Greason: Northwestern game will set tone for rest of season
Elizabeth Greason | Friday, November 2, 2018
It is extremely difficult to go undefeated in college football. On a week-to-week basis, teams drop out of the elusive category surprisingly after a poor performance (or a shockingly good performance from their opponent). No team is immune. At this point in the season, we’ve narrowed the field of undefeateds down to just four remaining teams: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 12 University of Central Florida.
Here’s the thing though. Going undefeated isn’t everything when it comes to the College Football Playoff. We’ll see that this week when the Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0 SEC) take on No. 3 LSU. The Tigers (7-1, 4-1 SEC) have already picked up a loss this season to Florida, but a second loss to Alabama won’t necessarily take them out of the running for a spot on the playoffs. Because a loss to ‘Bama isn’t like a regular loss. It’s barely a blip on the radar in the eyes of the playoff committee. It will be the same if the Tigers take down the Tide — both teams will certainly remain in the top four teams in the country, and deservedly so.
However, this season, Notre Dame will not be afforded the same luxury. While a two-loss LSU team might still find itself in the playoffs, Notre Dame absolutely must run the table in order to earn a berth at Hard Rock or AT&T Stadiums in January. And that’s what brings me to this weekend.
Call me Tobias Hoonhout, but I consider Notre Dame’s performance against Northwestern on Saturday critical to its success for the rest of the season. While that’s obvious in the sense that a loss to the Wildcats (5-3, 5-1 Big Ten) would essentially end Notre Dame’s season, the game also marks the beginning of what can be considered the closing stretch of the season — the portion of the season during which the Irish (8-0) have historically struggled beyond belief. It’s the first week after the first set of official rankings came out. It’s November. It’s the week after playing Navy and Notre Dame is still coming off its triple-option hangover. And Northwestern is playing very, very well at the moment.
But here’s the biggest issue. The major cause for concern, we can call it. Northwestern has absolutely nothing to lose. With three losses, it has no shot at a playoff spot or a major bowl game. But Notre Dame has everything to lose. Every play the Irish make could lose them a shot at the national championship, while the Wildcats lost that a long time ago. Instead, the Wildcats have the chance to be this season’s team to knock off Notre Dame. They can play fast and loose, while Notre Dame has to ensure it plays mistake-free football. Northwestern has proven over the course of the last few weeks that it can capitalize on mistakes, so the Irish cannot turn the ball over. The key will be to put points on the board early and force the Wildcats to play catchup and score touchdowns.
Heck, the Wildcats even have a two-game winning streak going over the Irish thanks to that Cam McDaniel fumble back in 2014. Now, I’m not predicting a loss for Notre Dame this weekend. I’m simply saying that Notre Dame needs to be very careful and keep in mind what type of team it’s facing. Northwestern is better than it’s getting credit for — let’s not forget it nearly defeated No. 5 Michigan — and we’ve reached the point in the year when a win isn’t just a win anymore, because all eyes are watching, and those eyes can control Notre Dame’s destiny.
A win over the Wildcats (and not a win that’s scraped out in the last minute or a sad, unconvincing win like Vanderbilt) sets the stage for the rest of Notre Dame’s season. A loss ends it and a win keeps Notre Dame alive and thriving. But a win might end it as well — there are good wins and bad wins and a bad win might set the Irish up for failure in the weeks to come as they head into what has been their Achilles’ heel — the closing stretch of the season.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.