé.

“Their defense has really impressed the committee, and Ian Book has gotten better and better,’ Barta responded. “I’m looking forward to watching the ACC Championship. I think the committee is as well.”

The Orange Bowl site, Miami Gardens, is where the Irish hope their 2020 season ends, but they want to take the long way to get there. The CFP National Championship Game is set for Hard Rock Stadium as well, on Jan. 11. And what a scenic route it would be.

The three perennial College Football Playoff bullies Notre Dame has been trying to close the gap with since its 2012 run at a national title and stumble off the big stage — Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama — are likely the three teams in its path to capture its first national championship since 1988.

Until its 47-40, double-overtime upending of Clemson in South Bend on Nov. 7, the Irish program was 1-18 in its last 19 games against top 5 opponents. They’d have to pull off a trifecta of such victories — or at least a respectable loss to Clemson, and then two of them.

If Notre Dame could execute the former, they’d represent the three biggest wins in program history since the 1988 stairstep of No. 1 Miami, No. 2 USC and No. 3 West Virginia (though not all consecutively).


And that would tie 11th-year Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly with coaching icon Knute Rockne at the top of the school’s victory list at 105.

The difference between winning and losing Saturday in Charlotte could very well be the difference in having to face No. 1 Alabama eventually in the Jan. 11 national championship or right away in a Jan. 1 CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

The Crimson Tide looked vulnerable early in the season, but not at all lately.

Alabama was 66th in the nation in total defense after its first three games — against Missouri, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. And that’s back when only 77 schools — not the current 127 — had started their seasons.

Florida International and Syracuse were its statistical neighbors when it came to the most reliable metric of the BCS/Playoff Era in what a national champion looks like.

Today the Crimson Tide is 27th in total defense and surging on all fronts.

Perhaps so too is Notre Dame after its third bye week of the COVID-colored season. Statistically, this Irish team is clearly a cut above the 2012 squad that played in the BCS National Championship Game as the nation’s No. 1 team, but never looked like it that night, and the 2018 CFP team that lost 30-3 to Clemson in the semifinals.

We’ll soon find out if they’re better at finishing a sentimental — and historical — journey.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Notre DameACC Championship Game participants Clemson (left) and Notre Dame both remain in contention to make the College Football Playoff field, to be announced Sunday.

1. Alabama (10-0)

2. Notre Dame (10-0)

3. Clemson (9-1)

4. Ohio State (5-0)

5. Texas A&M (7-1)

6. Iowa State ( 8-2)

7. Florida (8-2)

8. Georgia (7-2)

9. Cincinnati (8-0)

10. Oklahoma (7-2)

11. Indiana (6-1)

12. Coastal Carolina (11-0)

13. USC (5-0)

14. Northwestern (6-1)

15. North Carolina (8-3)

16. Iowa (6-2)

17. BYU (10-1)

18. Miami Fla, (8-2)

19. Louisiana (9-1)

20. Texas (6-3)

21. Oklahoma State (7-3)

22. NC State (8-3)

23. Tulsa (6-1)

24. San Jose State (6-0)

25. Colorado (4-1)

Who: No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 3 Clemson (9-1)

Kickoff: Saturday at 4 p.m. EST

Where: Bank of America Stadium; Charlotte, N.C.


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

Line: Clemson by 10 1/2