The Journal Gazette
Saturday, November 27, 2021 1:00 am

Irish must win to make case for spot in playoff

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Kyren Williams doesn't have cable. 

That precludes the Notre Dame running back from watching the College Football Playoff rankings show on ESPN each Tuesday. He insists he doesn't pay any mind to his team's ranking anyway.

“No, nah,” Williams said, emphatically shaking his head, when asked if he looks at the polls.

“I wouldn't say I don't care, it's just not something I worry about,” Williams said. “We've been told since the summer, if we play the way we do, we stay true to who we are, we're going to be exactly where we want to at the end of the season. I firmly believe that. ... I'm always going to work, that's all it is, I'm not worried about our rankings.”

For Williams' information, the Irish (10-1) checked in at No. 6 in the CFP poll ahead of their regular-season finale on the road against Stanford (3-8) today. If Notre Dame can get past the Cardinal and finish 11-1, it will put itself in the conversation for a third appearance in four years in college football's four-team, year-end extravaganza, a possibility that looked beyond remote after the Irish lost to Cincinnati in early October.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly insisted his team is focused on Stanford, but admitted the playoff is the long-term goal.

“I just think that it's always part of the bigger picture,” Kelly said. “You're always thinking in terms of one game at a time, but you're always trying to build your football team to be there at the end. ... That's really it. We don't talk about it, but we're always going to work every day thinking about building our football team to be that kind of team in November.”

If the Irish finish 11-1, they could face competition for the fourth CFP spot from a few teams, most notably the winner of tonight's clash between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which would enter the Big 12 championship game next week with one loss. 

Notre Dame could also be bumped if the playoff committee decides Alabama is among the nation's four best teams even if the Crimson Tide loses to Georgia in the SEC title game. A Tide win in that game might end Notre Dame's hopes for a spot instantly.

Notre Dame began to make its case with a 55-0 win over Georgia Tech last week that demonstrated the team's growth since the start of the season. On Monday, Kelly made his team's case more explicit, listing consistency, growth, offensive and defensive balance, a shutout win near the end of the season and potentially nine wins against Power Five conference opponents as bullet points on Notre Dame's résumé. 

“Look, at the end of the day, we're going to be right here at the end and you know how this is going to play out,” Kelly said. “We have to beat Stanford. Regardless of what that looks like, it's not going to be played as, 'Oh, that was a signature win.' We think a lot of Stanford. We know their personnel. But it's not going to be perceived that way.

“So, we're gonna have to go beat Stanford, play well, and then rely on what happens in front of us. We lost that control when we lost to Cincinnati. But we've done everything else, and we'll have to do that when we play a really good Stanford team. We're going to have to beat them.”

As for Williams, his lack of concern about Notre Dame's final ranking does not stop him from making the case for the Irish.

“We're all playing complementary football and coming together, showing the world who we are and what we do when we play football,” the redshirt sophomore running back said.

They have to show it one more time and then cross their fingers.

Notre Dame at Stanford

When: 8 p.m. today

Where: Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, Calif.

Records: No. 5 Notre Dame (10-1), Stanford (3-8)

TV: Fox

Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM

3 storylines

Struggling Stanford: Notre Dame has been in this position before: in 2015 the Irish were one win from a likely spot in the College Football Playoff, but the Cardinal defeated them 38-36 in the regular-season finale, ending those hopes. This year Stanford is 3-8 and with a loss to the Irish would finish the season with the worst record of the 11-year David Shaw era. The Cardinal beat then-No. 3 Oregon on Oct. 2 but have since reeled off six straight losses. Stanford is unranked, and the Irish have beaten 41 straight unranked opponents, the longest active streak in the FBS.

Defense dominating: Notre Dame's defense, which struggled to contain big plays early in the season, has gotten increasingly comfortable under coordinator Marcus Freeman. In the last three games, the Irish have surrendered nine total points and zero touchdowns, the first time they have gone three straight games without giving up a touchdown since 2012.

Thanksgiving feast for Irish run game?: Notre Dame's run game has come alive late in the season after a difficult start, picking up 208 yards per game in its last six contests. Lead back Kyren Williams needs only 79 yards to surpass 1,000 on the ground for the second straight season, which would make him the first Irish running back to accomplish the feat since Darius Walker did it in 2005 and 2006.

Prediction: No. 5 Notre Dame 33, Stanford 10

- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette

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