Notre Dame is in playoff mode as it prepares to face its biggest rival — the USC Trojans — this weekend at Notre Dame Stadium. The Fighting Irish (5-1) bounced back with a 41-24 win over Navy last week after suffering their first loss of the season two weeks ago at Clemson.
Last week’s win over Navy was not Notre Dame’s most impressive victory of 2015, but the 41-24 decision is the most important to date, because it keeps Notre Dame’s hopes of getting back in the College Football Playoff conversation alive.
For more than four decades the Irish could all but pencil in a win over the Midshipmen before the season ever began, but that changed in 2007 when the Midshipmen snapped a 43-game losing streak to the Irish with a triple-overtime victory. Navy won three of the next four meetings between the schools in a series that has been continuous since 1927.
Despite some first half struggles against Navy’s triple-option offense, the Fighting Irish put the clamps down in the second half to hold the Mids to a season-low 318 rushing yards — 22 yards below their season average. Navy also managed just a field goal in the second half.
The Fighting Irish are 2-3 under Kelly in the game after playing Navy. They have dropped their past two such games, with their last victory coming in 2012 — a 20-17 squeaker over Purdue following a season-opening 50-10 win over the Midshipmen in Dublin, Ireland.
Brian Kelly is 3-2 in his first five match-ups with USC, but the Irish fell 49-14 in Los Angeles to close the regular season last year.
“That’s not our standard of play,” Kelly said this week of last year’s clunker. “So, I think everybody has used it as what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable and that standard of play is not acceptable.”
USC (3-2) is stinging after a 17-12 loss to Washington last week for its second loss in its last three games. Clay Helton, formerly USC’s offensive coordinator, will be at the helm for his first game as interim head coach after Steve Sarkisian was fired earlier this week. Helton will be the fourth coach in as many years to lead the Trojans against the Irish.
“Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best,” Kelly said of Southern Cal’s tumultuous situation. “I just reminded (his team) of that.”
The bigger picture as Notre Dame looks to get back in the hunt for one of the four College Football Playoff spots is murky and a lot is out of their control. That said, the two biggest stumbling blocks among the remaining six games are this Saturday’s game against the Trojans and the Nov. 28 regular season finale at No. 15 Stanford (4-1). The remaining four Irish opponents are against Temple (5-0), Pittsburgh (4-1), Wake Forest (3-3), and Boston College (3-3).
The only chance the Irish have to fight their way back into playoff consideration is to run the table, but they will also need the pieces to fall in place with teams in front of them. History is on their side though after one-loss Ohio State slipped into the No. 4 seed in the playoffs last year en-route to winning the national championship.
The one-loss Fighting Irish currently rank 14th in this week’s AP poll and they have 10 unbeaten teams ahead of them in the rankings. There are still six weeks to go in the regular season as well as a weekend of conference championship games to play and all but one of those teams — Utah (5-0) — plays at least one game against a fellow unbeaten opponent.
The key dates and games look like this:
Oct. 17 No. 6 LSU (5-0) vs. No. 8 Florida (6-0)
Nov. 7 No. 3 TCU (6-0) vs. No. 16 Oklahoma St. (6-0), No. 5 Clemson (5-0) vs. No. 11 Florida St. (5-0)
Nov. 21 Ohio State (6-0) vs. No. 7 Michigan State (6-0), Baylor vs. Oklahoma St.
Nov. 27 No. 2 Baylor (5-0) vs. TCU
Nov. 28 LSU vs. Texas A&M (5-0), Florida vs. Florida St.
The other X-factor that could throw a wrench into everyone’s CFP plans is Iowa (6-0). The Hawkeyes do not face either Michigan State or Ohio State during the regular season, but they do face Northwestern (5-1) this weekend. Iowa would potentially face either Michigan State or Ohio State in the Dec. 5 Big Ten Championship Game.