The first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2015-16 season were announced on Tuesday, and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and their fans alike are overjoyed at being the fifth-ranked team. Coming off a gritty 24-20 win over one of the best Temple Owls teams that university has ever seen, the Irish are 7-1, ranking eighth in this week’s AP Top 25 Poll. The playoff selection committee made it clear that their criteria for ranking teams are much different from the standard poll, as not a single team in the top 25 has the same ranking in both polls. At number five, Notre Dame is in the perfect position to make the playoff if they win the rest of their regular-season games. Here’s why:
The Irish are the “First Team Out”
Beyond the numbers, being ranked fifth means that Notre Dame is already on the verge of a playoff berth, and some members of the selection committee probably even argued their case for being in the top four. Last year, the fifth ranked team in the initial rankings was the one-loss Oregon Ducks, whose toughest remaining game was against the Stanford Cardinal. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, only one team in the initial top four last season, the Florida State Seminoles, ended up making the playoff. The likelihood of that happening again this year is high too, with the second ranked LSU Tigers and fourth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide playing each other this weekend. The third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes still have to get through the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines, and the top-ranked Clemson Tigers take on Florida State this weekend. On top of that, these teams will have to win their conference championships outright in order to be included in the playoff if last year is any indication. The top four teams were the conference champions from the SEC, Pac 12, ACC, and Big 10 respectively. The committee seemingly deemed the Big 12 as the weakest of the power five, leaving the split-champion TCU Horned Frogs and Baylor Bears out of the picture. The fact that Notre Dame doesn’t play in a conference championship game is a blessing in disguise. That’s one less possibility of a loss, meaning better odds to win out.
Notre Dame has the Best Loss Possible
Sep 12, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) celebrates after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass against the Virginia Cavaliers with twelve seconds left in the fourth quarter at Scott Stadium. The Fighting Irish won 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
For a one-loss team to make the playoff, that loss has to look good. It can’t come at the hands of a poor performance against a bad team. With Clemson coming in at number one in the playoff rankings, Notre Dame’s loss to them almost looks like a plus, although beating the Tigers would have guaranteed the Irish a spot in the top four right now. In a game that saw Clemson jump out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on a rainy night in Death Valley, Notre Dame appeared to have no chance. Quarterback DeShone Kizer didn’t see it that way, leading the Irish on a comeback that fell just a yard short on a two-point conversion that would have sent the game to overtime. It was by far the biggest threat to Clemson’s perfect record this year, and the committee is obviously taking that into heavy consideration. Although they don’t officially play in a conference, Notre Dame has a mostly ACC schedule this season, which has been something for the committee to think about as well. If Clemson takes home the ACC Championship, a loss to the eventual conference champions is exactly what the Irish need. It would set up a potential rematch in the playoffs that would almost certainly break some TV ratings records, and don’t think that will be overlooked.
Strength of Schedule
Notre Dame has the fifth-toughest schedule in the country this year, and Alabama is the only team in the top four to have a schedule ranked harder than that. In fact, the rest of the teams in the top four are all ranked outside of the top 10 in strength of schedule, with Ohio State all the way down at 46. Notre Dame’s final game of the season is at Stanford, ranked 11 by the playoff committee with the 14th toughest schedule in the country. Stanford has emerged as the best team in the Pac 12 and will be fighting for a spot in the playoff as well. If both teams still have one loss going into that game, the winner is most likely going to make the final cut. If the Fighting Irish win out, they will have four wins against ranked opponents, and a narrow loss against arguably the best team in the nation. They pass the “eye test” with flying colors too, ranking 17th in total offense with 494.9 yards per game on 7.26 yards per play. As long as the Irish keep scoring points and taking care of business, it will be very hard for the selection committee to keep them out of the playoff.