Where can Notre Dame finish in the CFP?
Thomas Zwiller | Friday, November 3, 2023
Editor’s Note: An original version of this article stated that Notre Dame lost to Duke. This has been corrected. The Observer regrets this error.
On Tuesday, the CFP Ratings were released live on ESPN. And, as the rankings came in, Notre Dame fans saw their team ranked 15th overall, three spots lower than the team’s AP Poll ranking. Quite honestly, I don’t disagree too much with the ranking. At No. 15, the Irish are the second-best two-loss team, just behind LSU.
LSU has a better win in No. 12 Missouri than Notre Dame’s win over No. 20 USC. And the Tigers’ losses (No. 4 Florida State and No. 10 Ole Miss) are a bit better than Notre Dame’s losses to No.1 Ohio State and Louisville, with their best win coming against now-unranked Duke.
So, instead of trying to debate why Notre Dame should be, at best, a spot higher than they are, I thought it would be interesting to see how teams who began 15th in prior CFP polls finished out their season and see where Notre Dame could finish this year.
We are now in the 10th edition of the four-team CFP, meaning that nine teams can offer us a clue of where Notre Dame might finish in the final CFP Poll.
Starting in 2022 and moving backward: Penn State (6-2), BYU (7-2), Oregon (3-0), Notre Dame (6-2), Utah (6-2), Iowa State (6-2) Colorado (6-2), Oklahoma (7-1) and Nebraska (7-1).
Of those nine teams, only two finished the year unranked: the 2017 Iowa State team, who finished 8-5, and the 2014 Nebraska team, who finished 9-4.
Including our two dropout teams, five teams saw their final ranking lower than their initial ranking. In 2021, BYU finished No. 19 (10-2). The year prior, Oregon finished their COVID-shortened season 4-2 and fell to No. 25. And in 2018, Utah fell to No. 17 as they finished 9-4 on the year.
Three teams saw their ranking improve. Last year’s Penn State team finished No. 11, and 2016’s Colorado team finished No. 10. The best No. 15 in the history of the CFP is the 2015 Oklahoma team, who finished in the top 4.
The only team to maintain their initial ranking? The 2019 Notre Dame team that finished 10-2.
The first place to start is projecting how Notre Dame can actually finish out this season.
I don’t foresee an Iowa State or Nebraska finish in store for the Irish. Clemson will be a difficult opponent, and the Clemson defense can give a sluggish Irish offense some fits. But assuming Notre Dame can handle the Tigers, they should beat Wake Forest and Stanford to end the year 10-2.
That puts the Irish in good company, as all the teams who finished higher than 15 had a minimum of 10 wins.
Based on the historical data, I think the absolute ceiling for Notre Dame is No. 7
I know Oklahoma made its way into the CFP, but that Oklahoma team finished as an 11-1 Big 12 Champion. 2015 was before the Big 12 restored its Conference Championship game, giving Oklahoma a critical advantage.
So, can the Irish make the seventh spot? Here is what would have to happen.
First, there are two big SEC games this weekend.
No. 14 LSU @ No. 8 Alabama
The first big thing that needs to happen is Alabama knocking off the LSU Tigers. The Tigers are one spot above the Irish, but a third loss combined with their porous defense might drop them back into the high teens.
This likely means that Alabama would finish out their season 11-1, and they would face Georgia in the SEC Championship game.
No. 12 Missouri @ No. 2 Georgia
The next stepping stone would be a loss by Missouri. The Tigers currently sit at 12 with a loss to LSU, but a loss to Georgia and then No. 17 Tennessee a week later could send them right out of the rankings.
No. 10 Ole Miss @ No. 2 Georgia
Right around the time that Missouri would be losing to Tennessee, an Ole Miss loss to Georgia would help Notre Dame’s stock improve.
Ole Miss would now be a two-loss team whose best win comes against a lower-ranked LSU squad. With two games remaining against unranked teams, the Rebels would likely struggle to improve their ranking.
No. 3 Michigan @ No. 11 Penn State
Something that could really hurt Notre Dame’s chances of making it into the seventh spot would be a Penn State victory over Michigan. In all likelihood, it would keep both teams in the top 10 through the end of the year.
The best thing the Irish can hope for is a solid Michigan win, leaving Penn State 0-2 against top-25 teams. (Side note: Yes, I am asking you to root for Alabama and Michigan).
Conference Championship Weekend
Based on present rankings and my own predictions for the remainder of the season, I have Texas and Oklahoma playing for the Big 12.
It would be in Notre Dame’s interest to see Oklahoma lose a rematch against the Longhorns. Texas has, for much of the season, looked like the better team, and quite honestly, people have lost a lot of faith in the Sooners after their loss to Kansas.
I think the SEC and ACC ultimately have little impact on Notre Dame’s final ranking. I have a hard time seeing the Irish get ahead of a 2 loss against Louisville or Alabama.
The Pac-12, meanwhile, might be where Notre Dame can get ahead. Currently, ESPN’s FPI has No. 20 USC as a slight favorite to take down No. 5 Washington.
Not only would that boost Notre Dame’s resume, but it would also ensure that the Pac-12 champion is, at best, a one-loss team, meaning that Notre Dame could potentially sneak ahead of the loser (in my projections model, that would be Washington).
So, while, yes, I think the Irish are likely to finish in the top 10, I think replicating Penn State’s achievement of making it to seventh is a little unlikely. Optimistically, I think Notre Dame can make it to ninth, and realistically, they can make it to tenth.
Should Notre Dame lose to Clemson, I think they might repeat the 2019 team’s path and stay flat at No. 15, maybe at best sneaking up to No. 13.
And keep in mind that this would just be their CFP ranking. There is a decent chance that with a bowl game, Notre Dame could get into seventh in the AP Poll.
After finishing last year at No. 18 and 9-4 and starting this year at No. 13, a top-10 11-2, 10-3 finish would show that the program is improving under head coach Marcus Freeman.