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Could a 1-loss Notre Dame make the College Football Playoff?

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The dawn of a new college football season is upon us. Hawaii-Cal this Friday is the only game this weekend, but a full slate of college games will inundate TVs and whet fervent fans’ appetites the following weekend.

Plenty of marquee matchups are part of the Labor Day Weekend action. Alabama-USC, Oklahoma-Houston, UCLA-Texas A&M, LSU-Wisconsin, Georgia-North Carolina, Kansas State-Stanford, Clemson-Auburn, Ole Miss-Florida State, and Notre Dame-Texas are all included on the Week 1 slate.

These games will go a long way toward determining which four teams end up in the College Football Playoff at the end of the season. Also consider this: They all but guarantee that when those four invitations are made in December, there likely won’t be an unbeaten team playing for the national championship.

What does that mean for Notre Dame? The Fighting Irish came within seconds of possibly getting into the playoffs last year before a last-second loss to Stanford cost them their shot at the playoff. (They wouldn’t have been a lock to get in, but they would have forced a debate with fourth-seeded Oklahoma.)

So, what happens this year if Notre Dame and each of the Power Five conference champions all stand with one loss when playoff invitations are extended? Can Notre Dame get into the playoffs in that scenario?

The answer to that question is … probably.

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“Probably” probably isn’t the answer anyone is looking for, but the brief two-year history of the CFP Committee has shown that the human element in both selections and seedings is far more subjective than the rigid computer-based BCS selections.

Just two years ago a 13-0 Florida State team was the No. 3 seed in the CFP with one-loss teams Alabama and Oregon 1-2 in the seedings.

Things were more straightforward last year, with 13-0 Clemson as the No. 1 seed and one-loss teams Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma also making the playoffs.

The subjectivity of the process would seem to favor Notre Dame if the Fighting Irish enter a group of one-loss candidates at the end of this season.

The committee showed last year that it places a high value on playing a tough schedule and playing well — even in a loss — on the road. The committee had Clemson No. 1 in its first CFP standings last year, and Notre Dame benefited from that through late November.

The Irish lost 24-22 at Clemson on Oct. 3 in monsoon-like conditions, and that stood as their only loss until a Thanksgiving weekend loss to Stanford. That close loss to Clemson had the Irish at No. 5 when the first CFP rankings were released after Week 10 last season.

Unbeaten teams Baylor, Michigan State, TCU and Iowa were ranked 6-9 behind the 7-1 Fighting Irish at that time, with fellow Power Five conference teams Florida, Stanford, Oklahoma, and Florida State (each with one loss) ranked in the 10-to-16 range.

Notre Dame moved into the No. 4 spot a week later and held that spot for two weeks before unimpressive wins over Wake Forest and Boston College caused the Irish to slip in the rankings.

Most of what should be the toughest games the Irish will play this season (Michigan State, Stanford and Miami) are at home, so they aren’t likely to get the kind of boost they got from the road loss at Clemson last year.

The Fighting Irish do open the season at Texas, though, and they finish at USC. Those teams have spent the better part of the last decade on the outside of any conversation that includes them as college football powers, but they are both in Power Five conferences.

Wins over both of those teams are a must if the Irish want to play in either the Peach or Fiesta Bowl in this year’s national semifinals, but if either of those teams has just one loss in mid-November, the Irish’s cause will be helped, not hurt.

29 November 2014: USC Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith (9) catches a pass during an NCAA football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA.

29 November 2014: USC Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith (9) catches a pass during an NCAA football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA.

Subjectivity will still figure prominently into the conversation, but if the Fighting Irish have just one loss after their Nov. 26 regular season finale at Southern California, they should (assuming that one loss is not to the Trojans) find themselves in the CFP on Dec. 31. Wins over Stanford and USC would very likely push the Pac-12 out of the playoff. If Houston doesn’t go unbeaten this season, Notre Dame won’t have to worry about the Group of Five representative in this pursuit. That would leave just one other conference champion the Irish would have to leapfrog.

As long as the teams on Notre Dame’s schedule don’t struggle — as Texas and especially Georgia Tech did last season — the Irish would be hard to exclude from the playoff. Arguments against the Irish will lack a convincing and clear component.

Let the games begin. The debates will follow soon enough. It’s up to the Irish to play well enough to stay in those debates on the first weekend of December.

Could a 1-loss Notre Dame make the College Football Playoff?

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