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Notre Dame is back in the College Football Playoff race, but there are hurdles before the finish line

Notre Dame running back Josh Adams points skyward while lifted by teammates after scoring against Southern Cal. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)
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Cade Massey, a practice professor at the Wharton School, and Rufus Peabody, a Washington-based sports analyst, developed this ranking system for projecting future performance. Ratings represent a team’s predicted point differential against an average team on a neutral field. Current season statistics are adjusted for home field, opponent and game situation, blended with preseason expectations and weighted by their predictive ability.

Notre Dame’s reputation as a center of football excellence rests on a creaky mantle: While the program dominated much of the 20th century, it has struggled for relevance over the past two decades, finishing in the top 10 just twice, and it took a 42-14 spanking from Alabama in the January 2013 BCS title game.

Since then, the Irish have gone 31-20, including a dismal 4-8 finish last year. They failed to make the preseason top 25 in either of the major polls this year. (We had them at No. 20.)

Coming off Saturday’s 49-14 thrashing of Southern Cal, though, Notre Dame is back in the national discussion, and Irish fans who study the remaining schedule through Kelly green glasses could be excused for having run-the-table fantasies of their team reaching the College Football Playoff.

If we squint hard enough, we can see the same thing – barely – but we see this dreamscape more likely turning to disappointment for the Irish. We give them just a 17 percent chance of making the playoff — essentially the roll of a die. From there, the odds of a championship get even bleaker.

To understand how we arrive at that conclusion, here’s a quick analysis of the three core factors we take into consideration: the team, its schedule and the broader context of what’s happening nationally.


Let’s give the Irish credit for Saturday’s performance and a legitimate body of work this season. Notre Dame climbed five spots to No. 10 in our power rankings, the biggest jump among our top 40 teams. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams lead the seventh-best offense in the country, just behind a higher-profile duo, Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley. The Irish defense is a solid-if-not-spectacular No. 17, sandwiched between Texas and Michigan State.

Notre Dame’s annihilation of USC was not a fluke. It was the weekend’s third-best performance and the team’s best of the season. The Irish have improved steadily since their Week 2 loss to Georgia – easily their worst performance of the season – and have been in the week’s top 10 each of their past two outings.


The biggest challenge for Notre Dame is its schedule, the third-toughest in college football this year — behind only Florida State’s and Maryland’s. The Irish’s remaining schedule is more difficult than that of any other team in playoff consideration, and they need to win out since odds are strongly against a two-loss team making the playoff.

According to our calculations, Notre Dame has a better than 85 percent chance of winning against Wake Forest and Navy and a 73 percent chance when hosting North Carolina State. Now the downside: The Irish travel to Miami in three weeks and end the season in Palo Alto against Stanford. Right now, those games look like tossups, making their overall chances of winning out just 18 percent. Taken individually, every remaining opponent looks to be within Notre Dame’s reach, but all of those opportunities for a fatal second loss add up.


Power Five conference champions who finish with fewer than two losses likely will make the playoff, so an independent such as the Irish – as well as teams like Georgia and Penn State, who could finish as conference runners-up with one loss – need other conferences to collapse to free up extra spots. Notre Dame helped its case by giving USC its second loss, knocking the already precarious Pac-12 down another notch. We’re seeing the Pac-12 miss the playoff in 70 percent of all scenarios, twice as often as the ACC (34 percent) and Big 12 (32 percent).

But there are many others to contend with. We’re still showing 10 teams with more than a 20 percent chance to make the playoff, the same 10 we had last week: Alabama and Ohio State as more likely than not, then TCU, Clemson, Washington, Penn State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Miami and Georgia tightly bunched between 20 and 30 percent.

That puts the Irish back in the queue. But no more than five of those teams can win a Power Five conference, and fewer yet while losing fewer than two games. Our numbers suggest there’s a 55 percent chance there won’t be enough zero- and one-loss Power Five champs to fill out the bracket. A one-loss Notre Dame would contend strongly for the remaining spot alongside, we’re betting, Georgia and Penn State.

Will the committee penalize Notre Dame for being an independent? The Irish have yet to force that question in the playoff era. We’re inclined to think they will be treated on par, perhaps even as a conference champ, given their schedule (and their brand?). But their chances are better in a thin field. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the field made it through the weekend unscathed. That’s a legitimate concern, though not as big a concern as those trips to Miami and Palo Alto.

Oh, and lest we forget: Should the Irish indeed win out and elbow their way into the playoff, and if they should somehow find themselves again on the same field as Alabama, we’d favor the Crimson Tide by 16 points.

Irish fans, be careful what you wish for.

— Bob Tedeschi contributed.

Team MP MP Rank E(Ws) E(Ls) P(L<2) Conf Champ Playoff
Alabama 35.62 1 11.7 0.3 97% 69% 76%
Ohio State 31.80 2 10.6 1.4 68% 64% 54%
TCU 19.98 9 10.7 1.3 63% 36% 31%
Clemson 24.97 3 10.2 1.8 43% 42% 30%
Washington 22.75 7 10.1 1.9 39% 39% 27%
Penn State 22.85 6 10.9 1.1 79% 12% 26%
Wisconsin 19.65 11 11.4 0.6 86% 24% 26%
Oklahoma 24.03 4 10.1 1.9 37% 41% 25%
Miami (FL) 17.34 15 9.7 1.3 59% 29% 25%
Georgia 23.51 5 10.8 1.2 66% 22% 21%
Notre Dame 19.75 10 9.5 2.5 18% 18% 17%
Oklahoma State 19.09 13 9.8 2.2 24% 19% 13%
Virginia Tech 17.64 14 9.6 2.4 19% 11% 9%
UCF 13.64 21 10.4 0.6 89% 48% 9%
South Florida 9.67 29 10.0 1.0 79% 21% 3%
North Carolina State 14.61 19 8.8 3.2 4% 16% 3%
Washington State 11.40 25 8.7 3.3 3% 4% 2%
USC 16.38 17 9.1 2.9 0% 29% 1%
Auburn 22.56 8 8.5 3.5 0% 7% 1%
Stanford 16.77 16 8.3 3.7 0% 21% 1%

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