Regardless of what happens later this month, Notre Dame has already made College Football Playoff history. The Fighting Irish (12-0) are the first team from a non-Power 5 conference to make the playoff. Next up for No. 3 Notre Dame, a Dec. 29 date with No. 2 Clemson in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, which will be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Two more wins this season and the Irish would claim their first national title since 1988. To do so, this Notre Dame team will rely on a championship-level defense as well as a dynamic — and improving — offensive attack. Should the Irish beat the Tigers, they would take on the winner of No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma on Jan. 7 in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Notre Dame may not have won a conference championship as an FBS Independent, but the Irish earned their spot in the playoff by successfully navigating a gauntlet of a schedule. This season’s slate included 12 FBS opponents, 10 of which are from Power 5 conferences, inlcuding victories over a pair of division champions (Northwestern, Pitt) as well as Michigan and Stanford.
Can Notre Dame win the national championship? Here are five reasons why the Fighting Irish will finish this season No. 1.
5 Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Win the College Football Playoff
1. The front seven
A unit laden with experience and talent made its presence felt throughout the season and wreaked havoc on every offense it saw during the season. The Irish allowed just 17.3 points per game during the regular season — with a total of 33 allowed in the final three games — and the defensive front spearheaded those efforts from start to finish.
In the middle of a vaunted defensive front stood senior Jerry Tillery, who amassed 44 pressures (nearly four per game) with 10.5 tackles for a loss and eight sacks. Alongside him is junior Julian Okwara, right behind Tillery in sacks (seven) but leading the team with 11.5 tackles for a loss. Fellow junior Khalid Kareem brought pressure opposite Okwara, contributing 4.5 sacks and 10 TFLs.
And that’s just the defensive line. The linebacker duo of graduate student Drue Tranquill and senior Te’von Coney brought to the table a heavy dose of veteran leadership that was a difference-maker all season long. Coney led the team with 107 tackles (the next-closest Irish defensive player, Alohi Gilman, had 76) and combined with Tranquill for seven sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception. The pair, along with Asmar Bilal at rover, formed one of the most consistent units all season long and, in tandem with the defensive line, was one of the best in the country over the course of the season at keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
2. Rushing attack
Speaking of difference-makers, what an impact by senior running back Dexter Williams. Making his season debut in Week 5 against Stanford, Williams took his first carry of the season 45 yards for a touchdown against the Cardinal and never looked back.
Even a cursory look at the rushing highs for the season clearly reveals Williams’ monster final two-thirds of the season. He showed the ability to be a workhorse — logging 23 carries in Notre Dame’s cross-country trip to play Navy in San Diego — and to explode for big plays at any time. His touchdown run for 58 yards against Florida State was part of a 202-yard effort against the Seminoles — becoming the first running back to surpass 200 yards on the ground against Florida State since 1982 — and his 97-yard burst at Virginia Tech was the Irish’s longest rush of the season.
Those big games for Williams catapulted him among the national leaders for rushing yards per game. Williams ranks eighth with 117.6 yards per game, having amassed nearly 1,000 on the ground in just eight games and nearly certain to surpass that mark during the College Football Playoff.
3. Wide receiver mismatches
One of the Irish’s greatest strengths on the outside is the size and length of its receiving corps. The starting group for offensive coordinator Chip Long included wide receivers Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool — both of whom stand at 6-foot-4 — plus 6-foot-5 tight end Alize Mack.
That creates nightmares for opposing defenses, who must decide between assigning a bigger linebacker or a faster defensive back to cover the pass-catching trio. All three caused problems for the entirety of 2018, with Boykin’s 54 receptions, 803 receiving yards and eight touchdowns all led the team. Claypool (48, 631, 4) was second only to Boykin in all three categories, while Mack added 34 catches for 349 yards and three scores.
Not to be lost in the shuffle is the smallest — yet easily one of the most important and most reliable — contributors in the passing game. Chris Finke stands only 5-foot-10 but his impact is much bigger than his stature. He finished the regular season just one catch behind Claypool (47), with his 547 yards good enough for third. Finke made his mark on the season right away, leaping over a Michigan defensive back to haul in a 48-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Wimbush in the season opener. While the bigger bodies make plays on the outside, it will be Finke who finds space — and targets — in the middle of the field as he uses his speed and possession skills to move the ball down the field.
4. Julian Love
When playing against as tough a schedule as Notre Dame does year in and year out, the Irish will undoubtedly go up against some top offenses — meaning some of the nation’s best receiving threats. Luckily for first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea, he can count on one of the best defensive backs in the country to all but shut down one side of the field.
Love, named a finalist for the Paycom Jim Thorpe Award — awarded to the best defensive back in college football — has been just that and more for Notre Dame this season. Love is the only player in the nation with 10 or more pass breakups (15) and two fumble recoveries (three). He has only missed two tackles in 815 snaps, the fewest among any player with as many snaps. He also now holds the school career record for pass breakups with 38 (and counting).
On a team level, he is part of a secondary that ranks second in fewest passing yards allowed per attempt (5.2), tied for second for fewest touchdown passes allowed (six) and sixth in total yards allowed per play (4.4). While credit also is due for fellow cornerback Troy Pride and the aforementioned Gilman — the latter of whom has starred in his first year playing for the Irish after transferring from Navy — Love is the engine that makes the secondary go. And when Love is on fire, the Irish defense certainly clicks on all cylinders.
5. Ian Book
Book is arguably the most important component to Notre Dame’s magical run to an undefeated regular season. The junior signal-caller injected a new spark into the offense from the moment he stepped in for senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who started (and won) the first three games of the season to move his career record to 22-3. Book stepped onto the field at Wake Forest for his first start of the year and was unfazed by his new role, going 25-for-34 for 325 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
But what Irish fans did not know after Book’s season debut was that his accuracy would soon rate among the nation’s best. He rattled off five straight starts completing better than 70 percent of his passes, a first in school history. When Notre Dame took down Pittsburgh for its seventh win of the season, Book led the nation in completion percentage at 75.2 percent. He now sits alone in sixth at 70.4 percent, two spots behind Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray (74.6 percent) and just ahead of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (70.3 percent).
Even more impressive, Book became the first FBS quarterback to win his first five starts of a season while completing at least 70 percent of his passes in each start since Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson in 2011.
Book has certainly shown he is more than capable of piloting the offense to success, and his supporting cast of Williams, Boykin, Claypool, Mack and Finke have all risen to the occasion when called upon. Bolstered by a defense that has ranked among the nation’s best all season, this Notre Dame group is one of the most complete in recent memory. With the impressive talent and surging momentum down the stretch, this has the makings of a team capable of bringing a national championship back to God’s Country for the first time since 1988.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.