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Notre Dame’s Playoff bid ups Championship Saturday drama

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish made the College Football Playoff a whole eight days before the selection committee revealed the final top four. To some fans that may not seem all that fair, but that’s the luxury of being an independent team that goes undefeated.

First, let’s make one thing clear here — undefeated Notre Dame is absolutely worthy of getting a Playoff bid.

The Fighting Irish’s deal with the ACC allows them to play part of a conference schedule while maintaining independence. It also lets ND play Power 5 rivals like Michigan, Stanford, and USC. Even though it isn’t part of a Power 5 conference, its schedule is a big reason why it’s lumped in with the rest of the P5:

In the Playoff era, the committee tries to avoid labels like “Power 5,” but the Irish are still practically included. I’d say that’s because the Irish play a Power 5 schedule, but that wouldn’t give them credit for playing more Power 5 games (often 10 of them — plus Navy, a typically challenging non-power) than a lot of teams in those conferences play.

The Irish also don’t play FCS teams, meaning they play at least as many FBS teams before Selection Sunday as almost any Power 5 champion does.

When it comes to strength of schedule, ND isn’t exactly loaded, but has essentially fulfilled all of the benchmarks set by previous teams that it possibly can:

Reach Selection Sunday with one or fewer losses (100 percent of Playoff teams have done this).

Beat at least three teams in the committee’s Selection Sunday top 25 (93 percent, excluding 2017 Alabama, which means facing a weak schedule is better than losing two games — if you’re Bama, at least).

Win at least six games against FBS teams that have .500-plus records on Selection Sunday (100 percent).

Win a Power 5 conference (88 percent). The exceptions were pitted against two-loss champs.

On the field, the Fighting Irish defense has shone, ranking third according to S&P+, the offense checking in at 29th but improving noticeably after the first few weeks.

And ND already having clinched a spot makes for a lot more drama on Championship Saturday, too.

In the Playoff’s young history, there haven’t been too many upsets on the final weekend of games that truly affected the final four teams. Ohio State’s dominating performance during 2014’s Big Ten Championship and Georgia’s upset of Auburn in the SECCG in 2017 are the only really Playoff-altering outcomes.

But unlike past years, Notre Dame already being guaranteed a spot makes things a whole lot more dramatic. Let’s say things go as expected on Saturday — It leaves just three spots for presumed conference champions Alabama and Clemson. The No. 4 spot would come down to either Ohio State or Oklahoma, with the Sooners already ranking ahead in SOS.

And what if we get actual chaos, like say, if Georgia pulls out a close upset over Alabama? Can you justify leaving an 11-1 Tide team out, or would they both make it?

Or if Clemson loses to Pitt — the Tigers don’t have a very high SOS, so that could be enough to leave them out. Both OU and Ohio State losing would cause even more chaos.

And it’s all thanks to just three open spots remaining instead of four. There’s no way Notre Dame gets pushed out while sitting at home on Championship Saturday, so you can bet there will be some fans unhappy about the Irish being in.

And this, my friends, is the beauty of having a Notre Dame Playoff team.

A Playoff field is way more fun to watch with an extra dose of drama, right? Depending how things shake out on Sunday, you’ll probably hear lots of “Notre Dame isn’t even in a conference!” and “It’s just gonna get manhandled by Alabama again!” But no matter how much folks don’t want to see the Fighting Irish in the Playoff, they’re just gonna have to deal with it.

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