Notre Dame sitting pretty at No. 5 in first playoff rankings

Notre Dame's narrow two-point loss at No. 1 Clemson is likely one reason for its College Football Playoff ranking of No. 5. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

This year's Irish surprise might have been bigger than last year's surprise.

A 7-1 Notre Dame team debuted at No. 5 in Tuesday's inaugural College Football Playoff rankings, a welcome sight to Fighting Irish fans everywhere considering the Irish are No. 8 in the Associated Press poll and No. 9 in the coaches' poll.

Last year, a 6-1 Notre Dame team debuted at No. 10, much to the dismay of fans who had seen their Irish come oh-so close to upsetting defending national champion Florida State in their last dress rehearsal for the committee.

Of course, Notre Dame lost its final four regular-season games last year, rendering that whole debate moot.

Can this year's Irish team finish better down the stretch? Coach Brian Kelly thinks so.

"Each year, different personalities, different leadership," Kelly said Tuesday of the differences between last year's team and this year's team. "It's a different group all along the board. I think the schedule's a little bit different. We had to go out to the West Coast twice, to Arizona State and to USC. Then we had a Big Ten team in Northwestern and Louisville. Had a very tough schedule. Didn't play quite as well, obviously.

"This team is a different group, different personalities, a little bit different offensively in terms of what we're doing, as well. Last year is probably more of a learning experience that we have going into this November than it probably is more than anything else."

This year's team has also already dealt with adversity via injury in a way last year's did not until the final month.

Kelly carried into last year a record of 24-4 in November and December regular-season games at Cincinnati and at Notre Dame. Then the Irish finished last year 1-4 in November.

It's easy to think Notre Dame is sitting pretty, especially since two of the top four teams, No. 2 LSU and No. 4 Alabama, play each other this week and could knock the other out of the top four. But several undefeated Big 12 teams behind the Irish have yet to reach the meat of their schedules, and it is very possible an unbeaten Baylor (currently No. 6) or unbeaten TCU (No. 8) could win out and leap over the Irish for that No. 4 spot.

As we saw last year, the selection committee is very fluid with these rankings, which is a good thing. But Notre Dame's best friend right now is Clemson, which debuted at No. 1 and which eked out a two-point win over the Irish on Oct. 3.

There is a long way to go with four games left, but as of now, it is probably in the Irish's best interest to win out and have Clemson win out as well, at least until the ACC title game. Notre Dame's path to the top four could be that simple, which is reason for the Irish to feel good about themselves Tuesday night.