It’s time to seriously discuss Notre Dame as a College Football Playoff contender.
Saturday night in South Bend, No. 8 Notre Dame blasted rival No. 7 Stanford 38–17 and is now poised to disrupt the playoff conversation.
It’s still early in the season—we’re only five weeks in. But in the Independent, conference-unaffiliated world in which the Fighting Irish live, there’s no room for error if they’re going to make a run at a national championship. And they just passed their biggest test by beating the Cardinal, something they have not done in three seasons. Now, the rest of the schedule doesn’t seem so daunting.
In the preseason, five of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents were ranked in the top 25. The thought was that if Brian Kelly’s team made it through the regular season with one loss with this schedule, it would still look appealing to the College Football Playoff selection committee. Due to circumstances out of Notre Dame’s control, most of its opponents have not met expectations and now an 11–1 record might not cut it in the four-team field. After this weekend, Notre Dame’s remaining schedule looks like this: at Virginia Tech (Hokies beat Duke on Saturday, but were upset by Old Dominion last week and lost quarterback Josh Jackson to injury), Pittsburgh, Navy (in San Diego), at Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse (at Yankee Stadium), and the regular season finale at USC.
Realistically, without a conference championship to play for in December, the Irish must keep winning to make the playoff.
Notre Dame is viewed as an X-factor when it comes to the playoff. With only four spots, one Power 5 conference is always going to be left out. If the Irish are in contention, well, maybe that makes two. This could very well become a bigger conversation later on this season.
This isn’t even a discussion if Kelly doesn’t make the difficult decision last week to change quarterbacks from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book. In his first start at Notre Dame Stadium, Book went 24-of-33 for 278 yards with four touchdowns. As he did in last week’s win over Wake Forest, the junior found 10 different receivers and four different players scored. In only his third start, Book appeared comfortable, made his throws on time and was efficient. He adds another dimension to the offensive game plan by opening up the passing game and showed he can run when needed, adding 47 rushing yards.
A surprise addition to Notre Dame’s offense was running back Dexter Williams, who had been suspended for the first four games due to undisclosed disciplinary reasons. On his first touch of the season, he ran for a 45-yard touchdown. He finished the day with a career-high 161 yards on 21 carries and a score in the first quarter.
Notre Dame’s defense smothered Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello, sacking him five times, four of which came from defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Costello amassed just 174 yards passing with one touchdown and an interception. Running back Bryce Love, who has only rushed for more than 100 yards once this season, ran for 73 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game with an injury early in the fourth quarter.
For the fourth consecutive year, Notre Dame led Stanford at the start of the fourth quarter. The Cardinal came back to win three of those games. This time, the Irish proved to be a more dominant team in every phase. And now they’ve put themselves in a situation where if they don’t slip up, they will be a legitimate playoff contender.