When the clock expired at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 28, Notre Dame's BCS hopes were immediately placed on life support.
Sitting at 3-2, the Irish were faced with the perilous task of running the table to qualify for the BCS and avoid slipping into the murky waters of gaining access to a lower-tier bowl game despite lacking any formal bowl tie-ins. Four weeks later, head coach Brian Kelly and Co. have delivered three consecutive victories and remain in control of their own destiny to the BCS.
Whether that aspiration will manifest itself in an invitation to a BCS game remains to be seen, though the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Irish are now black and white.
Coming off a dominating performance during a 45-10 victory at Air Force Saturday, the Irish crept into the season's second batch of BCS rankings at No. 25.
In order to gain BCS at-large eligibility, Notre Dame must climb at least 11 spots to No. 14 by Dec. 1, when the final BCS rankings are released. In order to do so, the formula is simple: The Irish must win each of their four remaining contests against Navy, Pittsburgh, BYU and Stanford.
The scheduling of the Midshipmen immediately following Air Force was a fortunate coincidence (was it a coincidence?), as defending the triple-option offense is a unique challenge that deviates from the preparation for defending more conventional offenses.
In a best-case scenario, the Irish would return to Notre Dame Stadium and piece together another sound performance in another convincing victory against a service academy. Following that, Notre Dame would travel to Heinz Field to play a Pittsburgh team that nearly ruined the Irish's undefeated season a year ago, but this time avenging that scare in a comfortable victory.
The two most formidable challenges loom after Notre Dame's date with the Panthers.
A sneaky-good BYU team makes its second trip to Notre Dame Stadium in as many years, while BCS No. 5 Stanford hosts Notre Dame one year after losing a dramatic overtime game in the rain in South Bend, Ind., last season.
In a perfect world, Notre Dame would convince voters it belongs in the BCS by earning statement victories against both the Cougars and Cardinal, ultimately receiving its desired BCS invitation, with the Fiesta Bowl or Sugar Bowl being the Irish's most likely landing spots.
Also in this best-case scenario, Notre Dame would be aided by its strongest opponents—Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State and Stanford—strengthening its schedule by piling up victories.
After having reached college football's national championship game for the first time in 24 years last season, expectations for Notre Dame, which are astronomical annually, ballooned entering the current season.
With a return to the BCS National Championship out of reach, failing to reach a lesser BCS bowl game would be debilitating given preseason aspirations of both the team and its fanbase. Remember when Kelly included the 2014 title game on the schedule board in the team's main meeting room in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex?
Ending the season in a non-BCS bowl game would be quite the dramatic fall from grace for the Irish program, and that's exactly what CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm projects.
Palm, whose title is that of BCS Expert, has slotted Notre Dame to the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers three days after Christmas at Yankee Stadium in New York, N.Y.
The prospect of that prediction becoming a reality depends on the Irish losing just one game down the home stretch. Given how both Pittsburgh and BYU played Notre Dame last season—the Panthers and Cougars each fell to the Irish by three points—the possibility of either team springing an upset is very much in play.
And a victory against a well-coached, consistent Stanford team persists to appear as a long shot, particularly with the game being played at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., in prime time.
If Notre Dame were to suffer the worst-case scenario, it would enter its season finale against the Cardinal sitting at 9-2, with a chance at BCS eligibility still very much alive. A loss to third-year head coach David Shaw's squad in that circumstance would be quite disheartening for a team clinging to palpable hope.
During the preseason, I, along with many others, surmised that Notre Dame's contest at Stanford could very well be a de facto playoff game for the final BCS National Championship Game.
Clearly, such a potential circumstance no longer exists, as both teams are out of the championship hunt.
But for Notre Dame, the game could still present a do-or-die scenario, as I think it will with the Irish entering at 9-2 and sitting pretty for an invitation to either the Fiesta or Sugar Bowl. But given Stanford's ability to stop the run—the Cardinal rank 13th nationally against the run—Shaw and Co. seem to have the edge.
The loss would drop the Irish to 9-3 on the season and force the team to choose between a few different openings in lower-tier bowl games, most likely of which being the Pinstripe Bowl as Palm predicted.
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