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Why Notre Dame can make the Playoff without a conference

In public, the College Football Playoff selection committee has a few criteria it draws on to pick between teams that are otherwise even:

  • Conference championships
  • Strength of schedule
  • Head-to-head competition
  • Win/loss outcomes against common opponents

The whole system is cloudy and confusing, and it’s never clear exactly what the committee prioritizes in a given moment. While it often seems like these four points are requirements or metrics the committee always uses, they only come into play as tiebreakers, essentially.

Still, though, see if you can spot which one of those four might be problematic for Notre Dame, which doesn’t have a conference.

This leads some people every year to argue about whether the Irish should be allowed to make the Playoff without ever satisfying one of the only stated criteria.

The answer is that they can, whether you agree or not.

Here’s the basic guide to why Notre Dame can still make the field — certainly if the Irish are undefeated, but conceivably even with one loss, in some years.

1. Everyone in the world considers the Irish to be like a power conference team, even though they’re not in a conference.

The BCS essentially considered Notre Dame a power, guaranteeing the Irish a berth whenever they ranked in the top 8 and a couple times including them when they didn’t.

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.

Maybe just as importantly, the humans who decide these things view Notre Dame as a power program. Put more simply: Notre Dame won’t get UCF’d.

2. Yes, the Playoff cares a lot about conference titles. But the committee put in non-champs two years in a row.

Fourteen of 16 teams to make the Playoff in its first four years had titles. The first two years of the event were exclusively reserved for conference champions. But then the Playoff admitted both of these teams:

  • 11-1 Ohio State in 2016, after a loss to a two-loss Penn State team that went on to win the Big Ten.
  • 11-1 Alabama in 2017, even though the Auburn team that beat the Tide went on to get beaten comfortably against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

So winning a conference championship’s not a hard and fast requirement. Thus far, two-loss Power 5 champions have gotten shunned in favor of even one-loss non-champs.

That means even if the Irish drop a game, they aren’t automatically out.

It’s not just that part of the history that tells us that. There’s Notre Dame-specific history.

3. The Playoff committee has had one-loss Notre Dame teams in the top four in four different weeks across two seasons, 2015 and 2017.

  • In 2015, Notre Dame spent two weeks at No. 4, when it was 8-1 and 9-1. The Irish got bumped down to No. 6 when they only beat moribund Boston College by 3.
  • In 2017, Notre Dame spent two weeks at No. 3 while 7-1. The Irish didn’t fall out until Miami embarrassed them in primetime.

Being ranked somewhere isn’t the same as finishing ranked somewhere, but there’s plenty of evidence that a one-loss Notre Dame would be squarely in the committee’s discussions.

4. Notre Dame plays a hard enough schedule that it can reach Playoff benchmarks on its own.

Here’s how previous Playoff teams have graded out in strength-of-schedule metrics like the kind the selection committee’s known to use:

  • Average Selection Sunday win total of FBS opponents: 6.7.
  • Average wins minus losses against the Selection Sunday Playoff top 25: 3.
  • Average wins minus losses against .500-or-better FBS teams: 7.8.

It’s too early to know where 2018 Notre Dame might fall in relation to those metrics. But if Notre Dame goes undefeated in just about any year, it seems unlikely that the Irish won’t be right around Playoff norms.

2018’s schedule includes Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, and USC, who should all juice that average win total. The Irish also have Pitt, Wake Forest, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Northwestern, who have shots at decent records.

A 4-0 record against selection committee top-25 teams is on the table, depending on how teams like Stanford, Virginia Tech, and USC finish. (Michigan will definitely be in that ranking.)

In any given year, the Irish are in if they don’t lose and not necessarily out if they do.

They’re in a better spot than many of the teams fighting with them, whether fans of other teams like it or not.

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