Notre Dame belongs in College Football Playoff conversation
By BRIAN HARTNETT
College Contributor Network
Notre Dame proved it belonged in the College Football Playoff conversation Saturday night.
That much should be clear to anyone who watched the team's hard-fought 31-27 loss to Florida State in Tallahassee.
Notre Dame outgained Florida State by 147 total yards. Irish quarterback Everett Golson mostly overcame his recent turnover problems to finish with 313 yards and three touchdowns. Golson was probably at his best during Notre Dame's final drive, when he converted a fourth-and-18 with a play that would have entered Notre Dame lore had the Irish won the game.
Tarean Folston made his case to be Notre Dame's premier running back, as the Florida native ran for 120 yards on 21 carries. And the revamped offensive line in front of him played its best game as a unit, opening holes against a tough defensive line.
Will Fuller continued to show why he's been Golson's top target, and Corey Robinson played perhaps his best game in an Irish uniform, scoring two touchdowns.
Notre Dame's defense remained stout against the run, allowing only 50 yards on 26 attempts. Despite a monster second half by Jameis Winston, the Irish kept the Seminoles to their lowest point total in Winston's 20 career games as a college quarterback. Most importantly, the Irish went into the home of a team that has now won 23 straight games and battled the defending national champions to the final play.
The Irish even took the lead for a brief second on what appeared to be a go-ahead touchdown pass from Golson to Robinson, but just like that, it was negated, the result of an offensive pass interference call on C.J. Prosise (despite the referees' initial ruling that Fuller had committed the penalty).
There's no use debating the penalty here because of the variety of interpretations regarding it -- to the ESPN analysts covering the game, it was a clear pick play; to others who saw the play from several angles, it appears that Florida State's defensive back initiated contact with Prosise, and the Seminoles blew the coverage so badly that no one could have gotten to Robinson.
But unlike the touchdown, Notre Dame's playoff chances didn't disappear. They're still as present as they ever were, and now they're backed by an improved national perception of this year's team, something that might not have happened if the Irish had instead gone to say, Miami or Virginia Tech on Saturday night, as part of its ACC agreement.
That's not to say that it's better for Notre Dame to have one loss -- the Irish would have certainly preferred to move up into the top four with a win. But a tight loss to a national powerhouse on a close call didn't exactly set the Irish back too much.
And it might have also given them the motivation they need to finish strong over their last five games.
Notre Dame's remaining schedule, while devoid of any likely playoff contenders -- save maybe Arizona State -- is challenging enough that the Irish cannot afford to lose the intense focus they had at Florida State.
It features two ranked teams in the Sun Devils and USC, a Louisville team that ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense, a Northwestern team that's topped Wisconsin and Penn State, and a Navy team that always presents its own set of unique challenges.
Beating these teams might not give Notre Dame the signature victory that Florida State would have been, but it would involve winning two difficult road games and beating four "Power 5" conference teams. And doing so would leave the Irish with only one loss at season's end, which might be the magic number given the state of college football this season.
In the AP poll, the Irish rank fourth among the one-loss teams, behind Alabama, Auburn and Oregon. Alabama and Auburn still have to play each other, while the Crimson Tide still has a matchup with top-ranked Mississippi State and the Tigers have yet to face undefeated Mississippi and a top-10 Georgia team. Oregon has a matchup with Utah looming, plus whichever team the Ducks face in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
And this doesn't even take into consideration the state of the top three teams -- Mississippi State, Florida State and Mississippi -- one of which will have a loss after the Egg Bowl in November. Thus, even with Saturday's heartbreaking loss, the Irish still control their own destiny.
Saturday's game showed that Notre Dame belongs in the College Football Playoff conversation. The rest of the season will show whether the Irish can do enough to make their talk of a playoff berth a reality.
Brian Hartnett is a senior at the University of Notre Dame with a major in Marketing and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Originally from central New Jersey, he's also a fan of the Yankees, Nets and New York Giants. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianGHartnett