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Padanilam: Put the playoff talk on hold for now

| Friday, October 27, 2017

“Notre Dame jumps into national championship discussion.”

“Notre Dame is back in the College Football Playoff race.”

“Notre Dame, the team everyone loves to hate, can disrupt the CFP.”

All week, these headlines — and others just like them — could be found on just about every major sports media platform.

Blowing out a rival like then-No. 11 USC at home will have that effect.

Graduate student left tacke Mike McGlinchey battles to protect the quarterback during Notre Dame's 49-14 win over USC on Sat.Anna Mason | The Observer
Graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey battles to protect the quarterback during Notre Dame’s 49-14 win over USC on Sat at Notre Dame Stadium.

And it vaulted Notre Dame back into the country’s elite, pushing them into the top 10 of the AP poll and, had they have been released, likely the CFP committee’s top-10 rankings as well.

Do you know when Notre Dame was last in the top 10 of any poll?

The AP preseason top-25 poll for 2016.

And we all remember how that turned out.

Expectations are a funny thing. They offer you something to aim for, day to day, week to week. But if you set those expectations high enough, you quickly run out of room for error. And if you fall short? Well, that’s what you would categorize as failure.

Last year, Notre Dame entered the season with top-10 expectations. And it fell short of them, losing in its first game of the season and disqualifying itself from redemption by the end of the season’s third week.

And day to day, week to week, the Irish carried that failure with them — losing eight games, including seven by one possession (though only one by one point, mind you).

Yet, just one season later, the Irish find themselves facing top-10 expectations yet again, this time starting in the season’s ninth week.

Blowing out a rival like then-No. 11 USC at home will have that effect.

But that effect brings a new challenge. The Irish are now very much in the national spotlight garnering playoff consideration just a week ahead of the release of the season’s first CFP rankings. Junior running back Josh Adams’ Heisman candidacy captures this point well: after playing well all season and largely seeing that success fly under the radar, there’s no hiding from the expectations now.

And that’s something they haven’t dealt with all season thus far.

So all the playoff chatter, all the Adams’s for Heisman talk, all the praise of the return of Notre Dame football to its glory would probably be best if it were put on hold.

At least for this week.

At least until they’ve actually played with the expectations they now carry, especially against this NC State team.

The Irish will be riding high following the most significant win any player on their roster has experienced. But the 14th-ranked Wolfpack cannot be overlooked, even slightly.

For they present the toughest matchup Notre Dame has faced this season.

It’s well known that NC State’s run defense is ranked No. 6 in the country, making it the best group Notre Dame has faced since it took on the No. 4 such defense in Georgia — which of course, the Irish struggled to run the ball against and lost.

And Wolfpack senior defensive end Bradley Chubb — who will in all likelihood be one of the first players off the draft board come April — has the ability to make either Irish offensive tackle look the way graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey did on the final Irish offensive play in that loss: helpless.

But perhaps overlooked about this Wolfpack team is its offensive capabilities. It might not have the star power of a Georgia, but this will be the best offensive team Notre Dame has faced all season.

The Wolfpack rank 24th in the nation in total offense and 24th in passing efficiency and yardage per game. And they’re balanced, passing for 290 yards a game while rushing for another 177.

Additionally, Notre Dame’s defense has depended on its ability to force turnovers this season, and they face a team that has only lost three fumbles this year — a top-20 mark in the country — and a signal caller who is the only quarterback in the country without an interception this season.

Many people have written or said that Notre Dame’s season truly started last week when it started the second half of its schedule with its first ranked foe since the Georgia game in USC.

But they’re wrong.

Saturday’s game will truly tell the country and any playoff what we this Notre Dame team is made of. It will be the true starting point of any discussion that includes “playoff” and Notre Dame in the same sentence.

Because it will be the first game the Irish play with those expectations hanging over them this season — really, the first game they’ve played with those expectations since last year’s disastrous season.

It will be the last step to putting last season completely behind them.

And that’s why Saturday’s game will be the biggest game of Notre Dame’s season.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

Contact Benjamin