Hansen: Breaking down a suddenly plausible playoff path (and alternatives) for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame running back Logan Diggs (22) hurdles Virginia defensive back Anthony Johnson (3) during ND's 28-3 win on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Charlottesville, Va.

SOUTH BEND — Jack Coan admitted earlier this season he still roots for his old team, Wisconsin. And he seems like a nice enough guy that he’d be pulling for Badgers QB Graham Mertz, individually, as well.

Mertz is the player whose superior recruiting pedigree and modest rise while Coan was injured in 2020 coaxed the latter toward the transfer portal.

There’s a practical and ironic side to the Badger love that the current Notre Dame starting quarterback probably hasn’t had a chance to consider.

The least-contorted, most-plausible path for the 9-1 Irish sneak in the backdoor into the College Football Playoff field — or a darn good debate for the CFP selection committee — involves a Mertz/Wisconsin hot streak.

Which is already in progress.

Since a 1-3 start, the Badgers have won six in a row and control their own destiny when it comes to both a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game and a league title.

Topping the FBS in total defense, rush defense and third-down defense, Wisconsin finishes with tough-out Nebraska (3-7) at home and a road test at Minnesota (6-4). The Badgers are also No. 2 nationally in pass-efficiency defense and scoring defense.

They’ve been ascending in the run game on offense, to the point they’re now 11th nationally.

The missing piece? An elite quarterback.

At least Mertz, 98th this week in pass-efficiency rating, is an improving one. He’s spent most of the season trolling the bottom five of the individual passer ratings. Coan, for the record, is No. 50.

How does all this help Notre Dame?

• First Notre Dame, ranked No. 6 Sunday in the AP and coaches polls and likely eighth Tuesday night when the CFP rankings come out, has to help itself. The Irish can get to 11-1 by taking down Georgia Tech (3-7) at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, then finishing off Stanford (3-7) on the road on Nov. 27.

• Part II of the scenario has Wisconsin beating the Big Ten East survivor (Ohio State/Michigan/Michigan State) in the league title game. That would give every Big Ten team at least two losses and its champion three, with a 28-point defeat at the hands of the Irish.

• Part III requires an upset of Pac-12 leader Oregon, most tenebly by Utah (6-3) this weekend in Salt Lake City. And the Utes are a slight early Vegas favorite to pull that off.

• Optional Part IV would be for Oklahoma (9-1) and Oklahoma State (9-1) split, or for Baylor (8-2) to sneak up and win the Big 12 title. In each of those instances, the eventual Big12 champ is at best 11-2.

As for the Irish?

“This football team is getting better each and every week,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said after the Irish subdued Virginia, 28-3, Saturday night in Charlottesville, Va. “We're playing young players that are now much more mature, playing better. And we’re ascending as a football team.”

Notre Dame’s most likely postseason destination at 11-1 remains a berth in the Peach Bowl, Dec. 30 in Atlanta, against most likely the ACC Champion. But other scenarios, including a playoff path, are gaining momentum.

On a side note, can you imagine how quickly the squabbles would be resolved over a 12-team playoff if only one Power 5 Conference was represented in the playoff this postseason (two SEC teams) along with the Group of Five rep and an independent?

Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan (17) throws a pass to wide receiver Braden Lenzy (0) during ND's 28-3 victory over Virginia on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Charlottesville, Va.

Alternate realities

• If the Irish at 11-1 fall short of the playoff and don’t land in the Peach Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl is the only other option. The other two non-playoff New Year’s Six bowls this cycle — the Rose and Sugar — are locked into conference commitments on both ends of their respective matchups.

The Fiesta will get the Group of Five rep UNLESS Cincinnati makes the playoff. In that case, the Irish would more likely end up in Arizona than Atlanta, playing a top 10 team in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.

• A 10-2 or 9-3 Notre Dame team would fall out of New Year’s Six contention and into the ACC’s Tier One group of bowls. The ACC website lists eight Tier One options, but the Cheez-It, Gator and Holiday are all on equal footing above the other five, with those three getting the first three picks.

Geographic proximity, avoiding repeat appearances and matchups, and regular-season won-loss records will ultimately factor who goes where.

The Holiday Bowl is Dec. 28 in San Diego and would pair a Pac-12 team. The Cheez-It Bowl is Dec. 29 in Orlando, Fla., vs. the Big 12, and the Gator Bowl is Dec. 31 in Jacksonville, Fla., against an SEC opponent.

ACC drama

There are five teams with a legitimate shot at landing a Peach Bowl berth by winning the ACC, including the team Notre Dame just beat — Virginia (6-4).

Pitt (8-2) can clinch the Coastal Division with a win vs. Virginia on Saturday. The Cavaliers can win the Coastal by beating Pitt on the road, then beating Virginia Tech at home.

In the Atlantic, Wake Forest (9-1) can clinch by winning either at Clemson this Saturday or at Boston College on Nov. 27.

But a loss in both games pulls Wake into at least a two-way tiebreaker with Clemson (7-3), which it would lose, and possibly a three-way tiebreaker with Clemson and NC State (7-3). In that scenario, the Wolfpack would emerge as the Atlantic champ in the three-way tiebreaker, but NC State has to beat Syracuse and North Carolina to get into that conversation.

Defensive surge

Since giving up the fifth-most total yards (564) in a game in the Kelly Era in its first full game without injured All-America safety Kyle Hamilton, the Notre Dame defense hasn’t look anything like the struggling, flailing unit that took the field in a 44-34 win over North Carolina on Oct. 30.

Notre Dame Sack Leaders

In fact, after ceding roughly half that much yardage Saturday night at Virginia (278), the Irish have strung together back-to-back games without allowing a TD for the first time since 2012.

Some numbers to note in Marcus Freeman’s first season as defensive coordinator:

• Notre Dame’s pass-efficiency defense mark, buoyed by 14 interceptions, is 20th nationally. That’s three full games and three-quarters of a fourth without Hamilton and having faced this season four of the top five receivers in the Power 5 in receiving yards per game heading into last weekend.

The interception total, by the way, is tied for fifth nationally and double what the Irish amassed in its 12-game season in 2020.

Sophomore Ramon Henderson on Saturday became the ninth different ND player to record at least one. Senior DJ Brown, who also had a pick Saturday night, is now tied with Hamilton for the team lead (3). 

• After recording a season-high seven sacks against Virginia on Saturday night, Notre Dame is on pace to break the school record of 41.5 set in 1996, albeit it barely and with some mathematical rounding up. The Kelly Era high is 34. This season, the Irish have amassed 32.

The Irish rank 14th in the FBS. Iowa leads the nation with 19. Cincinnati is No. 2 with 16.

• Notre Dame heads into its final two regular-season games ranked 24th in scoring defense (20.5 ppg).

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. GEORGIA TECH 

Who: No. 6 Notre Dame (9-1) vs. Georgia Tech (3-7) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium 

TV: NBC 

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

Line: Notre Dame by 15 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI