Notre Dame still has an awfully thin margin for error at 3-5, needing to win at least three of its final four games to get to that magic number of six and become eligible for a bowl game.
It’s far too early to wonder if Notre Dame could make a bowl with a 5-7 record, too — first, the Irish would have to accept a backdoor invite, and second, given 5-7 teams are ranked by Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, there’s no guarantee Notre Dame would be the first team picked. Among the football programs with higher 2014-2015 APR scores: Maryland, Michigan State, Mizzou, Indiana, Utah State, Boston College, Stanford, Illinois, Central Florida, North Texas, Air Force, Army, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Duke (and yes, APR is a deeply flawed measurement).
Of those, Maryland, Stanford and Air Force are both 5-3 and likely to get that sixth win to take them out of the 5-7 conversation. Army is also 5-3 and has a game left against FCS side Morgan State, which likely gets them to 6-6 and their first bowl game since 2010. Indiana, Utah State, Boston College, UCF, North Texas, Air Force, Vanderbilt and Northwestern are 4-4, while Duke is 3-5 and Illinois and Mizzou are 2-6.
Not that anyone inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex is counting on it, but it’s worth driving home for fans: 5-7 is not close to being a reliable fallback option for Notre Dame. The viewpoint here is that Notre Dame needs to win three of four against Navy, Army, Virginia Tech and USC to salvage the 2016 season.
So the Notre Dame schedule watch will focus specifically on how those four teams fared in Week 9:
Navy (5-2): Lost, 52-45, at South Florida
This game served as a good blueprint for how Notre Dame can beat Navy: USF jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter and battled back the Mids’ second half surge, which helped make the score look closer than it actually was (Navy scored a meaningless touchdown as time expired). USF rushed 44 times for 412 yards and five touchdowns, while Will Worth was forced to throw 25 times. Stopping the Mids’ offense, though, has been a difficult task lately: They’ve scored 46, 42 and 45 points in their last three games since losing Oct. 1 at Air Force, 28-14. More than likely, Notre Dame’s offense will have to play mistake-free football that’s both explosive and efficient to rack up enough points to get past Navy. But the Mids are certainly beatable — Notre Dame hasn’t lost to them since 2010.
Army (5-3): Won, 21-13, at Wake Forest
This was a heck of a win for an Army program that’s taken plenty of lumps over the last few years. Wake Forest ran the ball rarely effectively (5.34 yards/carry) but not often (23 attempts), which was curious given quarterback John Wolford only completed 23 of 43 passes for 220 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Army’s triple option attack isn’t as good as Navy’s, and Notre Dame will have a clear size, strength and athleticism advantage over the Black Knights in San Antonio. The biggest worry for the Irish is this game will represent the latter half of back-to-back games against cut-blocking triple option offenses, which can be an awfully difficult and sometimes painful grind.
Virginia Tech (6-2): Won, 39-36, at Pitt
Jerod Evans torched Pitt’s secondary, completing 24 of 40 passes for 406 yards — 397 of which were to the trio of receiver Isaiah Ford (10 receptions, 143 yards, 1 TD), receiver Cam Phillips (6 catches, 109 yards) and tight end Bucky Hodges (6 catches, 145 yards). Virginia Tech has had a few blips this year — a turnover-filled loss to Tennessee and a slog of a defeat at Syracuse — but this team looks like the class of the ACC Coastal. If you’re looking for a positive for Notre Dame, maybe it’s that the timing of this game is weird for a team looking to play in the ACC Championship: It comes a week before the Hokies’ rivalry game against Virginia, which could lock up their trip to Orlando to play Clemson. Still, this team — which ranks 13th in S&P+ — very well might be the best group Notre Dame will play in 2016…
USC (5-3): Won, 45-24, vs. Cal
… Though USC could challenge Virginia Tech for that designation (the Trojans are 17th in S&P+ after Week 9). Sam Darnold has torched the Pac-12 since being swapped in for Max Browne, and over his last four games — all USC wins — he’s thrown 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He was aided against Cal by Ronald Jones II (18 carries, 223 yards, 1 TD) and Aca’Cedric Ware (20 carries, 130 yards) controlling the ground game and by a resurgent defense that’s allowing an average of only 18.8 points during the Trojans’ four-game winning streak. USC does have a tough stretch leading up to its season-ending game against the Irish, having to travel to Washington Nov. 12 and facing UCLA in Pasadena a week after. But Notre Dame shouldn’t risk going into Los Angeles needing a win to get to six.