By SAMANTHA DESMOND
The College Football Playoff Selection committee doesn’t have the Irish feeling very lucky.
Brian Kelly and his one-loss squad are again facing a long and arduous road to clinch that fourth playoff spot, with Auburn and Oregon currently ranked third and fourth, respectively.
Situated again at No. 10, Notre Dame comes off a too close for comfort victory over Navy and is preparing to face off against a tough Arizona State squad, currently ranked No. 9 in the playoff rankings. The rankings do not lie – Notre Dame must win out the remainder of the season if they have a prayer of scratching the playoff bubble.
The Irish are one of many one-loss teams in the hunt, but their lone loss at Florida State remains the most impressive, and controversial, among the rest of the pack. The four-point defeat against the Seminoles is an unfortunate black mark on an otherwise solid season resume.
To make matters worse, Notre Dame’s failure to put Navy away early surely resonated with the selection committee. Factor in wins against Stanford and Michigan, both underachieving programs this season, and the Irish have less of a case for the playoffs. Call it the curse of remaining an independent in a sport dominated by a number of competitive conferences.
The fact is that Notre Dame has zero margin for error against Pac-12 and SEC powerhouses that are, because of their reputation, almost certain to snatch up one of the four coveted spots. Why? Because despite one of the most storied and rich traditions in college football, Notre Dame rarely, if ever, wins arguments based on strength of schedule.
Michigan and Stanford should have been gold stars on the current season’s record, but both lack the finesse Notre Dame needs at this stage in the game.
Notre Dame faces a prime opportunity against the Sun Devils, who jumped Notre Dame after surging five spots in the playoff rankings. It won’t be easy, with the Sun Devils carrying impressive talent in redshirt junior wide receiver, Jaelen Strong, a recovered quarterback, Taylor Kelly, and an electrified defensive unit that has allowed only an average of 13.3 points per game in the last three games.
If the Irish hope to steal playoff hopes away from the Sun Devils, the stalwart Brian VanGorder defense needs to shake off a difficult stretch where they have allowed an average of 37.6 points per game in the last three games. That won’t get it done against a healthy Kelly, and an explosive Strong, who has snatched 57 receptions for 821 yards and eight touchdowns on the year. With star linebacker Joe Schmidt sidelined with a season-ending fractured and dislocated left ankle, Notre Dame goes into the weekend without their defensive signal-caller, making the matchup against the No. 22 Sun Devils offense a juicy one.
The Irish will lean on their rock, Everett Golson, who, despite a pesky seven interceptions, has thrown for 22 touchdowns and run for another seven touchdowns on the year. His explosive play has clearly been a catalyst for the Irish, who went undefeated in 2012, before imploding in the championship, and suffered a 9-4 season without him in 2013. Golson will be a genuine dual threat against the Sun Devils, who will surely look to contain his ability to extend plays with his legs.
Notre Dame will also need another solid performance from running back Tarean Folston and the Irish backfield to spread Arizona State thin. Folston has been the featured back for the Irish in the past few games, opening up the field for leading receiver Will Fuller and the Notre Dame receiving corps, which has seen increased productivity from C.J. Prosise and a towering Corey Robinson. A well-rounded Notre Dame attack will be critical against Arizona State.
This weekend will be critical for the Irish, with the matchup against the Sun Devils carrying elimination implications. Kelly knows his squad cannot afford a loss in the final stretch of the season, and the battle against Arizona State will certainly set the tone for the sprint to the College Football Playoffs. I think I speak for Irish fans everywhere when I say that a bowl game for 2014 simply is not enough.
Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame… Onward to victory.