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Notre Dame's Statement Win over USC Puts Fighting Irish in College Football Playoff Discussion

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On Saturday night, the Notre Dame game plan worked to perfection. The physical Irish running attack pounded the thin USC defensive front to the tune of 377 yards. Defensively, Notre Dame eliminated the big play and forced a mistake-prone Trojans offense to go long distances to score, something they could not do. The result was a 49-14 drubbing, the largest Notre Dame victory over USC since the 51-0 thrashing to end the national championship season of 1966.

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Saturday night was another big feather in Notre Dame's cap. The current Irish resume possesses many qualities that the selection committee appreciates. Their lone loss was by just one point to the No. 3 team in the country, they have a decisive road win over a top-20 team in Michigan State, and their win at Boston College is looking better and better every week. As a result, Notre Dame is a legitimate contender for a College Football Playoff spot.

At the moment.

Looking at the grand scope of college football, it is possible that two-loss champions emerge in as many as three conferences — Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC. As a result, there is a chance that a team with multiple defeats finds its way into the final four.

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But without a conference title, Notre Dame will not be one of those teams. So the Irish will need to be entirely focused every single game and it begins with being letdown-free next week against 6-1 NC State.

It’s not as though Notre Dame is alone in this predicament. Of the dozen or so teams left in the playoff chase, at least half cannot afford to go down again. For these teams, every Saturday features an elimination game. It’s just that with NC State, Wake Forest, Miami, Navy and Stanford remaining on the schedule, ND’s challenges are as great as any of the remaining combatants.

But as Herb Brooks said to the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team prior to the game against the Soviet Union in 1980, great moments are born from great opportunities. And with games against one tough team after another remaining on the Irish docket, Notre Dame has a great opportunity. If the Irish win, regardless of what happens with other teams in other places, they would have to be considered one of the four best teams in the nation.

I have had Notre Dame fans tell me that they used to get pits in their stomachs and would feel sick leading up to big games, but in recent years those feelings have gone away. And they miss it. But two separate people texted me last night prior to kickoff that this was the most nervous that they had been for an ND game in a long time.

It’s back and a win over NC State will keep it around for at least another week.

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)