Mailbag: What Needs to Happen for Notre Dame to Make the Playoff?

In this latest Mailbag, we examine what would have to unfold for Notre Dame to make the playoff. 
By Tim Rohan ,

In this week’s mailbag, we discuss two Midwestern powers and rivals who lost last weekend: Notre Dame and Michigan. We analyze Notre Dame’s playoff chances after losing a close road game against Georgia, and we wonder whether Michigan’s blowout loss to Wisconsin was the beginning of the end of the Jim Harbaugh era. Plus, we examine whether this might be the year the SEC gets three teams in the playoff.

Now, let’s get to your questions.

@Jp3_Next_UP: Do you think Notre Dame can still make the College Football Playoff?

I think Notre Dame still has an outside shot of making the playoff, but the Fighting Irish absolutely need to run the table. The issue is, it’s unclear right now how many more quality opponents Notre Dame has left on its schedule, and it needs quality opponents to boost its strength of schedule, particularly with a loss. The Fighting Irish get No. 18 Virginia at home this week, and they play No. 21 USC and No. 20 Michigan in October, and they have Stanford, a former Top-25 team, in their season finale.

Virginia could make some noise this year the ACC. After last week’s debacle in Madison and the near-loss to Army, Michigan seems to be trending in the wrong direction and could drop out of the top 25 eventually. I don’t know what to make of USC, either, beating a top-10 Utah team last week with its third-string quarterback, one week after losing to BYU in overtime.

Let’s see how it plays out. Maybe a few of those teams will end up ranked at the end of the year, when the playoff debate is in full swing. It helps that Notre Dame’s loss is to Georgia, the No. 3 team in the country. But Notre Dame, I think, would probably have to win out to give itself a real shot at the playoff.

Here are the playoff front runners: Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU, and Auburn, in whatever order. For the sake of this discussion, say Clemson and Alabama are locks. They could each lose a game and still make the playoff. Notre Dame still needs to leapfrog those other five schools for one of the two remaining spots.

If Oklahoma wins the Big 12 with only one loss and Ohio State wins the Big Ten with one loss, those schools probably get the nod over Notre Dame, right? If Oklahoma and Ohio State somehow end up with two losses, then that conversation gets interesting.

If Georgia finishes with one loss, the Bulldogs almost certainly outrank Notre Dame, thanks to their win this past weekend. If LSU or Auburn finish with one loss, they’d probably outrank Notre Dame too, thanks to the difficulty of the SEC schedule. Notre Dame needs some of these schools to lose multiple times to feel good about its chances.    

Look, it’s a long season. A lot can happen. But the Fighting Irish need to win out and then hope things get messy at the top of the rankings.

@lebo326: Is Michigan ever going to be good again?

It’s hard to tell right now, after Michigan fell behind 35–0 against Wisconsin this past weekend and eventually lost by three touchdowns. The Wolverines offense in particular has looked subpar, and that’s perplexing because they seem to have some real weapons in place. Nico Collins and Tarik Black look explosive at receiver, and the true freshman Zach Charbonnet looks like a potential workhorse running back.

As it goes across college football, though, the offensive shortcomings seem to fall on the quarterback, Shea Patterson. He’s been erratic throwing the ball and has had turnover issues this season. Throughout his career, Jim Harbaugh had been known as a quarterback guru and he handpicked Patterson as a transfer from Ole Miss, which makes this current situation at Michigan all the more surprising.

If this Wisconsin loss leads to a downward spiral at Michigan, it’ll be interesting to see what Michigan decides to do with Harbaugh. When he arrived after the 2014 season, he was the prodigal son, the coach the Wolverines lured back home from the NFL. On Monday, a Vegas sportsbook reportedly released odds on who Michigan’s coach would be next season, under the assumption it wouldn’t be Harbaugh. Bronco Mendenhall and David Shaw topped the list.

Who would’ve thought, when Michigan hired Harbaugh after the 2014 season, that we’d be having this conversation less than five years later?                   

@Scottly_Crue: Could this be the year we see three teams from the same conference in the playoff? Example: LSU/Auburn beat ‘Bama, LSU/Auburn win SEC against Georgia. Florida, Georgia, and Auburn/LSU have strong non-conference wins, but ‘Bama is ‘Bama. Who's in and who's out?

As I was pondering Notre Dame’s playoff chances above, this scenario did occur to me. What does the committee do if three of these top SEC teams finish with zero or one losses? Let’s follow your example here for a second. Say LSU goes undefeated, beats Alabama, and wins the SEC; Say ‘Bama goes 11-1 and its only loss is to LSU; and say Georgia finishes the regular season undefeated but loses to LSU in the SEC championship game. In that scenario, would all three of them get in? I don’t know.

It’d obviously depend on what happened in the other conferences. If Clemson runs the table, it’s in. If Ohio State and Oklahoma run the table, I’d think they’d probably have an edge over a one-loss SEC school that didn’t win the conference. But, as Socttly asks, what if that school is Alabama? Or Georgia? Going with the scenario above, who would have the leg up, 11-1 Alabama or 12-1 Georgia? I think ‘Bama might have the slight advantage, given their recent history, but it’s impossible to say without knowing how each team will be playing come December.        

I’m sure the playoff committee would prefer not to select three SEC teams, for parity’s sake. But look at the rankings. There are five SEC schools currently in the top-9, including Nos. 2, 3, and 4. There are scenarios out there where this gets messy for the playoff committee.    

Note: Questions were edited for style and grammar and/or condensed for clarity.

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