Path To The Playoff: Notre Dame

    Path To The Playoff: Notre Dame. With a loaded team and an interesting schedule, the Irish will be in the hunt.

    May 6, 2015

    By Pete Fiutak
    Follow me … don’t cost nothin’ @PeteFiutak

    It got lost in the nightmare of a horrific finishing kick to the regular season, but there for the grace of a better executed play in the final moments in Tallahassee, Notre Dame would’ve been No. 1 in the nation as late as November 8th.

    This was hardly a razor-sharp team throughout the 6-0 start – helped immensely by what turned out to be a soft schedule before going to Florida State – but had the Irish come up with a win over the Seminoles before beating Navy, they would’ve been 8-0 and needing to go 3-1 over the final month to likely end up in the College Football Playoff.

    Instead, there wasn’t a turnover that Everett Golson didn’t like to give away, the defense was decimated by injuries, and a four-game losing streak destroyed an otherwise positive campaign.

    Just when it seemed like all was lost, Notre Dame came up with a tough, physical Music City Bowl win over LSU and now there’s a buzz again.

    But which Notre Dame will show up this year? Is this really a good enough team to talent-wise to be in the playoff hunt? All that matters is whether or not the team finds ways to win against what looks like yet another brutal slate.

    There’s no conference championship to win, and there’s going to be almost no margin for error, but it’s Notre Dame, and it’s going to get the benefit of several doubts on its Path to the Playoff.

    Step One: Pick a lane with the quarterback situation right away

    After Malik Zaire completed 12-of-15 passes and ran for 96 yards and a score against LSU, it’s his job now, right? His upside is enormous and he appears destined to be the type of Brian Kelly quarterback who can control an offense by himself, but don’t count out Golson quite yet. Also forgotten in the fog of the season was how Golson – turnovers and all – probably would’ve been front and center in the Heisman race had he pulled out the win over Florida State going into mid-November. Remember, he threw for 220 yards or more in every game he played in up until the USC debacle, and he made magic happen against Stanford and North Carolina. No matter which way Kelly goes, there can’t be a lingering controversy and the team has to rely on one guy to be THE guy.

    Step Two: Keep everyone healthy

    Why did the Irish hit the skids late in the year? There wasn’t anyone left on a defense that finished up with just three starters going wire-to-wire. Once the injuries started piling up, the inexperience was too much to overcome – especially when Golson was busy giving the ball away at an alarming rate. On the plus side, the problems of last year leads to better developed depth and better position battles this season. However, to get through the bear of a schedule, the No. 1s have to stay in one piece, especially up front after having so many problems with the …

    Step Three: Run defense, run defense, run defense

    It helped to play teams over the first half of the season that couldn’t run the ball effectively, but the Irish held Florida State to 50 yards on the ground and stopped Stanford for just 47 yards on 32 carries. It also helped that the Notre Dame front seven was relatively healthy. Playing Navy is an anomaly for a run defense, but Arizona State ran well on the banged up D.

    And then the roof caved in.

    Northwestern couldn’t run well on you and ten friends, but it managed to crank up 263 yards in its stunning win in South Bend. Louisville and USC each hit the 200-yard mark, and Leonard Fournette announced his 2015 Heisman candidacy helping LSU finish up with 285 rushing yards.

    Again, health and depth should play a big role in the improvement of the run D, but dealing with Texas and Georgia Tech in the first three weeks will be big tests.

    Step Four: Quit turning over the freaking football

    Golson took the brunt of the blame for all the turnovers and mistakes, but giving up the football is hardly a new thing in the Brian Kelly era. His 2010 team turned it over 24 times, and the 2011 squad had big problems giving it up 29 times. Those teams, though, both finished with five losses, just like the 2014 team, while the 2012 team that played for the national title lost just 15 turnovers. The Irish defense picked up the slack in several games coming up with its share of takeaways, but still, the offense turned it over 26 times with two or more mistakes in seven games.

    Step Five: Don’t lose to Clemson, and get to Halloween unbeaten

    The Irish can lose a game along the way and still potentially get into the playoff, but they have to be hot over the first part of the season with five of the first seven games at home. If they can take care of Texas, Georgia Tech, and Navy at home, that’s a nice start, but the big showdown against USC is the one they really need to impress the playoff committee. Also, there can’t be a misfire at Virginia, and it would help the cause immeasurably if they can come up with a statement win in Death Valley against Clemson. Beating USC at home will get credit no matter what, but a road win over a Tiger team good enough to win the ACC will take on extra weight. A 7-0 start with wins over Texas, Georgia Tech, Clemson and USC along the way would mean a top four ranking no matter what anyone else is doing, and then …

    Step Six: By the end of the year, really … the run defense

    Four of the last five games are on the road with the lone home date coming against Wake Forest. The one positive is the week off that comes after the USC game before dealing with the finishing kick. Temple will have a tremendous defense, and Pitt should be good, but the Irish can’t blow those games if they really do think they have a shot at the playoff. Finishing up against Boston College in Fenway Park and following it up with a cross-country trip to Stanford will be tough, and that’s where the run D has to come in. Pitt’s James Conner will be bad enough to deal with, but the BC ground game and the potentially improved Cardinal ground attack will be a test of attrition for a defense that, unlike last year, has to be a brick wall.

    Step Seven: Get to 11-1

    Wake Forest will need a minor miracle to go bowling, and UMass probably isn’t going to get a 13th game, but it’s not crazy to think that Notre Dame will face nine or ten teams that’ll end up in a bowl game. Throw in the splashy dates with Texas, USC, Georgia Tech and Stanford, and with nine games against teams from Power 5 conferences – that doesn’t include Navy – and the slate is more than impressive enough to allow for one gaffe. Unlike last season, it’s highly unlikely that all five Power 5 conference champs will finish unbeaten or with just one loss, and as long as the one loss comes to someone above-average, Notre Dame can afford one miss.

    Is It Going To Happen?: The Irish might come closer than you think. If they take care of home and beat Texas, Georgia Tech and USC, and if they don’t gack away one of the road games against an underdog, they can lose to Clemson or even Stanford and still get in. However, there are just too many tough teams to get past. 10-2 is the more likely ceiling, and even then there might be a playoff case to make.

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