Schedule matters as Notre Dame climbs to No. 4 in CFP rankings

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Bubbling beneath all the unctuous posturing and postulating about how the College Football Playoff rankings will mutate over the next four weeks is a somewhat overlooked question that will persevere long after that.

How much does strength of schedule really matter?

If an undefeated record — no matter how disheveled the wins and no matter what level of competition — trumps all, then what incentive is there to play meaningful non-conference games? If it doesn’t, will teams be coerced into rethinking their scheduling philosophies?

For the moment, in the second snapshot of the evolving playoff picture released on Tuesday night, Notre Dame (8-1) moved up a spot and into the virtual field at No. 4. Its potential playoff matchup would be a rematch with No. 1 Clemson (9-0), a 24-22 survivor at home and in a monsoon on Oct. 3.

Selection committee chair Jeff Long noted the Irish were solidly in the field, with the biggest debates and the most discussion centering on teams 5 through 8.

No. 2 Alabama (8-1) and No. 3 Ohio State (9-0), semifinal opponents in last year’s playoff, would meet up again in the same round in the unlikely event nothing in college football shifts in the next month.

Four unbeaten teams — Iowa at No. 5, Baylor at No. 6, Oklahoma State at No. 8, and technically but not realistically Houston at No. 24 — find themselves chasing the Irish for the final spot, because so far the schedule does matter.

But how much will it on Dec. 6, the date of the final rankings?

“Notre Dame is going to become the X-factor here,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “They’re a polarizing team because of who they are. They’re not in any conference, so people are going to get all wigged out about that at the end of the year. 'Wait a second, I thought it mattered to be a conference champion?’

“He (Long) doesn’t want to speculate. That’s why we get to. If Notre Dame wins out, based on what they’ve already done and because of who they still have to play — especially Stanford there at the end — that will leave the Pac-12 and potentially the Big 12 on the outside looking in.

“If Notre Dame wins out, they’re not going to be left out of the top 4.”

The Irish, ranked sixth in the AP and coaches polls, host Wake Forest (3-6) Saturday, play the team with the FBS’ best defense and its worst offense — Boston College (3-7) — at Fenway Park in Boston on Nov. 21, and at CFP No. 7 Stanford (8-1) on Nov. 28.

Should Notre Dame prevail against the 27-point underdog Demon Deacons, their worst-case postseason scenario would likely land them in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Dec. 28 in Orlando against a Big 12 team.

Ten wins likely gets the Irish into the Peach (Dec. 31 in Atlanta) or Fiesta (Jan. 1 at Glendale, Ariz.).

Ironically, two teams buoying ND’s strength of schedule are the unlikely pair of Navy (7-1), ranked 20th in the latest CFB rankings and at this moment the front-runner to land the Group of Five’s berth in the New Year’s Six bowl lineup, and No. 22 Temple (8-1).

It’s conceivable those two could face off in the American Athletic Conference title game on Dec. 5.

It’s also possible they could falter and dilute the Irish SOS. Those two teams, Stanford, USC (6-3) and No. 1 Clemson can provide the most help from the outside in shaping ND’s postseason destiny.

All five won last week, and all five are favored this week.

Notre Dame would also benefit if the top four Big 12 teams cannibalized each other in a sort of parity-palooza down the stretch.

But as much attention that the league’s back-end-loaded conference schedule is getting for potentially slingshotting a team into the field, its non-conference scheduling deserves focus, too.

The league’s top four teams (Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and TCU) played a combined 12 non-conference games. Three of the 12 came against FCS opponents. Of the other nine, zero have come against teams with six or more wins. And none of the six teams below those four in the Big 12 standings have a winning record.

Compare that to the AAC and its top four teams (Navy, Memphis, Temple and Houston), all four ranked in this week’s CFP Top 25.

They’ve played or will play 16 non-league games, also with three FCS opponents. But they’ve played six FBS teams with six or more wins, and won four of those games (Penn State, Ole Miss, Bowling Green and Air Force). The two losses are to Notre Dame.

That doesn’t necessarily make the Big 12 power unworthy of a playoff spot, but it certainly limits the basis for comparisons.

TCU’s best non-league win is a 23-17 victory over 4-5 Minnesota. Baylor’s is a waxing of 4-5 Rice, Oklahoma State’s a 24-13 dispatching of Central Michigan. Oklahoma’s double-overtime win over Tennessee easily carries the most clout.

“It’s really hard to judge those teams at this point in the season,” Long said of the Big 12. “The strength of their schedule is still in front of them, so they still have opportunities, but I will tell you the committee has a difficult time evaluating those teams who have not had significant victories, haven’t won games over better-than-.500-record teams.”

If it gets into a one-loss ND vs. Big 12 champ debate, the Big 12’s scheduling might inflate the Irish verdict with Texas.

Notre Dame dominated the Longhorns, 38-3, in their opener — a victory that ended up reordering the QB depth chart, prompting a change of offensive play-callers and, indirectly, athletic directors as well.

TCU, which fell to No. 15 after its loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday, gouged Texas 50-7. But Oklahoma State just got by the Longhorns, 30-27, and the Sooners — perhaps the league’s most offensive/defensive balanced team — fell 24-17 in a game Texas outrushed the Sooners, 313-67.

Long refused to get sucked into the notion that the ND-Stanford clash could turn out to be a de facto play-in game, but he did mention quarterback DeShone Kizer’s strong play and the team’s resilience.

“They’ve been able to overcome some injuries on that team, so that speaks to the strength of that team, the overall team,” Long said.

While some college football media were taken aback by the thought injuries could be a metric, perhaps a misread of what Long’s message really was, what he might have left unsaid was that the team improved as the replacements gained their footing.

And that’s improvement that will have to continue if the Irish want to keep seeing their name in the playoff field the next four weeks.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

The Fighting Irish sing the alma mater after the teams 42-30 win against Pitt at Heinz Field Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Pittsburgh. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

CFP No. 4 NOTRE DAME (8-1) vs. WAKE FOREST (3-6)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. EST; Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 27