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Hoonhout: Without a win against Stanford, the Irish won’t make the Playoff

| Friday, September 28, 2018

Three years ago, Notre Dame played Stanford with a chance at the Playoff hanging in the balance.

The Irish had already lost to Clemson earlier in the year, but still had a shot, albeit an outside one, at making the final four with a win in Palo Alto. With 30 seconds left in the game, Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer scored on a bootleg rollout to give Notre Dame the lead, and suddenly it seemed like the Irish would be able to defend the Legends Trophy and maybe sneak into the Playoff.

But I don’t need to recount how the rest of that game, or that season, turned out.

The point is, David Shaw and the Cardinal have had the number of Brian Kelly’s program, and that matters this coming Saturday.

No, it’s not at the end of the year, and no, it’s not on the road. But after last week, this matchup definitely has the same Playoff implications.

Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer
Irish graduate student linebacker and captain Drue Tranquil celebrates after sacking the quarterback during Notre Dame’s 56-27 win over Wake Forest on Saturday.

While the preseason schedule for Notre Dame often looks tougher than it pans out, this year there seems to be the opposite. Other than Stanford, the only other team currently undefeated on Notre Dame’s schedule is Syracuse, and that start looks to be in danger with the Orange traveling to play No. 3 Clemson this week. Traditional powerhouses USC and Florida State both sit at 2-2 and have looked unconvincing, and Virginia Tech, a team that many circled on the Irish schedule as a potential Playoff deal-breaker, is in shambles after a shock loss to Old Dominion last weekend.

What does this all mean? Well, it’s looking increasingly likely that the Irish will have to win out in order to have a legitimate shot at the Playoff. Like 2015, some things will have to fall into place besides an Irish win to give Notre Dame a berth. While it’s still relatively early in the season, there are teams with tougher schedules ahead of Notre Dame that will have to lose for any sort of upward momentum. But these things do happen. Georgia and Alabama both have to go to Death Valley and play LSU. Oklahoma has a number of games that don’t look to be shoe-ins, particularly taking into account the scare against Army last weekend. And Ohio State faces Michigan — a team the Irish beat — in the Big House to close out the year.

It’s highly unlikely that all of these teams run the gauntlet unscathed. Plus, we can factor in the entirely different beasts that are conference championships. There are certainly people that support the conference championship as another game against a quality opponent to boost the resume, seemingly putting Notre Dame at a disadvantage. But I disagree.

In this case, the Irish independent status has a huge impact. Notre Dame’s scheduling capabilities means that every year the Irish likely play at least one team which plays for a conference championship. This year, it could be three — Michigan and Stanford still control their own conference destiny, and Virginia Tech still could theoretically play Clemson for the ACC title. If Notre Dame has a win over a Power Six conference champion, it makes the resume look that much better.

That’s why Stanford has serious implications. Because the schedule doesn’t look like people thought it would, it seems reasonable to assume that the Irish need to run the table and go undefeated, especially with the chances of marquee wins shrinking as the season goes on. There’s no margin of error this time around — against Stanford, it’s win or go home.

I wrote a column earlier this year stating that for Notre Dame to be a serious contender, a quality win on the road is a must. But now, even that seems to be no guarantee. The Irish don’t look to have the opportunity to make that kind of statement; instead, what’s on deck is a storied rival coming to South Bend for the first top-10 matchup at Notre Dame since 2005. It’s also a chance for Brian Kelly to make a statement against the one coach who has had his way since Kelly’s tenure began. David Shaw has proven repeatedly that he knows how to coach against the Irish, and he has the record to prove it. After losing for the past three years, Notre Dame finally seems to have the chance to get the monkey off the back.

The Irish are still a long way from the promised land. But without a win against Stanford, they won’t even have a ticket.

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

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

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