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Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff path is clear

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After easily dispatching overrated Virginia Tech in overrated Lane Stadium on Saturday night, Notre Dame (21) has the easiest road to the College Football Playoff of any team. (Clemson is a close second.) But it’s not the straightest of roads.

In fact, it’s all over the map.

After the Fighting Irish dispatch Pittsburgh on Saturday, they will only play in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus one time the rest of the regular season. From Oct. 20 onward, every team in America plays more true home games than Notre Dame. Here’s how the march toward Selection Sunday breaks down for the Irish after Saturday:

Oct. 20: Open date.

Oct. 27: Navy (22) in San Diego. This is a Navy home game that the service academy moved across the country to a city full of sailors (35,000 of them, according to one report when the venue was announced). Notre Dame recruits heavily in California and has 11 players from that state on the current roster — including red-hot starting quarterback Ian Book — so the location works for the Irish, too. Miles from South Bend: 2,140.

Nov. 3: at Northwestern (23). This is a short commute for what could be a very welcoming atmosphere for the Irish. The Wildcats rarely pack the stands at Ryan Field, which leaves plenty of available tickets in a city that is home base for more Notre Dame alumni than any other. Biggest issue could be how long Northwestern is growing its grass to keep the playing surface slow — a trick Notre Dame itself employed back when it played on natural grass (1976 against Tony Dorsett and Pittsburgh; 2005 against Reggie Bush and USC). Miles from South Bend: 108.

Ian Book has been a revelation for Notre Dame at quarterback so far this season. (AP)

Nov. 10: Florida State (24). The lone home game down the stretch. The Irish presumably would be fine with below-normal temperatures for this one — the average high in South Bend in November is 49 degrees, which is 26 degrees colder than the average in Tallahassee. But it shouldn’t take cold weather to beat this Florida State team, which seems likely to arrive with a losing record and be struggling to keep its record 36-year bowl streak alive.

Nov. 17: Syracuse (25) in The Bronx. This is the annual Shamrock Series game and it’s being played at Yankee Stadium, which spawned Notre Dame’s lamentable jersey and helmet selections. Even if the Irish look bad, they probably won’t be playing in front of a hostile crowd for this one. The geometry of playing football in a baseball stadium can be a challenge in some venues, but this stadium works well. Miles from South Bend: 705 miles.

Nov. 24: at USC (26). This is the dangerous game for Notre Dame. The hostility of the crowd is very much subject to the fortunes of the Trojans by this point, but USC is not without talent and has been known to ruin an undefeated Fighting Irish season in the Coliseum before (1964 and ’70, not to mention many other memorable USC victories over the Irish on Thanksgiving weekend). However, the last time Notre Dame went into the Coliseum with everything on the line, in 2012, it emerged with a win and the right to be eviscerated by Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. Miles from South Bend: 2,099.

All told, Notre Dame will log nearly 5,000 miles over the final five weeks of the regular season. It will come during academic crunch time, too, at a school that takes that part of the mission seriously. The Irish’s challenge down the stretch may be managing road weariness, more than any individual opponent.


The College Football Playoff field is being thinned on a weekly basis, and this Saturday there are at least two (and possibly four) games that will serve as knockout games for the loser. The list:

Washington-Oregon (27). When: 3:30 ET. Where: Eugene. Records: Huskies are 5-1, Ducks 4-1. Line: Washington favored by 3 1/2. Neither team has a résumé that strongly supports playoff inclusion, even if they finish 12-1 and win the Pac-12. Washington’s schedule took a hit with Auburn losing its second game of the season and BYU losing its third. Oregon played nobody out of conference, and its loss to Stanford also took on added punitive damage when the Cardinal was routed at home by Utah. But you never know when help can arise in the form of upset losses elsewhere, which means the winner of this game can keep hope alive while the loser adjusts its goals downward. Dash pick: Washington 30, Oregon 24. The Ducks have the advantage of an open date and two weeks to prepare, but the Huskies are simply the better team.

Wisconsin at Michigan (28). When: 7:30 ET. Where: Ann Arbor. Records: Badgers are 4-1, Wolverines 5-1. Line: Michigan favored by 7 1/2. Wisconsin’s lone loss is at home to BYU, and right now that’s a bad loss. But if the Badgers can win at Michigan, at Penn State and then win the Big Ten championship game (presumably over Ohio State), that would be a compelling collection of quality victories. The Wolverines have a better loss (at Notre Dame) and would have a similar set of wins (Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State). And if you want to add one more dynamic to the equation, the possibility exists that these two could play each other twice. Dash pick: Michigan 20, Wisconsin 17. Line feels too big at 7 1/2, but the Wolverines should be able to do what they do best — run the ball — against a softer-than-usual Badgers front seven.

The two possible playoff eliminators:

Georgia-LSU (29). When: 3:30 ET. Where: Baton Rouge. Records: Bulldogs are 6-0, Tigers are 5-1. Line: Georgia favored by 7. If LSU loses for the second straight week, it is out of playoff contention barring a tsunami of upsets — including the Tigers beating Alabama on Nov. 3. Georgia wouldn’t be eliminated if it loses this game, but it would set up a scenario in which an SEC championship game, presumably against Alabama, would be must-win. (As it stands now, a 12-0 Georgia team that loses in a competitive game to a 12-0 Alabama team would still merit strong playoff consideration.) Dash pick: Georgia 30, LSU 21. Presuming LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger reintroduces himself to leading rusher Nick Brossette after ignoring him late against Florida, Georgia’s run defense will be challenged. But the Bulldogs have the better quarterback and more weapons.

Colorado-USC (30). When: 10:30 ET. Where: Los Angeles. Records: Buffaloes are 5-0, Trojans are 3-2. Line: USC favored by 7. If the playoff deck somehow is dealt down to two-loss teams, and USC has beaten Colorado, Notre Dame and Washington, it might be in contention. But this doesn’t look like that kind of year. As for the Buffs: a single loss might be curtains from a playoff perspective, since their September schedule came up very light (2-4 Colorado State, FCS New Hampshire, winless Nebraska, winless UCLA) and the Pac-12 as a whole hasn’t done much out of conference. Dash pick: Colorado 34, USC 31. The Trojans have played the tougher schedule for sure, but they also haven’t performed very well against much of anyone. The Buffaloes have the weapons to attack a susceptible USC defense and beat their nemesis for the first time ever.

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