Why Notre Dame can win the playoff: Serious next-level talent

Notre Dame wide receiver William Fuller (7) and QB Malik Zaire will have plenty of help this season.

Matt Cashore/Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

EDITOR’S NOTE: FOX Sports college football columnists Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman think a handful of teams have a legitimate shot at hoisting the College Football Playoff trophy this season. This week, they’ll make a case for each of those squads.

NOTRE DAME

1. What we like: You won’t find a more experienced contender across the board. With standout cornerback KeiVarae Russell back from last year’s academic suspension, the Irish will trot out a former starter at nearly every position on defense. On offense, sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire, who burst on the scene in last year’s Music City Bowl win over LSU, is joined by a bevy of proven skill players in receivers Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Corey Robinson and running backs Tarean Folston and C.J. Prosise. And All-America-caliber left tackle Ronnie Stanley anchors a strong O-line.

Admittedly, much of the public will always doubt that the Irish are worthy of any hype until they actually win a national title, but NFL personnel evaluators are high on this team as well. NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks lists Notre Dame as having the fifth-most NFL talent in the country, led by likely first-rounders Stanley, linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive tackle Sheldon Day. This is a far more athletic team than the squad that got waxed by Alabama in 2012.

2. What concerns us: The injury bug that derailed last year’s team, which started 6-0 before losing four of its next five, has returned in the preseason. Defensive tackle Jarron Jones, a key cog up front, will miss the season with a torn ACL. Running back Greg Bryant was also lost to academics. This year’s team figured to revolve heavily around the running game, so coach Brian Kelly can’t afford any more injuries at running back. And he may have to rely on a couple of true freshmen for depth on his defensive front.

And the schedule is always a concern for Notre Dame. It may not look as imposing at first glance as an SEC West or Pac-12 South team’s, but there are few gimme opponents and a whole lot of travel: at Clemson and Stanford, as well as back-to-back trips to the state of Pennsylvania to face underrated Temple and Pitt squads. A best-case scenario has the Irish at 11-1 headed to Palo Alto for their regular-season finale.

3. What would the committee think? Notre Dame will be a fascinating test case whenever it goes before the committee for the first time. It obviously cannot win a conference championship, a stated point of emphasis. And by playing 12, not 13, games — including sitting out the last weekend of the season — the Irish put themselves at risk of the same fate that befell Big 12 contenders Baylor and TCU last year.

But a 12-0 Irish team would have no problem getting in, and an 11-1 team would likely be in pretty good shape. Last year the committee appeared to value Top 25 wins over almost any other factor. While it’s hard to forecast exactly how many of Notre Dame’s opponents will fit that bill, at least three among Georgia Tech, Clemson, USC and Stanford plus a surprise team elsewhere would be plenty.

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