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Notre Dame Isn’t In Control Of Its Playoff Destiny

Each week in this space, we examine all the things a certain contending team needs to have happen in order for it to make the College Football Playoff. Today we turn our attention to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who are one of the country’s best teams on paper but may also need the most help of any CFP contender.

Current situation: Notre Dame (6-1) won its fifth consecutive game on Saturday, producing an impressive 49-14 rout of USC in South Bend. The Irish are really clicking on both offense and defense, and they moved up in this week’s AP poll more than any other team in the country. But despite how well it’s been playing of late, Notre Dame finds itself in a precarious playoff position. According to the FiveThirtyEight model, the Domers only have an 11 percent chance of making the CFP. In a season littered with one-loss contenders, the Irish still have a lot of work left to do in order to make a national championship run — and their fate still may not be totally in their control.

What the Irish can do: Unsurprisingly, winning out has been a pretty standard solution for the teams we’ve profiled in this series. (Indeed, each of the 11 most likely CFP teams by our model would have at least an 83 percent playoff probability if they simply win the rest of their games.) Notre Dame ranks 12th, however, and it doesn’t have that luxury — even if the Irish run the table (which our model gives them a 21 percent chance of doing), they’d still have only a 47 percent chance of making the playoff. They’re easily the contender who controls their destiny the least.

In part, this is because the Irish won’t have a conference title to hang their hat on in the event of a logjam of one-loss teams. And there is a huge logjam building up: Including Notre Dame, nine teams with one loss have at least a 1 percent chance of making the playoff according to our model, and more than half of them rank ahead of the Irish in the current pecking order (to say nothing of the undefeated teams who might join those ranks with an upset loss).

So simply winning ballgames might not be enough. Having said that, the Irish do need to keep their recent momentum going if they want any kind of shot at the playoff. Here are the most important games left in the regular season for Notre Dame, based on the biggest difference in winning percentages between our simulations where the Irish make the playoff and ones where they don’t:

Which of Notre Dame’s games holds the most weight?

Remaining 2017 matchups, ranked by the amount of leverage on Notre Dame’s playoff chances

11 Miami (FL) 98.0% 50.0% +48.0
13 Stanford 96.3 49.5 +46.8
9 N.C. State 96.8 68.5 +28.3
10 Wake Forest 97.9 84.1 +13.7
12 Navy 99.5 91.1 +8.4

Based on two sets of simulations: one where the team makes the playoff and one where it doesn’t. Differences may not add up exactly because of rounding.

Where they need help: In addition to winning all of their remaining games, Notre Dame needs a bunch of teams to clear a path by losing. If Georgia loses to Georgia Tech, for instance, the Bulldogs would still have a slim head-to-head win over the Irish on their resumé from September — but they’d also have a more recent upset loss, which the committee would likely hold against them in a comparison. Likewise, losses by Clemson and TCU would help reduce the number of teams the Irish need to beat out for a playoff spot. And Stanford can kill two birds for the Irish with one stone if it can beat Washington on Nov. 10: It would both take out a one-loss competitor in the Huskies and strengthen the Irish’s eventual playoff claim, assuming they can beat the Cardinal later that month.

Miami, though, might be the Irish’s most interesting frenemy. As we can see above, Notre Dame’s Week 11 matchup against the Hurricanes is its highest-leverage game of the season, so the spirit of “Catholics vs. Convicts” should be alive and well next month. But in a twist, the Irish also need Miami to win against Virginia Tech the week before in order to damage the one-loss Hokies’ chances and to bolster Notre Dame’s own playoff resumé in the event it beats the Canes. In general, Miami’s fate has the greatest connection with Notre Dame’s — the Hurricanes make the playoff in 21 percent of our simulations where Notre Dame doesn’t, and only 6 percent of simulations where the Irish are in.

Which other games need to go right for Notre Dame?

The non-Irish matchups that have the most leverage on Notre Dame’s playoff chances

13 Georgia Tech def. Georgia 37.4% 28.2% +9.1
11 Stanford def. Washington 53.6 45.4 +8.2
10 Miami (FL) def. Virginia Tech 64.1 58.3 +5.8
10 N.C. State def. Clemson 42.5 37.0 +5.5
10 Texas def. TCU 28.7 23.4 +5.3
13 Auburn def. Alabama 34.1 29.1 +5.0
11 Auburn def. Georgia 52.0 47.4 +4.5
9 Iowa State def. TCU 36.4 32.2 +4.3
9 Florida def. Georgia 23.1 18.9 +4.2
13 South Carolina def. Clemson 28.2 24.2 +4.0

Differences may not add up exactly because of rounding.

We’ll know infinitely more when the first set of CFP rankings are released on Oct. 31, but the Irish are still at the periphery of the AP top 10, trailing teams with both better chances of winning out and stronger records. A lot of dominoes need to fall in Notre Dame’s favor for them to make the playoff; most likely, Notre Dame will merely serve to create chaos for the committee before season’s end. But this storied program still has a shot, and considering the Irish went 4-8 a year ago and failed to crack the AP’s preseason Top 25 in August, they’ll take it.

Check out our latest college football predictions. Also, see what it will take for Clemson, Washington and Oklahoma to still make the playoff.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.