When it comes to Notre Dame, the No. 2 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, there is a widespread assumption about what will happen if there’s a rematch with No. 3 Clemson in the ACC championship game.
It might be best for the rest of the potential playoff teams to deal with another assumption. The Irish look like they will make the four-team field no matter what happens if that game is played.
Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) beat North Carolina 31-17 on Friday in a game where the Irish shut out the Tar Heels (6-3, 6-3 ACC) in the second half. UNC was ranked 19th in the first set of playoff rankings on Nov. 24. It was another quality victory for a team that showed just how solid it is on both sides.
Senior quarterback Ian Book completed 23 of 33 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and had eight carries for 48 yards. He also added to his highlight montage with a back-handed flip to tight end Michael Mayer for a first down in the fourth quarter. Book is 29-3 as a starter, and he is on a hot streak.
In Notre Dame’s last three games, he has 872 passing yards, 200 rushing yards, six total touchdowns and no interceptions. The Irish have just eight turnovers in nine games.
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Book got the necessary help from his perimeter playmakers and an offensive line that was missing two starters. Kyren Williams added 23 carries for 124 yards and two TDs. Javon McKinley had six catches for 135 yards. The Irish’s bread-and-butter balanced attack upstaged North Carolina’s high-powered offense after a 14-14 first quarter.
North Carolina entered the game with a top-five offense that averaged 563.4 yards per game. The Irish limited the Tar Heels to 298 yards, including just 58 on 25 plays in the second half. Heels sophomore QB Sam Howell finished 17 of 26 for 211 yards and a touchdown.
Notre Dame showed Friday in Chapel Hill that it can with its offense or its defense. Not too many teams can say that.
The Irish are good enough to get to the ACC championship game, and a slipup the next two weeks against Syracuse or Wake Forest seems unlikely. That puts more pressure on Clemson (7-1, 6-1 ACC) to avoid a second loss that would open the door for Miami (7-1, 6-1 ACC) to make the conference title game.
Still, a rematch with Clemson — a team Notre Dame beat 47-40 in a double-overtime thriller on Nov. 7 — seems inevitable. A Tigers victory behind Trevor Lawrence, who missed the first game after testing positive for COVID-19, on Dec. 19 cannot be taken for granted, however.
Another instant classic seems in the cards, and that would allow the CFP committee to put the Tigers and Irish in the College Football Playoff. A blowout could change that, but can Clemson blow out this team? That appears doubtful.
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That puts pressure on No. 1 Alabama to knock out No. 6 Florida in the SEC championship game. That puts pressure on No. 4 Ohio State to close out No. 8 Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game. The Crimson Tide and Buckeyes do not have the benefit of a possible split like the Irish do.
That’s also bad news for No. 7 Cincinnati (8-0) and No. 15 Oregon (3-0), teams that might not be able to unseat Notre Dame even if they go undefeated.
All of those other contenders are better off rooting for the Irish to beat Clemson again.
Notre Dame has used its one-year lease in the ACC to perfection on the field — and it has improved in November under Brian Kelly. Book is a Heisman Trophy contender and the defense gives up fewer yards than Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama.
What more do you need? This team is better than the Irish teams that finished undefeated in the regular season in 2012 and 2018.
Notre Dame is a national championship contender now, and the committee will see it that way.
That’s not an assumption, either.
It is reality.