Yep, that's the game. I'm studying my crystal ball tinted blue and gold, and Notre Dame's chances for shocking even itself by reaching the College Football Playoff will involve one of the remaining four home games for the Fighting Irish. No, not that one against the folks with the Trojan horse, but the one featuring historically toothless North Carolina State.I'm glancing deeper into that crystal ball, and here's what Notre Dame will do against the Wolfpack ...
OK, I'm still looking. I'll have an answer by the end of this column. Until then, consider why the 16th-ranked Irish suddenly possess more than a fleeting chance of going from last year's 4-8 disaster to playing in the national championship game for a second time in six years. They'll settle for reaching college football's Final Four, and I'm guessing a trip to a huge New Year's Day bowl wouldn't totally reek for these guys and the Irish Nation.
Keep all of this quiet, by the way. Now that Notre Dame is easing into the national psyche for a slew of reasons, Irish coach Brian Kelly hinted he wishes he could lock his players in the basement of the building that sits below the Golden Dome and just bring them out on game days. Even so, with Notre Dame moving up five spots this week in the Associated Press Poll, the Irish are making it difficult to hide with a blistering rushing attack led by the college game's best offensive line, a run-stuffing front seven that joins a secondary in creating turnovers like crazy and an epidemic of blowout victories along the way to a 5-1 record.
To hear Kelly tell it, he and his assistants spend as much time these days shaping the minds as well as the bodies of their players.
"You know, I think we try to keep them really grounded on, you know, their preparation from week-to-week," Kelly said of his team whose only loss was by one point at home in the second game of the season to No. 4 Georgia, and the Bulldogs have remained undefeated by obliterating the rest of its opponents, including three SEC foes in a row. Given Georgia's post-South Bend dominance, Notre Dame looks even better, but Kelly doesn't want his players going anywhere near there. Which is why he added, "I think that that's what really has gotten us to the point we're at right now is their preparation, their mindset of high-performance Saturdays, one at a time."
That's Kelly Speak for "one game at a time," but let's take one reason at a time for Notre Dame's explosion into goodness and beyond. In fact, let's start with Georgia's plethora of studs in its offensive backfield. Thanks to future NFL top draft picks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the Bulldogs are 11th in the country in rushing offense, and No. 1 Alabama is seventh with its typically bruising running attack. That said, guess who uses rising superstar Josh Adams and a bunch of other impressive runners behind the best OL this side of the Dallas Cowboys to trail only ground-oriented teams such as Army and Navy at No. 6 among FBS members in rushing offense? Here's a hint: It's the same team that is flourishing in the most overlooked category for success in college football called "turnovers gained."
I'm talking about Notre Dame in both cases. While Penn State and Central Michigan top the FBS at 17 in turnovers gained, the Irish are tied for seventh-place at 14. Just so you know, all four CFP teams last season were ranked 10th or higher in this category. You can attribute Notre Dame's drastic turnaround regarding turnovers gained (the Irish were 104th nationally last season at 14 for the whole year) to the hiring of Mike Elko. During the previous three years, he was Wake Forest's defensive coordinator and turnover guru, but he now has that dual role with the Irish. In addition to Elko turning Notre Dame's defense into a ball-hawking unit that has its secondary playing the best it has in years, its front seven has combined with the defensive backfield to allow just one rushing touchdown, the lowest total among FBS teams.
Elsewhere, parts of Notre Dame's special teams were shaky last year, but they're steady this season. About the only negative thing you can say about the Irish so far is that their passing game is invisible. Brandon Wimbush has been your typical first-year starting quarterbacks with a slew of inconsistencies despite his gifted legs and arm. Then there are questions about Notre Dame's depth at wide receiver beyond Equanimeous St. Brown. As a result, the Irish are 115th out of 130 FBS teams in passing offense. Then again, Alabama is 101th, and Georgia is 119th, and they aren't exactly suffering on the field or in the rankings.
But I'm sure you're wondering what I'm thinking about the North Carolina State game, and what's that, you say? Between now and the Wolfpack coming to Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 28, the Irish will play another foe? I know. It's those folks with that Trojan horse, and with a quarterback who frequently showed the Irish last season that he can throw a little, and with two blowout victories over Notre Dame during the past three years. Should the Irish upset that Southern Cal bunch I just described and then survive North Carolina State, they'll have three games left against nationally ranked teams. They'll also meet Wake Forest with its 4-2 record and inside knowledge of Elko.
Regardless, I'm sticking with North Carolina State as the key game for Notre Dame the rest of the way, which brings me to one of the biggest reasons the Irish could finish 11-1 with a trip to the CFP: It's their ridiculously challenging but strangely manageable schedule. Here's the rest of their games in order, and I'll give you Notre Dame's prospects in each one:
Southern California: The Trojans still have that horse, quarterback Sam Darnold and his potent right arm and a fancy ranking (13th), but they don't have health at wide receiver and elsewhere. Plus, while Southern Cal players get more beat up Saturday night at home against 4-1 Utah, Notre Dame players will lounge around campus during a bye week. Advantage, Irish.
North Carolina State: Um, I'll get back to you.
Wake Forest: All four victories for the unranked Demon Deacons were against nobodies worth mentioning. You could say this is a trap game for Notre Dame, especially with Southern Cal and N.C. State before it and a road game in the aftermath at Miami, but I'm thinking about this: Just as Wake Forest players are familiar with Elko, the same is true of the coach who knows the good and the bad of those he helped recruit to the Deacons. Advantage, Elko/Irish.
At Miami: Under Mark Richt, the No. 11 Hurricanes are flirting with their glory days of yore, but they aren't there yet. They had the high last week of crushing archrival Florida State in the last seconds on the road, but they had the low of a season-ending ankle injury to Mark Walton, their catalyst at running back. Advantage, Irish.
Navy: Uh-oh. As somebody who was born and raised in South Bend with Notre Dame in his soul, I'm sick of this game every year. If the Irish beat Navy, they're supposed to do so. If they lose, well, not good. With the No. 25 Midshipmen's crazy triple-option offense in full gear last season, the Irish rarely had the ball in the second half along the way to defeat. Notre Dame's offense is significantly better, and so is Notre Dame, period. Advantage (barely), Irish.
At Stanford: Uh-oh, Part II. The No. 23 Cardinal own the Irish. During their last eight meetings, Stanford has six victories. Now running back Bryce Love wishes to replace Christian McCaffery, Austin Hooper, Andrew Luck and many others as a potential Notre Dame killer. But after all of those brutal losses for the Irish in Palo Alto during the past decade, I have this feeling. Advantage, Irish.
Now back to North Carolina State, which is The Trap Game for Notre Dame. The Wolfpack's No. 20 ranking is because of its upset victories over Florida State and Louisville, both top-20 teams at the time the Wolfpack handled them. This North Carolina State game also comes after what always is an emotional time for Notre Dame against USC. It's just that it's wonderful for the Irish this year that they lost at North Carolina State last season during hurricane-like conditions. The Irish's cause wasn't helped back then in Raleigh, where Kelly called a steady diet of pass plays that couldn't slice through the howling winds. That means Notre Dame will have that revenge thing going for it this time against the Wolfpack, and except for when Miami comes to town, there are no hurricanes in South Bend. Chip Long also calls plays for Notre Dame this season instead of Kelly, and Long has a love affair with running, running and running some more these days for obvious reasons (see above).
In sum, in order for those involved with Notre Dame to make the playoff, they have to use their considerable strengths and ignore their few weaknesses to go undefeated through Thanksgiving Weekend with the nation's toughest schedule, and then they must hope the selection committee doesn't pick somebody like a one-loss conference champion over them.
One more thing: The Irish also need to spend a lot of time on their campus at The Grotto, where folks light candles for miracles.