Heather DinichESPN Senior Writer
When asked after Notre Dame’s 36-3 win over Syracuse on Saturday whether his team should be included in the same conversation as No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson, coach Brian Kelly said the No. 3 Irish are “not interested in being compared.”
And yet, maybe unintentionally, he went on to do exactly that.
“Remember now,” Kelly said, “we’ve played the triple-option [offense].”
So has Alabama — on Saturday, in fact, when it was tied at 10 at the half with The Citadel before pulling away to a 50-17 win at home. Notre Dame beat Navy, a triple-option offense, 44-22 on Oct. 27 in San Diego.
“We’ve played a very physical team in Northwestern,” Kelly said.
So has No. 4 Michigan, which lost to Notre Dame in the season opener but escaped Northwestern 20-17. Notre Dame won 31-21 at NU.
“And then Florida State,” Kelly said, “and a spread offense in Syracuse.”
Just like … Clemson.
Clemson won at Florida State 59-10 and beat Syracuse at home 27-23 with the Tigers’ third-string quarterback. Notre Dame hammered Syracuse on Saturday in Yankee Stadium.
All that is not to draw comparisons, though that’s exactly what the College Football Playoff selection committee does when comparable teams play common opponents.
“I’ve lost to both of them,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said of Clemson and Notre Dame. “I don’t think it’s fair to talk about them. I will tell you this, though … Notre Dame is better than what people think they are.”
On Saturday, when nothing came easy for most of the playoff contenders during what was supposed to be a ho-hum week of lopsided results, Notre Dame upended the committee’s No. 12 team in convincing fashion and further cemented its place in the playoff.
The Orange entered the game averaging 44.4 points and had scored in 15 straight quarters but were held to just a field goal late in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame’s defense allowed Syracuse just 3.2 yards per play and 234 total yards — well below the Orange’s average of 482.2 yards.
“Defensively, I thought the plan was outstanding,” Kelly said. “We executed it flawlessly.”
With Saturday’s win, Notre Dame’s chance to reach the playoff jumped from 78 percent to 88 percent, according to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor. Notre Dame was the only top-10 team playing a ranked opponent on Saturday, and at the very least the Irish appeared to close the gap with Alabama and Clemson, though it’s unlikely their No. 3 position changes in the committee’s top 25 on Tuesday.
Notre Dame has just one game remaining, at rival USC (Nov. 24, 8 p.m. ET, ABC), but considering the Trojans are coming off a loss to 3-8 UCLA, the Irish should be a big favorite in that game.
“If they play the way they played us,” Babers said of the Irish, “they will probably have an opportunity to play for a national championship.”
According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, there’s a 71 percent chance the Irish win at USC next week. If they do, they’ll have a 98 percent chance to reach the playoff.
It’s a different Notre Dame than the one that was dismantled by Alabama 42-14 in the 2012 BCS national championship. It’s a different coaching staff, a different quarterback. Against Syracuse, Ian Book threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns after missing last week’s game with a rib injury. He has elevated not just Notre Dame’s offense, but also its place on the national stage. In spite of the success, there seems to be a reluctance throughout the country to embrace the possibility that Alabama-Notre Dame could happen again — likely because nobody wants to see a blowout on the sport’s biggest stage.
Alabama is still that good, probably better. Notre Dame 2012 vs. Notre Dame 2018?
Now that’s no comparison.
Five other things that happened Saturday that can affect the playoff race:
1. Oklahoma State 45, West Virginia 41. Oklahoma State rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit to knock the Mountaineers out of the playoff race, but WVU can still reach the Big 12 title game if it beats Oklahoma in the regular-season finale on Friday night (8 ET, ESPN). While a conference championship berth remains a goal for WVU, winning the Big 12 title would likely knock the entire conference out of the playoff, as the Sooners are the only one-loss contender remaining in the league. West Virginia’s chances of reaching the playoff dropped to 1 percent with Saturday’s loss.
2. Ohio State’s defense allowed 535 yards and seven touchdowns. And the bulk of it came from Maryland running back Anthony McFarland, who totaled 298 yards and two touchdowns. The Buckeyes never led in regulation but beat the Terps 52-51 in overtime, no thanks to their defense. For all of the criticism Oklahoma’s defense has gotten his season, Ohio State’s flaws were equally exposed by the Terps, and coach Urban Meyer called the defensive play “alarming.” If the Buckeyes are going to beat Michigan on Saturday in Columbus (noon ET, FOX), they’re going to need a major upgrade quickly — and not just defensively. Ohio State also had 10 penalties and three turnovers against the Terps.
3. Georgia backup QB Justin Fields gains valuable experience. This could impact the playoff race if Fields is used in certain situations to help knock off No. 1 Alabama in the SEC championship game. He certainly looked capable of it this week, albeit against an abysmal UMass defense, as Fields threw for 121 yards and ran for 100 yards. He is the first Georgia quarterback to run for 100 yards in a game since Quincy Carter against Kentucky in 1998.
4. Michigan has red zone woes. The Wolverines were in a too-close-for-comfort game against Indiana in large part because their offense sputtered in the red zone. Michigan was inside the Hoosiers’ 20-yard line seven times and scored just one touchdown. (Jake Moody did make a school-record six field goals.) As good as Michigan’s defense has been, the offense will have to be more productive against an Ohio State offense led by Dwayne Haskins.
5. UCF is still undefeated. While the Knights are unlikely to get into the top four, they should move into the top 10 with their win over No. 24 Cincinnati and No. 9 West Virginia’s loss to Oklahoma State. The question is how high they can climb, especially considering Ohio State’s struggles in its win against the Terps. As UCF moves, the New Year’s Six bowl picture will change.