When Notre Dame took the field in South Bend Saturday night for its game against rival USC, it hadn’t really proven that much this season. The Fighting Irish had posted a 5–1 record and climbed into the teens of the major polls, but they dropped their one game game against a team that looks capable of making a real run at a College Football Playoff berth, Georgia, and the most daunting matchups on their schedule were yet to come.
In the three-plus hours it took for it to wrap up a 49–14 win over the Trojans, Notre Dame made clear it deserves to be taken seriously in the playoff race. If head coach Brian Kelly’s team had been residing on the margins of the CFP picture, it left no doubt against USC that it belongs. By halftime, the Fighting Irish had converted 15 first downs to the Trojans’ six, recorded 190 rushing yards and gained 5.7 yards per play to their 3.7 in rolling out to a 28–0 lead.
USC mounted a 12-play scoring drive to make it a three-score game early in the third quarter, but Notre Dame quickly squelched any hope of a comeback. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush capped an eight-play march with a seven-yard touchdown run about four minutes later, and after the Trojans responded with another TD, Fighting Irish tailback Josh Adams galloped 84 yards to the end zone to make it 42–14 entering the fourth quarter. He tacked on another rushing score in garbage time.
Wimbush returned to the starting lineup after missing last week’s 33–10 win at North Carolina with a right foot injury. The junior isn’t a top-end passer (9 of 19 for 120 yards), but he made enough big throws, including a 26-yard and 23-yard touchdown to Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson, respectively, to put USC in an early hole. Wimbush also teamed with Adams, now firmly in the Heisman Trophy mix, to gash the Trojans for 297 rushing yards and five scores on 33 carries.
Notre Dame played like it should be in the national semifinals, but it has a lot more work to do to get there. First, the Fighting Irish face consecutive home games against quality ACC opponents: No. 16 North Carolina State, undefeated and coming off a bye week, and Wake Forest, which won at Georgia Tech on Saturday to move to 4–2. Then Notre Dame closes the regular season with bouts against No. 8 Miami and No. 22 Stanford, two trips sandwiching a home meeting with Navy.
The Fighting Irish’s one-point loss to the Bulldogs could doom them on the CFP bubble cut line, particularly if Georgia is also in serious contention for a bid, along with Alabama, out of the SEC. But if Notre Dame makes it through its remaining five games unbeaten, it’ll be hard for the selection committee to find fault with its body of work. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Fighting Irish’s remaining strength of schedule entering Saturday ranked No. 7 in the country.
Notre Dame’s big step toward a final four spot comes at the expense of the Pac-12, which was already in a precarious position after North division challengers Washington and Washington State suffered shocking road losses last week. The conference has no remaining unbeaten teams, and now the Trojans need to run the table, including with a win in the Pac-12 title game (possibly over the Huskies or Cougars), to even give themselves a chance, but that doesn’t seem likely after after their drubbing at the hands of the Fighting Irish.
There’s still time for teams to build their cases; the first set of playoff rankings hasn’t even come out yet. But this game could well have major implications for what happens on Selection Sunday. It further dims the Pac-12’s hopes of sending a team to the big show, and increases the chance of a team from outside the Power 5 conferences getting invited for the first time in the fourth season of the playoff era.