Win and they’re in?
It’s not that simple for Notre Dame after the College Football Playoff committee slotted the Irish at No. 6 in their fourth round of rankings, meaning the Irish took a serious tumble after beating three-win Boston College by three points at Fenway Park.
No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama stayed put at the top followed by No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Iowa.
The Irish also trail No. 5 Michigan State, which just beat defending national champion Ohio State in Columbus. After the Irish, 7. Baylor, 8. Ohio State, 9. Stanford, 10. Michigan and No. 11 Oklahoma State round out the main contenders.
Barely seven hours earlier, Brian Kelly said he believed beating Stanford should get Notre Dame into a playoff position, even though the Irish will sit out conference championship weekend by virtue of being independent.
“Yeah, we do,” Kelly said. “But again, we don't control that. There's a committee that makes those decisions. All we can do is control the way we perform and the way we prepare.
“And (the players) know that. Our guys clearly understand what they have to do in their preparation and then their performance on Saturday. And that's it. The rest is up to a committee, and we knew that coming into the season. So we'll take care of what we can take care of.”
Despite the ranking slip, Notre Dame’s strength of schedule held steady this week. USC dropped out of the rankings after falling at Oregon, but Temple crept back into the mix after knocking off Memphis. No. 15 Navy jumped up one spot and rates as Notre Dame’s top win.
While the Irish slate lacks a marquee win, it could also include five division winners. Clemson and Stanford have already clinched their divisions while USC, Navy and Temple can wrap up theirs this weekend. If that happens and Notre Dame beats Stanford this weekend, the Irish could claim wins over both teams playing for the Pac-12 and American Athletic conferences.
The trap door for Notre Dame remains the Big 12, where Oklahoma travels to Oklahoma State this weekend while Baylor heads to TCU. Wins by Oklahoma State and TCU would almost certainly eliminate the Big 12 from the playoff mix, assuming Notre Dame wins out.
The Irish have much less control in fending off the eventual Big 10 champion.
Michigan State finishes at home against Penn State and will clinch the Big 10 East with a win. Should the Spartans slip, the winner of Ohio State-Michigan will take the division. Iowa has already clinched the Big 10 West and plays at Nebraska on Friday.
If Notre Dame makes the playoff at the expense of the Big 10 it would require Iowa losing at Nebraska, Michigan State losing at home to Penn State and Ohio State falling at Michigan. If that three-way parlay hit, it’s hard to imagine Notre Dame not beating out the Big 10 champion for a playoff position.
Regardless of what-if scenarios, Kelly is clear that Notre Dame must beat Stanford to even be considered. And if that happens, he believes the Irish would hold up well against Michigan State, Iowa, Oklahoma, Baylor, Oklahoma State or Ohio State in a fight for the final two spots behind Clemson and Alabama.
“I think if you look at the teams across the board, we've played, from the start, in September, all the way through November, we've played a very good schedule,” Kelly said. “It hasn't been front loaded. It hasn't been back loaded. We've had to play good football all year.”
Now the Irish need to play good football for one more week.
Whether that’s enough to make the playoffs is less clear tonight.