College Football Playoff Notebook: Syracuse Is Your Season, Notre Dame

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2018

Notre Dame's Ian Book celebrates as he scores a touchdown against Northwestern during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Jim Young)
Jim Young/Associated Press

Two more wins.

That's what separates Notre Dame from its first College Football Playoff berth. The Fighting Irish, who have held Top Four rankings in each release of the CFP poll and are currently No. 3, hold a 10-0 record with Syracuse and USC left on the schedule.

But, if we're being honest, could USC actually pull off the upset?

While the 5-5 Trojans stagger toward the finish, their lone redeeming hope is that Notre Dame must travel to Los Angeles. Otherwise, there are few meaningful stats in which USC leads the Irish. Everything on paper says Notre Dame wins handily.

Yes, games aren't won on paper. Maybe it happens; college football gets weird like that. However, picking the upset would be based purely on hope rather than evidence.

That's not the case for No. 12 Syracuse.

SYRACUSE, NY - OCTOBER 20:  Syracuse Orange players and head coach Dino Babers run onto the field before the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Carrier Dome on October 20, 2018 in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse defeats North Carolina in overti
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Dino Babers has reinvigorated this program, helping the Orange record eight wins for the first time since 2012 and the third time in nine seasons. Syracuse last celebrated 10 victories in 2001which was also the most recent nine-win campaign.

And it's all about the offense.

The Orange rank seventh nationally with 44.4 points per game and rely heavily on pace to overwhelm their competition. They've run the third-most plays in the Football Bowl Subdivision, averaging 82.2 per game while tallying a commendable 5.9 yards per snap.

Syracuse is the most explosive offense Notre Dame will have encountered in 2018, and it's really not even that close. The Irish have been fortunate to avoid any big-play units this season.

Expectations remain high for head coach Brian Kelly's squad. Per OddsShark, Notre Dame is a 10-point favorite for the neutral-site showdown at Yankee Stadium. Ian Book, the quarterback responsible for the team's surge, is slated to return after missing one game.

One slip, however, would doom the Irish.

Earlier in the year, it seemed Notre Dame might have a chance to slide into the CFP with an 11-1 record. That demanded a second loss by Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Georgia. At this point, that's an improbable scenario.

According to ESPN.com's Seth Walder, their projection model says the Irish are the least likely to reach the CFP if they, Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Oklahoma and Georgia all hold one-loss records.

While the eye test is subjective, these eyes agree with the numbers. Disregard the homers and haters, and the conclusion is generally the same: Notre Dame is an impressive team that is short of elite.

But a 12-0 Fighting Irish squad isn't missing the College Football Playoff.

Feel free to debate Notre Dame's ceiling all you like. Alabama and Clemson appear to be on a collision course for Round IV, Michigan is even more improved than the Irish since the two met in September, and Oklahoma's offense is sensational.

Yet if Notre Dame clips Syracuse, we'll watch Book and Co. in the CFP. And then, the season-long favorite will be the underdog. It's reasonable to expect Notre Dame would hold the lowest odds to win the national championship of all four qualifiers.

Getting there, though, is half of the battle. Saturday's result should determine whether Notre Dame fulfills that part of it.

                                                 

Trap-Game Alert

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Apologies in advance for not worrying about Alabama's home game against The Citadel or Georgia's contest against Massachusetts in Athens. Oklahoma's date with Kansas isn't exactly problematic either.

Washington State and West Virginia are on high alert.

Arizona heads to Pullman with a healthy Khalil Tate at quarterback. Since missing the Wildcats' loss to UCLA and resting an injured ankle, he's recaptured some of the breakout form he showed in 2017. You know, when he thrashed the Cougs for 421 yards in a 58-37 win.

No. 8 Washington State is already a long shot for the CFP, but it cannot afford a second loss. The same goes for No. 9 West Virginia.

Fortunately for the Mountaineers, a road clash pits their explosive offense against a porous Oklahoma State secondary. The Pokes have allowed 20 passing touchdowns and picked off only five passes.

But West Virginia has struggled defensively in true road games this season, giving up 30-plus points to Texas Tech, Iowa State and Texas. No other opponent has surpassed 22.

Lose in Stillwater, and CFP dreams vanish.

                                    

Tuneups for Michigan, Ohio State

Tony Ding/Associated Press

As long as No. 4 Michigan and No. 10 Ohio State navigate moderately difficult opponents in Week 12, The Game could hardly have higher stakes.

Michigan is set to challenge Indiana, which has given the Wolverines some trouble throughout Jim Harbaugh's tenure as head coach. They escaped with overtime wins in 2015 and 2017 and mustered a 10-point victory with a backup quarterback in 2016.

However, this is a different Michigan offense. It has scored 38-plus points seven times. That's something the unit hadn't accomplished since the school's 9-0 start in 2016. It'd take a massive letdown for Indiana's 86th-ranked defense (5.9 yards allowed per play) to legitimately test the Wolverines.

Ohio State's efficiency has regressed considerably during the last month, yet a trip to Maryland isn't worrisome. The Terps just lost starting quarterback Kasim Hill to a torn left ACL.

Maryland has mostly played competent defense, so the Buckeyes may be tested. That's probably a good thing, since Ohio State's explosiveness has dipped steadily. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins and Co. desperately need to rediscover those big plays before Michigan heads to Columbus to close the season.

But the expectation is both Michigan and Ohio State will hold 10-1 records for the annual clash. The winner faces No. 22 Northwestern on Dec. 1 for the Big Ten championship with a CFP trip at stake.

It could only be more exciting if U-M and OSU were undefeated.

                                                        

UCF Not a Contender but Breaking Records

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

A little bit of history is potentially at stake when Central Florida hosts No. 24 Cincinnati in a massive American Athletic Conference tilt.

Should the Knights win and improve to 10-0, they'll be in the position to become the first Group of Five program to earn a Top 10 ranking in the College Football Playoff poll. It's not guaranteedespecially if Syracuse beats Notre Damebut it's possible.

This week, UCF broke its own record as the No. 11 team in the rankings. Before UCF held a No. 12 standing in the final poll of 2017 and each of 2018's first two releases, the previous mark was Memphis at No. 13 in the initial 2015 ranking.

Look, it stinks that quarterback McKenzie Milton and a dynamic offense have no real opportunity to claim a Top Four spot. The Knights rank seventh nationally in yards per play (7.06) and eighth in scoring (44.2), earning eight double-digit wins in nine games.

They'd prefer a chance to prove themselves like Notre Dame, which would be a CFP underdog despite an undefeated record. Setting records for the Group of Five is not a meaningful consolation.

But UCF is raising the bar.

                                     

Stats from NCAA.comcfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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