Analysis: Notre Dame now on track for a Fiesta with a chance to upgrade

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
College Football Playoff Rankings.

For the first time since ESPN began flailing to make the CFP rankings reveals must-see TV three weeks ago, Notre Dame has a new postseason trajectory.

With still a chance to upgrade.

If the season ended today, the College Football Playoff selection committee most likely would send the now-CFP No. 6 Irish (10-1) to the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl against No. 8 Baylor (9-2). Previously, the Dec. 30 Peach Bowl against the eventual ACC champion was ND’s most-likely postseason scenario.

What changed? Cincinnati (11-0) — the team that handed the Irish their only loss this season (24-13 on Oct. 2) — moved into the CFP top 4 on Tuesday night at No. 4. If the Bearcats win out, over East Carolina (7-4) and No. 24 Houston (10-1) in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, it’s hard to envision a scenario that doesn’t include Cincinnati in the top 4.

That, in turn, frees up the Fiesta Bowl from its Group of 5 champion obligation and negates the rematch factor of ND-UC in the Fiesta Bowl, something the selection committee would want to avoid.

► ND vs. Stanford:Notebook: Brian Kelly dismisses suggestion of leaving Notre Dame for USC

► Awards Recap:Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton named a Bednarik Award finalist

The Irish finish their regular season and résumé Saturday night at Stanford (3-8), with every other team with which they’ll be vying for a final playoff spot on Dec. 6 Selection Sunday having two games to play. Kickoff is 8 p.m. EST on FOX.

The easiest and most plausible path for Notre Dame to land in a College Football Playoff semifinal (Dec. 31) for the third time in four years is for the Big 12 to end up with a two-loss champion and Cincinnati to lose one of its remaining two.

For the Big 12 scenario to happen, No. 7 Oklahoma State (10-1) would have to beat No. 10 Oklahoma (10-1) at home on Saturday, then lose to Baylor in the Big 12 title game OR Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State Saturday, then lose the rematch in the Big 12 title game.

Comparing Notre Dame's résumé.

Other outcomes that would boost the Irish — provided they handle their own business Saturday night in Palo Alto, Calif. — No. 3 Alabama (10-1) getting beaten convincingly by No. 1 Georgia (11-0) in the Dec. 5 SEC title game (or losing Saturday to a diluted Auburn team).

Another would be for No. 14 Wisconsin (8-3) to win out, which would include a victory Dec. 5 in the Big Ten title game against Saturday’s winner between No. 2 Ohio State (10-1) and No. 5 Michigan (10-1).

The Michigan-Ohio State loser is likely to end up in the Rose Bowl.

Baylor, by no means, is locked into a Fiesta Bowl path. No. 12 Michigan State (9-2) is a possibility, should the Spartans beat Penn State (7-4) on Saturday. And if Baylor wins the Big 12, Oklahoma or Oklahoma State are possibilities in the Fiesta.

There’s sentiment — at least among a lot of ESPN’s talking heads — that a one-loss Big 12 champ would automatically jump the Irish, but Oklahoma would have a much tougher time then the No. 7 Cowboys given its current position and its résumé.

Both Oklahoma teams, when you look at the comparative scores, have had similar seasons to the Irish with some unimpressive close calls early in the season. When you look at the statistical profiles of the Big 12 teams, Baylor’s appears to be the most airtight in the five key metrics of rush offense, pass efficiency, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin.

In the statistical profiles of all the playoff contenders you can see where each team is most likely to unravel in a loss.

With Alabama, for instance, it’s rushing offense (71st nationally). Notre Dame as well (77th), even with recent improvements. For Ohio State it’s total defense (44th), Cincinnati rushing defense (67th), Oklahoma State pass efficiency (71st) and Oklahoma total defense (74th).

Even Georgia has a little vulnerability. The Bulldogs are 50th in turnover margin.

Metrics comparison for top 10 teams.

The Irish have an excellent chance to move up in the rush offense stats Saturday night, when they face the fifth-worst rush defense among the 130 FBS schools. A victory of any margin would lock Notre Dame into at least the New Year’s Six lineup.

An impressive win, with help around the Irish, keeps the playoff dream alive for at least another week.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI