NEW YORK — The chant began before the alma mater and picked up again after the final chords: “Beat ‘SC,” screamed the Notre Dame fans crowded into Yankee Stadium, already hyping up a rivalry mismatch that will determine whether the Fighting Irish will become the first team to punch its ticket to the College Football Playoff.
Third in the latest Playoff rankings, the Irish seem up to the challenge. Meanwhile, Southern California will limp into the season finale off a disheartening loss to UCLA, playing for bowl eligibility and, perhaps, for embattled head coach Clay Helton.
“Our guys know who they’re playing. They know what it will take,” said Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly.
The 36-3 win on Saturday against No. 12 Syracuse will impress the Playoff selection committee, which already holds the No. 3 Irish in high esteem, and may put a slight crack into the established train of thought that has defined an eventless regular season: that there are two great teams in college football, Alabama and Clemson, and then there’s everyone else.
“You can’t dismiss what they did,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “If they played the way they played against us they can win a national championship.”
The road into a semifinal is easy. Kelly feigned ignorance at the question — “I don't know that if we win our last game that we're going to the playoffs,” he said — but there is no doubt undefeated Notre Dame would at worst remain third in the final rankings, and based on its resume and success against Power Five competition would’ve earned a spot among the nation’s top four teams.
“We’re not interested in getting compared” with the two national frontrunners, Kelly said, but the comparison exists nonetheless. Notre Dame is clearly better than every team it has met since Michigan in the season opener — how that game would play out if played today is a matter of debate, though it’s ultimately meaningless. And Notre Dame is good enough to have earned a berth in the national semifinals. But are the Irish good enough to beat Alabama or Clemson? Notre Dame isn’t the only program to ask the question. But none are as close as the Irish to finding out the answer.
It’s hard to forget the program’s last foray into this conversation, a 42-10 dismantling at the hands of Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game that highlighted the enormous gap separating Notre Dame from college football’s current gold standard. The lasting memory isn’t of the final score, in fact, but of the full-team media availability in the days leading into kickoff: Notre Dame filed in first and was replaced by Alabama, and the difference in size and shape made it abundantly clear the Irish were lambs headed to slaughter.
There are takeaways from the Syracuse win that suggest Notre Dame could, in fact, run with the Tide and Tigers. The play of the defense bodes well for any hypothetical postseason matchup with a spread-based opponent: Syracuse had scored at least 40 points in each of its previous four games but was held to only a field goal, and a meaningless one at that, with little time left in the fourth quarter.
Junior quarterback Ian Book played well, throwing for just under 300 yards with a pair of touchdowns, in his first appearance since missing last week’s win against Florida State. Unheralded as a recruit, Book gives Notre Dame’s passing game the depth it would need to scare an Alabama or Clemson away from the line of scrimmage.
But there were also negatives, none greater than the number of red-zone opportunities wasted even in a lopsided contest decided before the end of the first quarter. The Irish scored on six of seven drives deep into Syracuse territory, but three ended in field goals; another scoring chance ended with Book, tripping on a teammate’s foot, tossing an interception in the end zone.
“We just have to be a little cleaner,” Kelly said,
It’s enough to feed into the doubt that exists around Notre Dame. Despite its enormous pedigree, the Irish remain interlopers in the Playoff chase — this program hasn’t finished in the top 10 of the Amway Coaches Poll since that 2012 season, and has lost at least four games in five of Kelly's nine seasons with the program. There simply isn’t an established sense of certainty when it comes to Notre Dame, in contrast to the set-in-stone dominance of an Alabama or Clemson.
“I’m sure there is (doubt),” said senior offensive lineman Sam Mustipher. “I really can’t give you an answer for that. Honestly, we really don’t care.”
Notre Dame players and coaches speak about a different program, one bolstered by fortuitous recruiting hits — Book and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman, for example — and rejuvenated by clever hires at offensive and defensive coordinator. With one last test to come, we’re about to find out just how far the Irish have come.
“Just because there’s one week left doesn’t mean the stakes have changed,” said wide receiver Chase Claypool. “We’re going in with the same mindset that we’ve been doing.”
Source: Read Full Article