An optimist might say Notre Dame is right where it needs to be.
The Irish are No. 6 in this week's College Football Playoff rankings, the same spot eventual champion Ohio State was at this point last season. The two teams ahead of Notre Dame will play each other, and a third will play a one-loss, No. 11 team on the road in the last week of the season.
On the other hand, Notre Dame has every reason to be nervous.
After Tuesday’s rankings, there’s reason to believe the Irish could finish 11-1 with a win over potential Pac-12 champion Stanford and still get left out of the Playoff.
Certainly, the Playoff committee is not beholden to any week’s rankings. For example, this week when Notre Dame slipped from No. 4 to No. 6 despite a win over Boston College. But No. 3 Oklahoma would presumably be safe with a win over 10-1 Oklahoma State, and the committee seems to have set up a play-in game between Iowa and Michigan State, provided the Spartans clinch the Big Ten East against Penn State this week.
Although there’s no reason to hold the committee to what it did last year, it’s tough to ignore how TCU ended up one of the odd teams out. The Horned Frogs clobbered a bad Iowa State team in the last week of the season while Ohio State won the Big Ten championship with a 59-0 win over Wisconsin. Even a lopsided win wasn't enough to stop the Buckeyes from leapfrogging TCU into the top four.
Like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Notre Dame won’t play during the final week of the season on Dec. 5, leaving the Bedlam Game and Notre Dame-Stanford as the last statements for all three teams. In other words, where the Bedlam winner and Notre Dame stand this time next week may be where they end up in the final rankings. And that doesn’t take into account Baylor, lurking at No. 7 with a chance at the Big 12 title playing that week against Texas.
Notre Dame could lose to Stanford and render the entire debate moot, but the Irish may not want to leave any doubt when they head to Palo Alto.
Here are some other thoughts on this week's rankings:
The big wins mean more than a bad loss
What we learned last season when Ohio State’s loss to a mediocre Virginia Tech seemed not to matter late in there year was on display again. The forgiveness of an early loss to a bad team was repeated again as Oklahoma moved up to No. 3 this week. The Sooners’ 24-17 loss to 4-6 Texas on Oct. 10 — a game that wasn’t even that close — doesn’t seem to hold sway over the committee. Apart from the loss to Texas, the Sooners have defeated Baylor (9-1) and West Virginia (6-4) soundly and Tennessee (7-4) on the road. Last week, Oklahoma needed TCU, with its backup quarterback and without its All-America receiver, to miss a two-point conversion to win. Even an identical opponent — Notre Dame beat Texas soundly in Week 1 — didn’t seem to help the Irish vault over OU. “It’s more a function of how Oklahoma has performed since that loss,” selection committee chair Jeff Long said. “They’ve overcome that loss with their play on the field and wins they’ve accumulated.” In other words, as long as a team can prove that early loss was a fluke, it's OK.
The committee isn’t giving the SEC a pass
This is worth reiterating if only because there’s a sentiment that SEC teams receive the benefit of the doubt. Clearly the committee has not been impressed with the SEC East and to a lesser extent the SEC West. Despite needing overtime to beat FAU and eking out wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina, the Gators are still in the top 10 of both polls. For the committee, the Gators slipped from No. 8 to No. 12 this week. The top conference in the rankings in terms of numbers has been the Big Ten for three consecutive weeks. The SEC this week had four top 25 teams compared to five in the Big Ten and Pac-12.
Undefeated still counts
Somewhat definitively, Long said the committee views Oklahoma as a better team than undefeated Iowa. The difference between Iowa and Michigan State, though, came down to one team being undefeated and one having a loss. Michigan State has three top 25 wins, and two top-10 wins on the road (Michigan and Ohio State). Iowa has one top 25 win altogether, over No. 16 Northwestern on the road. The difference, Long said, was Iowa being undefeated. Although the committee has repeatedly shown that it will rank undefeated power teams behind one-loss teams, having a zero in the loss column counts.
Ohio State is still getting the benefit of the doubt
The Buckeyes don’t have a top 25 win but still checked in at No. 8 despite a loss to Michigan State in a listless performance that is starting to become the trend of the season. Despite a hole in Ohio State’s résumé, the committee still may view the Buckeyes as a potential playoff team if they can get into the Big Ten title game and beat Iowa.
The AAC isn’t guaranteed a spot as the Group of 5 representative
The American Athletic Conference still has the highest ranked Group of 5 team by nine spots with Navy at No. 15, but the league has gone somewhat haywire. Navy needs to beat unranked one-loss Houston to go to the AAC title game and either Temple or USF could win the AAC East. Should Navy lose to Houston and/or USF win the AAC, that might open the door for a potential MAC, Conference USA or Mountain West champion to steal a big-time spot that was assumed to be sealed for the AAC.
New Year’s Six Projections
Orange Bowl semifinal: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Iowa
Cotton Bowl semifinal: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Rose: No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 9 Stanford
Sugar: No. 12 Florida vs. No. 7 Baylor
Fiesta: No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Michigan
Peach: No. 8 Ohio State vs. No. 15 Navy