Ready or not, the 12-team Playoff is here.

The start of the 12-team Playoff era means that the entire conversation about being in contention will shift. A more inclusive field doesn’t necessarily guarantee that we’re about to see more variety with national champs. For this discussion, we’re not focused on who’ll win a national championship; we’re just focused on who’ll play for one.

The goal for this series is to predict the first 12-team Playoff with 100% accuracy. It’s never been done before. I’d like to think I can become the first person in human history to do that.

Every day of this series, I’ll unveil 1 of my 12-team Playoff picks, starting with the No. 12 seed and working all the way down to the No. 1 seed. Remember these parameters with the seeding of the 12-team Playoff:

  • ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC champs get an automatic bid
  • The top-ranked Group of 5 conference champ also gets an automatic bid
  • The 7 remaining teams are selected and receive at-large bids
  • The 4 highest-ranked conference champs are seeded 1-4 with a first-round bye

Need any other clarifications? I think we’re good.

So far, here are the teams I have in the field:

Let’s continue with the No. 7 seed … Notre Dame.

Why the Playoff path exists

Buddy, have you seen that schedule?

It has 11-1 written all over it. Why? Well, Miami’s overscheduling of nonconference foes means that Notre Dame had to push that matchup to 2025. That’s part of this. But Notre Dame’s schedule now has just 3 true road games (at Texas A&M, at Purdue and at USC). There are also 3 neutral-site games, 2 of which are against service academies and the other is at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Georgia Tech.

That’s ideal for a Playoff contender. This schedule won’t push the Irish on a weekly basis. At least it shouldn’t. You could argue that the 2 toughest games are at Texas A&M with Mike Elko’s debut and vs. Florida State. Outside of that, home vs. Louisville and at USC are the only other games where Notre Dame shouldn’t be a significant favorite.

Related: Looking to place a bet on the 2024 Heisman Trophy? SDS has you covered with all the latest odds!

Why? It’s not just the addition of multi-year starting QB Riley Leonard, though that helps. The former Duke starter should have an easier schematic learning curve than Sam Hartman, who was probably a trickier fit than what some might’ve assumed because of his unique offense at Wake Forest. If Leonard can stay healthy, there’s a lot to like with how the Irish want to win games. They’re going to develop the offensive line, run the ball well and try to beat you 24-17.

The addition of Mike Denbrock might’ve been of equal significance to Notre Dame’s Playoff path. Most recently, he helped Jayden Daniels to a Heisman Trophy. Sure, it helped that he had LSU first-round receivers like Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr., which won’t be the case for Notre Dame, but FIU transfer Kris Mitchell could take off. It’s a new-look offense — losing 2 offensive linemen in the first 2 rounds feels normal for the Irish — there’s optimism that this should be an offensive upgrade.

Now pair that with a Year 3 Freeman defense, which should be fueled by an elite secondary. You can pencil that group in to be one of the better defenses in America (it was No. 7 in scoring).

That’s why 11-1 feels possible. Shoot, it feels likely. Without a conference title game to play for, 11-1 would still be enough to earn a first-round bye.

The potential roadblock

Buddy, have you seen that schedule?

Yeah, the same thing that could work in Notre Dame’s favor to get to 11-1, it’s fair to wonder if 10-2 would be enough to make the field. Remember, 10-2 is the mark to get for “Core 4” squads. But if the ACC looks like a 1-bid league and Notre Dame’s schedule has 5 ACC teams on it, that could shape perception.

Related: Who will win it all in 2024? SDS has the latest betting odds for who’ll win the next national championship!

FSU (No. 11) and USC (No. 25) are the only Notre Dame foes in ESPN’s way-too-early Top 25. That means a loss to A&M in the opener would potentially be devastating. The lack of premier opponents suggests it won’t be easy for the Irish to move the needle when it’s a slate that’s got 2 service academies and 2 MAC schools on the way.

What could be the Achilles’ heel in a potential 2-loss regular season? A lack of depth at receiver and an offensive line that might not be as dominant as the Joe Alt-led group was could make it an uphill climb against elite offensive minds like Jeff Brohm, Lincoln Riley and Mike Norvell.

This would be a brutal year for Notre Dame to miss out on the Playoff, though. Not many programs would be significantly disappointed with 10-2, but the Irish would be in that camp.

Odds that they win a Playoff game

I’m going with 58%.

The key thing to remember here is that I’m not predicting a scenario in which a 10-2 Notre Dame makes the field with that schedule. An 11-1 Notre Dame gets to host a Playoff game. If the Irish get a first-round matchup against a team like Iowa, which is what I have in my projection, give me the Irish defense to win some sort of 21-10 December game in South Bend.

The issue will be how battle-tested Notre Dame really is. If it goes 11-1 but gets blown out against Florida State, we’ll all have an eyebrow raised. It won’t necessarily feel like a battle-tested team, but depending on the draw, it could still have a nice home-field advantage in the Round of 12.

I do believe the style that Notre Dame wants to play — hard-nosed defense with a smart, mobile quarterback — should translate well late in the year. That should matter more in a Playoff system that’ll have games played in less-than-ideal conditions.

Lingering, though, will be Notre Dame’s 21st-century struggles in BCS/New Year’s 6 bowls. The Irish are 0-for-8 in those matchups since 2000. Could this year finally be a breakthrough season? In that regard, it certainly feels possible.

Just don’t assume that means the Irish are about to win a national title for the first time in 36 years.

Predicting the Playoff will continue on Thursday with No. 6 … Oregon.