Irish can make good playoff case, but that road is filled with peril

Do you think Notre Dame can wake up the echoes and run the gauntlet of a dangerous schedule right into the College Football Playoff?

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It probably depends on what you think of Brian Kelly.

If ND wins out, an 11-1 mark puts it in the discussion for one of the four playoff berths, and very deserving of a slot—although time will tell if there are four teams that are more deserving.

I will say this, though: At 11-1, the Irish would be every bit as accomplished as the 2012 Notre Dame that went 12-0, and earned the right to be clobbered by Alabama in the national championship game. At least this ND loss to playoff-worthy Georgia was nip-and-tuck.

The redemption potential for Kelly this autumn is immense. Heading out of last season’s 4-8 messiness, and into this season, there was speculation that he might be shown the `Play Like a Champion’ door if the Irish didn’t bounce back this year—and never mind that lengthy contract extension.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

What a wild ride Kelly has already had as ND coach.

When the speculation started in 2009 that Kelly was likely to be the next Irish coach, I thought he was a perfect fit. He had the name, the brashness, the resume and the strategic coaching skills to restore an historic program.

Illinois played at Cincinnati late in ’09, but that was one of the few Illini football games I missed during my 25-year orange-and-blue run.

Illinois—which was bumping along to a 3-9 record that year, the most dismal of the Ron Zook ``era''—played Kelly’s Bearcats in Cincy on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, the Illini basketball team was ranked 20th and playing two games in Las Vegas that weekend.

The choice was a no-brainer. I watched Kelly take apart Illinois 49-36 from Sin City with some Illini media friends and boosters. Can’t remember whether we were at New York, New York or Paris. I just know it wasn’t Cincinnati.

Wherever we were, I was thinking Notre Dame, after some unrequited hires, finally would be getting it right. The guy seemed sharp, and he seemed to know his football.

That certainly seemed to be the case when Kelly had ND undefeated and in the championship game in his third year. Lou Holtz had enjoyed the same kind of third-year success in 1988, when I was on the Notre Dame beat.

Kelly followed with three seasons of 9-4, 8-5 and 10-3 before the 4-8 disaster. That messiness, combined with his often-prickly demeanor, added up to a tricky situaiton.

To his credit, Kelly shook up his staff for this season, and has gotten results.

No. 13 Notre Dame heads into its Saturday night showdown with No. 11 USC as a four-point favorite. That’s basically a nod to playing under the Golden Dome.

That betting line would have looked very different if this game had been played earlier, when SC was filled with optimism and ND was filled with unknowns.

This week, the Irish are fifth in the nation in rushing offense (308 yards a game), led by Josh Adams (129.3 yards a game), who’s seventh among rushers. ND is plus-7 in turnover margin, tied for 11th in the nation.

The suspect is the passing offense (163.2 yards, 115th). But we, and the Trojans, will find out if new quarterback Brandon Wimbush has made enough strides to handle an upper-tier opponent.

But even if ND manages what would be a momentous victory against the Trojans, it still faces a schedule filled with peril.

Its six remaining opponents are a combined 31-7. After playing No. 11 USC (6-1), No. 16. N.C. State (6-1) and Wake Forest (4-2) at home, the Irish play two of their final three on the road, at No. 8 Miami (5-0), vs. Navy (5-1) and at No. 22 Stanford (5-2).

That’s quite a lineup. It includes four remaining top-25 opponents—plus Navy, which lost its ranking with its first loss (to Memphis) on Saturday. In addition, five of the final six opponents currently lead their division. Wake Forest is the only slacker.

The good news? It's opportunity. Win those games, and the Irish will have a strong College Football Playoff case.

It’s also a great opportunity for Kelly to remove his own tarnish.

If I were a betting man, I would want compelling odds before wagering that ND will run that table.

A 5-1 record would be awfully good. A 4-2 mark in the final six would not be all that bad.

But at this point, it’s not about predicting. Notre Dame can just go play those games. It has put itself in position to accomplish a lot. And more importantly, it has shown in its play so far that it has the potential to compete in every one of its remaining games.

And whatever you think of Kelly, you have to give him credit at this point for putting things back together. That wasn’t easy to do.[/membership]

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