College Football Playoff Week 1 lessons: Ohio State won, but Notre Dame’s season isn’t lost

COLUMBUS, OHIO — Don’t eliminate Notre Dame from the College Football Playoff conversation just yet.

In spite of the 21-10 loss on Saturday night to Ohio State, Notre Dame entered Ohio Stadium, a prime-time matchup between two top-five programs in an unforgiving venue — and held its own with a first-year starting quarterback and without its leading wide receiver before a crowd of 106,594.

In order for the selection committee to seriously consider Notre Dame, it has to win out and it has to look the part of a top-four team in the process. Yes, that’s an extremely tall task, but we’ve seen a one-loss Notre Dame team in the playoff before (in 2020 when it played as a member of the ACC during COVID-19 and lost to Clemson in the ACC title game).

With games against Clemson and USC, it’s possible Notre Dame can finish the season with wins against two Power 5 conference champions if they win their respective leagues. ESPN’s Football Power Index currently projects the Irish to win each remaining game on their schedule except the Nov. 5 home game against Clemson.

If Notre Dame runs the table, the committee isn’t going to penalize the Irish for a close road loss against what could wind up being the Big Ten champion in the season opener, but it depends on what happens in the other conferences. If the SEC has two teams again in Georgia and Alabama, and the Big Ten champion is in, Notre Dame’s one-loss résumé would have to trump two of the three other Power 5 conference champions (Big 12, Pac-12 or ACC).

Notre Dame can be disadvantaged without a conference championship to play in because it’s one of several tiebreakers the committee uses when teams are comparable. (Not playing in a conference championship game can sometimes help the Irish, too, because if they are already in the top four, they don’t have to worry about losing and likely falling out.) Notre Dame would also lose another tiebreaker — the head-to-head result against Ohio State, unless by some chance the Buckeyes stumble more than once and don’t win the Big Ten.

Notre Dame won’t run the table, though, if it doesn’t continue to improve.

“There’s no such thing as a moral victory,” first-year coach Marcus Freeman said. “We didn’t win. We didn’t finish the game, we didn’t execute. I think we found out we’ve got a good football team. We’ve got to learn how to finish.”

So who else made a statement or fell out of the playoff conversation?

The Pac-12 is already playing from behind

The Pac-12’s Week 1 struggles might benefit Notre Dame if the conference finishes with a two-loss champion.

Utah‘s loss to Florida put the Utes in a situation similar to Notre Dame in that it was an extremely difficult, close road loss to a respectable opponent. How teams lose can matter as much as how they look in wins, and Utah held a lead in the fourth quarter but had a costly late turnover. The Utes are now under pressure to run the table and repeat as Pac-12 champions, which makes the Oct. 15 home game against USC even bigger.

The Trojans cruised to a 66-14 win against Rice in Lincoln Riley’s debut as head coach. Based on Oregon’s loss to Georgia Saturday night, Utah’s Nov. 19 trip to Eugene doesn’t look so daunting. That could also be a problem. One of the committee’s most consistent actions in the playoff era has been to reward teams that earn statement nonconference Power 5 wins. It helps the committee separate teams that have otherwise similar résumés and statistics.

Without those wins, the Pac-12 needs to hope teams within its own league are in the CFP Top 25 so Utah or USC has enough wins against ranked opponents to measure up against the other Power 5 champions.

Expect Georgia to finish in the CFP again

Georgia had to replace 15 NFL draft picks from its national championship team — including five first-round defenders — and it wasn’t noticeable as the Bulldogs smothered Oregon on Saturday afternoon.

This Power 5 nonconference win has a chance to boost Georgia’s résumé on Selection Day — not that the Bulldogs will need any help if they can replicate last season’s undefeated run to the SEC championship game. The odds are in their favor, as ESPN’s FPI gives Georgia at least an 85% chance to win in each of its remaining games. The win against Oregon at least gives Georgia a little bit of wiggle room against its SEC opponents, but the true value of Saturday’s lopsided win is only as impressive as the Ducks go on to be this fall.

(And if quarterback Bo Nix continues to struggle with turnovers and the Ducks can’t consistently get the ball across midfield, it might not amount to much.)

Georgia looked the part of a semifinal contender, and while nobody in the committee meeting room will actually refer to the “eye test,” the Bulldogs aced it Saturday and looked more than capable of doing it repeatedly.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart said expectations within the program are “in check,” but as for what’s heard outside the program, he said the Bulldogs “embrace expectations.”

“We hunt,” he said after the game. “We go do the best job we can, and if it falls short, it falls short. I don’t look at it from the expectations standpoint. I look at it like what can we do better, how do we improve, how do we get more players playing winning football, because everybody in this room knows we’re going to lose somebody. Somebody is going to be injured throughout the year, and how do we get them better.

“But the expectations I have is for our guys to play at their best and our coaches to prepare at their best, and I think that our guys really did that this game.”

Cinderella Cincinnati is no more

Cincinnati’s loss to Arkansas almost certainly eliminated the possibility of another dream season. While it was a respectable effort, there are no moral victories for a team with the No. 82 schedule strength.

The Bearcats needed a win this season comparable to last year’s victory against Notre Dame, and this was their best opportunity to earn it. Indiana is the only other Power 5 opponent on Cincinnati’s schedule, and a win against the Hoosiers this fall won’t impress the selection committee enough to compensate for the rest of the schedule.

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