Analysis: A possible Hamilton return won't factor into Notre Dame's playoff résumé

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Jayson Ademilola (57), Kyle Hamilton (14) and Avery Davis (3) kneel in the end zone prior to the Notre Dame-USC game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s potential trump card in a College Football Playoff game won’t be able to help the Irish actually find a way into the four-team affair.

Not that the now eighth-ranked Irish (9-1) are on the cusp of consideration after the third of the eventual six sets of CFP rankings was revealed Tuesday night.

The Irish moved up one spot following their Saturday night road win, 28-3, at Virginia, but the top seven spots all held firm, including Georgia, Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State Nos, 1-4.

Yet there is at least a plausible path for an 11-1 Notre Dame team to reach the playoff for the third time in four years. It just won’t include the Kyle Hamilton factor.

In its now eighth season of staging a playoff and producing rankings to fill the four-team field as well as the other eight New Year’s Six slots, the CFP selection committee has routinely and consistently taken into account particular games missed by injured players, especially elite players such as Notre Dame’s All-America junior safety.

The biggest hang-up in factoring in Hamilton is his recovery timetable, coupled with the committee’s commitment to not look ahead and speculate.

► Notebook:Notre Dame's season will be defined by players stepping up when needed

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That means the Notre Dame team up for consideration on Selection Sunday (Dec. 5) is one that will be judged in part by how it has evolved without Hamilton in the lineup — not what it might look like with the 6-foot-4, 220-pound future first-round NFL draft pick in the mix.

“We're aware each week who's available and who's not available,” CFP selection committee chair Gary Barta confirmed Tuesday night via teleconference, “but we don't project ahead as to who might or might not play.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly on Monday, finally for the first time, came up with a clear timeline for Hamilton’s return from a knee fat impingement injury sustained early in a 31-16 Irish victory over USC on Oct. 23.

"The injury itself is generally a six-week injury, so there was some meniscus involvement,” Kelly said. “But that is no longer an issue. There's no meniscus at all. He's got a great meniscus.

“But this is much more about the healing around the knee itself and there's no structural damage at all. Six weeks would take him through the end of the regular season, and then we have to see where we are with college football playoffs, bowl games, things like that."

Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton (14) walks off with Paul Moala (13) during the Notre Dame vs. USC NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

It’s logical to assume Notre Dame is a better team with Hamilton and his 35 tackles and three interceptions. But even if he were able to return in time for Saturday’s home game with Georgia Tech (3-7) and the Nov. 27 regular-season finale at Stanford (3-7), how much would it show?

Georgia Tech brings the nation’s No. 65-ranked team in total offense (out of 130) to Notre Dame Stadium, but the Yellow Jackets may be without No. 1 QB Jeff Sims because of health status. So backup Jordan Yates may very well get his fourth start.

Stanford, meanwhile, is 120th nationally in total offense.

The Irish defense, meanwhile, ceded 564 yards in its first full game without Hamilton, a 44-34 win over North Carolina on Oct. 30. That’s the fifth-most given up in a game in the 12-year Kelly Era.

But they followed that by stifling Navy to the tune of 184 total yards, the fourth-best of the Kelly Era, and 278 yielded to Virginia, the nation’s No. 1 offense coming in but playing without starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong.

All in all, the 34-6 romp over Navy and the 28-3 Virginia victory marked the first time an Irish team went back-to-back games without allowing a TD since late in the 2012 season. 

“They have a very strong strength of schedule,” Barta assessed of the Irish, ranked sixth by the AP and coaches polls. “We think very highly of them. They continue to play good football.”

But not good enough that they control their own destiny. The Irish need help.

The New Year’s Six bowl pairings if the season ended today would be:

• Orange/CFP Semifinal: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Ohio State

• Cotton/CFP Semifinal: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Oregon

• Rose: No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 23 Utah

• Sugar: No. 9 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Ole Miss

• Peach: No. 8. Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Wake Forest

• Fiesta: No. 5 Cincinnati vs. No. 7 Michigan State

What about a couple of alternative universes?

Using the old BCS formula, Notre Dame would be No. 5 this week — per BCSKnowHow.com — behind Georgia, Alabama, Cincinnati and Ohio State.

And in a 12-team playoff, using the working group’s original format, eighth-seeded Notre Dame would host No. 9 Oklahoma State in a first-round game with the winner getting No. 1 Georgia on a neutral field in the quarterfinals.

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. GEORGIA TECH 

Who: AP 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 17 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI

CFP Rankings Nov. 16, 2021