Notre Dame making this season’s College Football Playoff could create chaos and more talk of expanding beyond four teams.
From the Gipper to Rudy, the Four Horsemen to Touchdown Jesus, from Rockne to Parseghian, Notre Dame has all the icons and the history.
What the Irish haven’t had, since 1988, is a national championship football team. Their last brush with glory was a 42-14 dismemberment by Alabama in the penultimate BCS title game.
To summarize, Notre Dame has been mostly irrelevant in the national championship chase for three decades. That’s about to change and if you like chaos with your college football, you’ll be pleased.
When the first College Football Playoff ratings are announced Tuesday night, the Irish will likely be one of the four top teams. They’re No. 3 in both the media and the coaches’ poll. (They were No. 3 in last season’s Week One ranking before fading to a Citrus Bowl invite.)
Notre Dame is one of three unbeaten Power Five teams, joining Alabama and Clemson. And while there’s plenty of significant games to be played, Notre Dame is in prime position to be a participant in Year Five of the CFP.
The Bowl Championship Series, which expired in 2013, was part of the evolution of college football’s continuing clumsy attempts to decide its national champion on the field. Instituting a four-team playoff was hailed with hosannas but like its previous incarnations, the CFP was flawed.
The commissioners of the Power Five conferences, skittish over further extending the season, settled on four spots. That meant that each year, at least one of the “big” conferences would be excluded. Last year, two were on the outside looking in when the CFP committee selected Alabama and Georgia from the Southeastern Conference.
Notre Dame has a seat at the Big Boy table and is essentially a one-team conference. If the Irish are deemed they qualify for the playoff, two Power Five conferences are left out. The two excluded leagues will immediately start kicking and screaming.
Notre Dame plays a 12-game schedule and as an independent can’t play in a conference championship game. (Well, duh.) That means the Irish play one less game and that’s one less game they could lose. Also, one could argue that playing an eight-game or nine-game conference schedule against familiar foes/rivals is more taxing than playing a schedule as an independent.
In the first year of the playoff, the 10-team Big 12 touted that its champion was decided through its nine-game round-robin schedule and that it crowned “One True Champion.” The other four Power Five leagues each had a championship game but in the summer before the 2014 season, the Big 12 was assured that playing 12 games was good enough.
But as the season played out, CFP chair Jeff Long (then the athletic director at Arkansas, now the AD at Kansas) began talking about a “13th data point” – in plain sports talk, a 13th game (conference championship). When TCU and Baylor finished 11-1 the Big 12 wound up with Two True Champions, each lacking a 13th data point and neither made the first CFP. That led the Big 12 to jury rig a championship game, which debuted last season and was won by Oklahoma.
Three teams have made the CFP field playing 12 games – OU in 2015, Ohio State in 2016 and Alabama last year. The Sooners were Big 12 champs; the Buckeyes and the Crimson Tide were selected and didn’t even win their conference division.
One of college football’s many administrative inequities is scheduling, both in and out of conference. The SEC plays an eight-game schedule, and many believe the conference is cleverly gaming the system; it certainly worked last season.
The 13-person CFP committee, as they do with all the teams it considers, will have to weigh Notre Dame’s lack of a 13th game and the strength of its schedule. (For what it’s worth – and admittedly, it’s crude analytical info – the current combined records of teams on ND’s schedule is 52-45.)
Let’s say that Notre Dame finishes with one loss as do the league champions from the Power Five leagues, plus add in a one-loss Alabama. Parsing and selecting four teams from that list would lead to controversy.
If Notre Dame, Alabama and Clemson go undefeated (unlikely considering just three of 16 CFP teams have been undefeated), one-loss teams from the Big Ten (Michigan or Ohio State), Big 12 (Oklahoma) and Pac-12 (Washington State) could bitch and moan that being a conference champion with a 13-game schedule carries more weight.
Notre Dame in the CFP final four would guarantee that two conferences are locked out for the second consecutive season. If the SEC again winds up with two teams, that would mean three conferences don’t make it.
If, for the second consecutive season, the Big Ten is snubbed, that would likely raise the ire of commissioner Jim Delany. He’s the only league boss with enough gravitas to push for change. The commissioners – four of whom are still in power – who birthed the CFP pledged that the four-team format would remain through the end of the 12-year contract in 2025. That’s a distant four-digit number on the calendar. Unexpected consequences lead to change and contracts can be rewritten.
The CFP’s original plan of four spots for five conferences started at ludicrous and has lost ground ever since. Notre Dame leapfrogging conference champs could provide the impetus for the possibility of expanding the CFP field. And don’t forget or ignore another factor – UCF.
Should there be considerable carnage over the last month of the season and two or three conference champs finish with two losses, the Knights will campaign for inclusion if they finish with a perfect record for the second straight season. They won’t break through the glass ceiling and that could lead to history repeating itself.
The BCS morphed into the CFP over the threat of legal action. In 2008, Utah finished the regular season 11-0. The BCS title game matched 11-1 Florida against 12-0 Oklahoma. Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff threatened to sue the BCS for antitrust violations. The legal action dissolved with the formation of the CFP.
The template exists for angry, excluded UCF backers to lawyer up. A school that joined the FBS in 1996 plus one of college football’s historic programs could become the dynamic duo that makes 2018 memorable for more than just game scores.