After finishing 4-8 last season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish entered this year as an afterthought. In fact, most of the preseason talk around the Irish was whether Brian Kelly would remain head coach until 2018.
But in just six weeks, the feeling around the Notre Dame football program is quite different. The Irish finished the first half of 2017 at 5-1, giving them more victories than they had all of last fall.
And even with one loss, Notre Dame has positioned themselves to be a College Football Playoff contender. Here are five reasons why:
1. Strong Strength of Schedule
The ESPN FPI only gives Notre Dame a 9.9 percent chance of winning the rest of its games, which must be done for the Irish to make the playoffs. That’s not very likely, but should they accomplish the feat, they will have certainly earned it.
In their last six games, the Irish play five ranked opponents – No. 11 Miami, No. 13 USC, No. 20 N.C. State, No. 23 Stanford and No. 25 Navy. Those opponents have a combined record of 27-6.
Without a conference title to win, Notre Dame will have to wow the committee in other ways. Getting through that back-nine slate would certainly give the Irish an impressive resume.
2. Michigan State on the Rise
In the first six games, Notre Dame didn’t beat anybody ranked. At least that’s the way it stood until this week.
But after beating Michigan on the road this past Saturday, Michigan State is ranked at No. 21 in the AP Top 25. In Week 3, Notre Dame handily defeated Michigan State by 20 at East Lansing.
That means the more noise the Spartans make in the Big Ten East, the better that early victory will look for Notre Dame. The same can be said for if the Irish beat Miami or USC, both of whom are competing for division titles in their respective conferences.
3. Good Loss Against Georgia
There is no such thing as a good loss to a coach or fan. But if a team has to suffer a defeat, it’s always going to look better if it’s to a good team.
Should Notre Dame finish 11-1, it’s going to be hard finding a team with a better “good loss” than the Irish. Although it was at home, Notre Dame fell to No. 4 Georgia by just a point.
Similar to Michigan State, if Georgia continues its strong success, it’s going to give Notre Dame a stronger resume.
4. No Conference Championship Game
In theory, conference championship games give teams an extra opportunity to make their case to the committee on a weekend when there are far fewer games. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Should the conference favorite lose its championship, especially to a big underdog, then it complicates matters for the committee. For instance, who knows what would have happened if Virginia Tech had beaten Clemson in the ACC Championship a year ago. The Hokies probably wouldn’t have made it, but there’s at least a decent chance that the Tigers wouldn’t have either, and then Clemson would have never won the National Championship.
Notre Dame doesn’t have to worry about this issue. In fact, Irish fans may be rooting for some of those upsets on Championship Saturday in order to make more room for the 1-loss Fighting Irish.
5. Imposing Running Game
The last reason has to do with Notre Dame’s ability to crush the opponents’ will. With 308.0 rushing yards per game, the Fighting Irish are ranked sixth in the nation in rushing. Their even better in rushing yards per attempt, as their 6.9 yards per carry ranks second in the country. Plus, they have 23 rushing touchdowns, which is third-best overall.
Junior running back Josh Adams has led the way, averaging a ridiculous 9.02 yards per carry. He leads the team with 776 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns.
But first-year quarterback Brandon Wimbush has the most rushing touchdowns for Notre Dame with 8. He has also chipped in 402 yards on the ground.
That duel-threat should only continue to improve once Wimbush is healthy again. Once the weather gets cold, strong rushing attacks usually win college football games, and Notre Dame has one of the best running games in the country.
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