In public, the College Football Playoff selection committee lists a few criteria it draws on to help pick between teams that it thinks are otherwise even in quality:
- Conference championships
- Strength of schedule
- Head-to-head competition
- Win/loss outcomes against common opponents
The whole system is cloudy, in that 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 tiebreakers.
The answer is Notre Dame deserves to make the Playoff whenever undefeated and shouldn’t be inherently DQ’d at 11-1.
This shouldn’t be that flavorful a take. I like Notre Dame as an institution just as much as the next person — i.e., I don’t — but there’s little question a 12-0 Notre Dame should make the Playoff in any given year. Even a one-loss ND could be deserving in the right circumstance.
Think of this as a reference guide for the next time your ND-phobic friend says otherwise.
1. Notre Dame almost never plays weak schedules.
Per Sports Reference’s SOS metric, the last time Notre Dame had a full-season schedule (including bowls, which only throw things off slightly) that graded below that year’s FBS average in strength was 1923. In the 2000s, Notre Dame’s schedule strength has averaged 16th in the country, six times ranking in the 10 toughest.
2. Notre Dame isn’t in a power conference, but it plays a power-conference schedule.
The BCS literally 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.
The strength of the Irish’s schedule varies with the quality of their historic rivals and their annual draw against much of the ACC. But when it’s bad, it’s not as bad as people might tell you it is. When ND was unbeaten heading into bowl season in 2018, SP+ had it 15 spots better than Clemson in schedule strength, and few ragged on the Tigers, even though the only extra thing they’d done was win an ACC title game against a Pitt team that finished 7-7.
3. Yes, the Playoff cares a lot about conference titles. But Notre Dame wasn’t the first team to make it in without one.
Seventeen of 20 teams to make the Playoff in its first five years had titles. The Playoff admitted both of these teams prior to admitting unbeaten Notre Dame in 2018:
- 11-1 Ohio State in 2016, after a loss to a two-loss Penn State.
- 11-1 Alabama in 2017, which as of Selection Sunday, had lost its most recent game to a team that’d also lost its most recent game.
So winning a conference championship’s not a hard and fast requirement for any power. The committee also said years before 2018 that it wouldn’t hold a lack of conference title against an independent. Teams can’t be expected to win things they have no way of winning.
That is why even if the Irish drop a game, they aren’t automatically out. It’s why if they’re unbeaten and there aren’t more unbeaten powers than spots, they’re automatic.
4. Notre Dame hits Playoff benchmarks.
Let’s also use simpler terms like the Playoff committee’s. In the Playoff’s first four years, before ND first made it in 2018, these were the thresholds the typical Playoff team met:
- 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.
- Average number of FBS opponents: 12.
A 12-0 Notre Dame is typically going to be right in line with all of those. An 11-1 Notre Dame has some chance of being there in the right year.
In any given year, the Irish are in if they don’t lose and not necessarily out if they do. That is not some grave injustice.
There are many ways in which Notre Dame people benefit from privilege in this world. Their football team being allowed to make the Playoff is not one of them.
And besides, if we let the Irish in, then we get to see them lose yet another big bowl game. Deal?
(Non-power teams essentially being barred from the CFP, however, is something we can get worked up about.)