But if the four remaining high-profile unbeatens -- No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Kansas State, No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 4 Oregon -- all finish the season without a loss, the Irish likely will find themselves watching the national championship game and wondering what could have been had the new four-team playoff began this year instead of in 2014.
The Irish are ranked ahead of Oregon by a scant 0.0011 points. But Notre Dame has three weak opponents in a row coming up -- Pittsburgh, Boston College and Wake Forest -- followed by the season-finale at USC, damaged goods after falling to Arizona on Saturday, the Trojans' second loss of the season. Oregon is the consensus No. 2 in the human polls, and still has three quality opponents left -- No. 11 Oregon State, No. 14 Stanford and No. 17 USC, as well as the potential Pac-12 title game -- to try to impress the computers. If Notre Dame and Oregon both win out, the Ducks almost certainly would finish the season ranked higher than the Irish.
The Irish haven't been earning many style points for their grinding, hard-fought victories over the likes of Michigan, Stanford, BYU and even Oklahoma, a game that was tied in the fourth quarter before the Irish pulled away. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said earlier Sunday that he's not going to go out of his way to put up big numbers in an effort to influence the rankings.
"In an ideal world, yeah, if all of your games were blowouts, that is the way you'd want them to be designed," he said. "But I don't think that there's any actual conversation, or the way we practice or prepare that would get that to be something that we even talk about. So the reality of it is, it's clear that you want to win your games and you want to win them in convincing fashion. But there is nothing that we'll do practically that will emphasize that in any way. It kind of becomes a moot point for us to even discuss it."
Kansas State will be heavy favorites in all of its remaining games, too -- Oklahoma State, at TCU, at Baylor, Texas -- and the Big 12 doesn't have a championship game.
Top-ranked Alabama faces No. 5 LSU this week in a game that could potentially shake up the standings dramatically.
For Notre Dame's sake, Kelly said his team won't be sweating the polls, especially with four weeks left in the season.
"We'll lose if we start listening to national championship and the BCS; we'll lose a football game," he said. "They're a pretty smart group. They know that if they stick with what we've done and stick with the process of preparing for Pittsburgh, they'll be fine. But if they start thinking about all these other things and listening, we'll lose."