The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are off to a 9-0 start for the first time since the 2012 season, when they lost to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. The Irish defeated Northwestern 31-21 Saturday night. Since the inception of the College Football Playoff, fans have wondered how the selection committee will really treat Notre Dame when push comes to shove. As the Irish head towards a possibly undefeated season, we are about to find out.
Notre Dame did not look strong coming out of the gate. Northwestern is a good football team–unfathomable loss to Akron aside–and the Wildcats showed it. The Northwestern defense was stout, stifling both the Irish running and passing game. The first half ended with the game tied at seven, and neither team really looked to have an advantage.
The Irish changed that all in the third quarter, though, controlling the game and trying to put it away. Notre Dame scored touchdowns on both third-quarter drives, and held the Wildcats to just 31 yards and three punts in the quarter. The Irish added on a field goal early in the fourth quarter, and the game looked out of reach.
In front of a home crowd, Northwestern was not ready to give up. The Wildcats came down on a touchdown drive, blocked a Notre Dame punt, and then scored a second touchdown to cut the lead to 24-21. The Irish responded like champions, though, going on a ten=play, 89-yard touchdown drive–capped off by an incredible fake hand off that Ian Book kept and ran left all the way to the end zone.
By my count, there are only 13 teams that still have potential College Football Playoff hopes. Notre Dame is one of those, and we are fast running out of teams to jump the Irish. We all know that a 12-0 Irish team would be a lock for the Playoff, but we are now at a point where we have to consider an 11-1 Notre Dame team solidly in the Playoff as well.
The Irish’s final three games are against Florida State, Syracuse, and USC. None of those would be awful losses, though Florida State is not a good team to lose to this year. Even losing to one of those, the Irish have a solid Playoff resume. Not only that, but there are very few other teams with real Playoff resumes. Washington State has an atrocious nonconference schedule and few quality wins. The Irish have already defeated Michigan, and Ohio State does not look like a team that should be in ahead of any other one-loss team right now.
The only real concern for Notre Dame–assuming that Alabama and Clemson are in the Playoff–is the Big 12 champion. Neither Oklahoma nor West Virginia has a great resume, but it could be solid. (Oklahoma is in the midst of a tough game against Texas Tech as this is published.) Still, 11-1 Notre Dame against either of those two could be a tough decision. Also, the Irish might worry a little if they lose to Syracuse–a loss to a 10-2 team might not look good for an 11-1 one.
Still, Irish fans have to be happy right now. Their team looks good, is grinding out tough games, and very likely has a one-game cushion in terms of making the College Football Playoff.