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Sports

Thomas: Notre Dame fans should root for the Irish to make the CFP

| Monday, November 29, 2021

When Notre Dame lost to Cincinnati on October 2nd, I, like most of the student body, was devastated by the result.

Not only had the Bearcats talked so much trash leading up to the game, only to back it up with a strong on-field showing, but it was the first home loss I’d ever witnessed at Notre Dame Stadium. Later, hanging out with a group of friends in what amounted to be a give-and-take therapy session among Notre Dame juniors, I mentioned I was glad the loss at least eliminated Notre Dame from the Playoff conversation – the Irish had a winnable schedule and to make the CFP with the disaster of an on-field product they were putting out there sounded horrible. Why would I root to be blown out by Georgia, Alabama, or whichever team was fortunate enough to draw the Irish in the opening round?

However, the narrative has changed.

For one, Notre Dame has a very real chance at making the Playoff. A chance that was deemed nearly dead by college football experts across the country is very much alive. Once seemingly impossible, a second consecutive appearance in the semifinals is just one or two results away from happening. The Irish are 11-1 following Saturday’s road 45-14 victory over Stanford. Tuesday’s CFP Committee rankings will give the Irish a true idea of what needs to happen on Conference Championship Saturday.

Regardless, head coach Brian Kelly was vocal about his team, stating repeatedly that they were a top-four team in the country during his postgame press conference. Think Brian Kelly wants another shot at a national championship? He’s got no interest in a moral victory.

Here are a few reasons why I came around to the idea of Notre Dame making the Playoff – and why you should as well.

Notre Dame is trending upwards

OK, reason No. 1 is an obvious one. But Notre Dame is absolutely playing their best football of the season. Just about every metric backs that up. The offense is actually averaging more points per game than the 2020 squad. Defensively, even without All-American safety Kyle Hamilton, Marcus Freeman’s unit has been absolutely stellar, particularly down the stretch.

Offense

The offense ranks in the top 30 via points per play. However, that considers a series of sluggish performances in the first five games of the year. Taking a moving average of three-game samples over the final half of the season, Notre Dame has been a top-10 offense, which figures to be much more competitive against the national powerhouses. This has been due to the evolution of the Irish’s tempo approach, improved play from the offensive line, and emerging freshmen stars such as running back Logan Diggs and wide receiver Lorenzo Styles.

Defense

Defensively, the Irish went three straight games without giving up a touchdown. Since giving up 34 points to UNC on Oct. 30 in their first game without Hamilton, the Irish have dominated, giving up 23 points over the final four games. This defense is peaking and getting contributions all over the field. From sophomore converted wide receiver Xavier Watts contributing at rover, sophomore Ramon Henderson switching to safety, graduate student defensive line captains Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish starring in leadership roles, sophomore edge Isaiah Foskey terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, and a deep linebacker room filling up the stat sheet, this defensive unit is operating with the utmost confidence and obliterating opposing offenses. This team is trending the right way. Find video from Brian Kelly’s press conference after the Stanford game – that’s a confident coach leading a team that’s ready to compete for a title. 

Notre Dame’s most likely opponent is VERY beatable

The Quarterback situation

Georgia is not a lock to win the national championship this season. And honestly, I wouldn’t be betting on the Bulldogs. I stand firmly on that statement until I see them do something offensively that changes my mind. The recent trend in national championship-winning teams has been an incredibly dynamic offense. And in particular, an NFL-ready quarterback. Mac Jones, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Jalen Hurts/Tua Tagovailoa and Deshaun Watson – those are the six quarterbacks of the last five national champions. For those keeping track at home, that’s two No. 1 overall picks, five first-round picks and six signal-callers drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

Now, let’s introduce Georgia’s Stetson Bennett. A quarterback of a similar caliber? I think not, and this Georgia offense is simply not on the same level as the teams Notre Dame has had to face in previous years of the Playoff. 2020 Alabama averaged just under 50 points per game entering the Playoff, and in 2018, Clemson was putting up about 44. The Irish held both teams to 14 and 19 points less than their season averages. Georgia is averaging 38 points per game – if Notre Dame can put up a similar defensive effort, a win becomes attainable. 

Strength of Schedule

Yes, the Georgia defense is incredible. They are giving up under eight points a game. But who exactly have they played? Excuse my inability to rush to the SEC’s manger with gold, incense, and myrrh (a little Christmas spirit for y’all), but Georgia’s best win is…Kentucky? Maybe a four-loss Arkansas team, or a 6-6 Auburn squad? Cue the confetti, this squad must have already won a national championship with the praise it gets from the mainstream media. Georgia’s eight SEC opponents went a combined 24-40 in conference play – they didn’t exactly play the cream of the crop. 

Keep in mind, Tennessee scored 17 points against Georgia. The defense can be scored on, and if Notre Dame puts up a solid defensive effort against an offense that isn’t world-beating, taking a loss isn’t a guarantee.

Recruiting Implications

If Notre Dame were to make it to the Playoffs and get blown out again, the Irish would certainly be subject to some ridicule from the media. You’d probably have to deal with your annoying non-Notre Dame friends and family again. But honestly, if the biggest reason you want Notre Dame to miss the Playoff is that you can’t handle a couple of negative headlines and some jabs from people around you…get over yourself, respectfully.

Making the Playoff has done wonders for Notre Dame recruiting. The classes got better, then they became major players in the search for new coaches, which landed them Marcus Freeman, which has only further improved Notre Dame’s recruiting. They cracked the top 10 once more for the first time since 2013 with their 2021 class. And followed it up with a class currently ranked 4th in the 2022 cycle. That 2013 class finished 5th…a year after Notre Dame made it to the BCS title game. 

We see recruits opt-out of bowl games every year to avoid injury before the NFL draft. They even opt-out of major bowl games like the New Year’s Six. The new concern is making the Playoff and getting a crack at the title. Recruits can be sold on being the difference-maker for a team that has struggled in the spotlight. It’s tougher to sell them on a program that doesn’t make it to the spotlight. Even if the media doesn’t recognize that Notre Dame is an elite program, particularly if they crack the top four, recruits and coaches do, and the Irish will continue to improve in every meaningful way.

That’s worth a negative headline and whatever your SEC-praising friends have to say.

This 2021 team has a chance

What’s different from 2020?

Throw it back to 2020 – Notre Dame did not feel like they were trending up as they secured their Playoff spot. Their upset win over Clemson, sparking a frenzied field-storming, hid a few alarming trends as the season wound down. There was the tune-up game against Georgia Tech that saw the Irish tied with the Yellow Jackets late in the first half. Despite a strong defensive effort, the Irish couldn’t score enough against an atrocious UNC defense to put away the Tar Heels until very late. Against the cellar-dwelling Syracuse Orange, the Irish trailed for longer than was comfortable before pulling away. Even in that aforementioned Clemson win, the Irish notched only two offensive touchdowns in regulation against the Tigers. A defensive touchdown, four field goals and two scores in the overtime periods disguised a struggling offense against a Clemson defense missing several starters.

Then there was the ACC Championship Game, which finally threw those flaws into the limelight. That left the Irish awaiting the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide, a powerhouse who slammed absolutely everyone. Notre Dame simply never had the offense to keep up, and the game was really a formality past the first half. That 2020 team was really good, but it never really showed improvement throughout the year – there were dominant performances scattered throughout the schedule, but when it came down to it, Notre Dame, and particularly the offense, was not ready for the limelight. 

The Irish are ready for the CFP

2021 Notre Dame is ready. They’re trending upwards. They’ve improved as an offense despite losing top contributors to injury, and they’ve done the same on defense without their All-American safety. As the Irish round into their final form, they are a team that has been playing like one of the top squads in the country. 

So if you’re rooting for the Irish to finish 5th or 6th, just so they can get a more ‘winnable’ bowl game, kindly escort yourself out of the room. No Irish fan should be rooting for that – the focus for this program is winning the first national title since 1988. Regardless of what the media says, a Peach Bowl victory over some team with their stars opting out isn’t going to elevate the program. 

So root for the chaos needed because Notre Dame is deserving, and they want another crack at the Playoff. And you should want that too.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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