Analysis: ND's near and distant postseason future comes into focus

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The most compelling part of ESPN’s latest College Football Ratings-apolooza Show Tuesday night had absolutely nothing to do with the latest top four.

And everything to do with how they might look in future years. Especially from a Notre Dame standpoint.

For the record, the new top four in the CFP rankings — yawn — was the old top four from last week: 1. Clemson (12-0), 2. Alabama (11-1), 3. Oklahoma (11-1), 4. Iowa (12-0). Notre Dame (10-2) slipped two spots, to eighth, which carries some positive significance for this season and future ones.

In the longer view, it took almost two full seasons for the CFP Selection Committee to puncture the mythology about how much a conference championship, in and of itself, is weighed into the equation of selecting the four playoff participants, but committee chair Jeff Long laid it out in plain sight Tuesday night.

“In the committee’s eyes, if a team has not clearly separated itself above another and they are indeed equal, then we apply those four criteria of conference champions, head to head and those factors,” he said.

“So they don’t come in until the committee reaches a deadlock, and (at that time) we add in the conference championships.”

So all the angst, conjecture and media bombast drawn solely from last year’s playoff field — that the Irish needed to find a way to play a 13th game, join a conference, or both — came crashing down into a new reality Tuesday night.

“We said it last year and the same is true this year,” Long said. “A conference championship game, not having or having it, can help or hurt you, depending on the circumstances of that particular season. This season is very different than last season.”

Notre Dame’s 38-36 loss to Stanford Saturday night in Palo Alto, Calif., made that information benign to this season as far as the Irish are concerned, but it certainly could affect non-champ Ohio State if No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama tumble in their respective conference championship games this Saturday.

In reality, the Irish may have played themselves out of the Final Four the previous week.

ND’s Shamrock Series victory over Boston College on Nov. 21 at Fenway Park, may have generated $22.2 million in visitor spending — more than 14 times a Red Sox home game — per the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, but the 19-16 close call to the 3-9 Eagles was costly to the perception of ND in the committee’s eyes.

A debate for another day is whether the Shamrock Series has run its course to the point that it be relegated as something less often than an annual basis and be replaced by a true home game in the interest of creating the least-impeded path to a playoff berth.

Win or lose against Stanford Saturday night, ND’s postseason outcome could have ended up the same. The No. 8 ranking assigned to the Irish Tuesday night, though, was significant in that they’re ranked high enough to likely survive any Saturday turbulence conference championship game upsets could cause.

It’s Peach (Dec. 31 in Atlanta) or Fiesta (Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz.) for Notre Dame, seemingly even in the most apocalypticky of scenarios. That fellow at-large candidate Florida State (10-2) is slotted one spot behind ND is significant.

Should Clemson, Alabama and Stanford win Saturday, as they’re favored to do, ND’s pool of possible opponents comes down to three options: The lowest ranked of Big Ten teams Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State; Florida State; or the winner of the American Athletic Conference title game between Houston and Temple.

The committee will reveal the playoff pairings Sunday at 12:30 p.m. EST, with the rest of the New Year’s Six lineup, which includes the Peach and Fiesta, to be unveiled at 3 p.m.

In those penultimate rankings, the Spartans (11-1) and Buckeyes (11-1) are 5 and 6, respectively, with Stanford 7. ACC teams Florida State (10-2) and North Carolina (11-1) are 9 and 10, just behind the Irish.

It’s significant that a conference division champ, North Carolina, with one fewer loss, is slotted behind an independent Notre Dame, especially when it’s the conference that the playoff alarmists want to coerce the Irish into.

It’s also pertinent in that ND figures to be either the highest-ranked or No. 2 at worst, among the four teams that will fill the Peach and Fiesta pairings.

Even, though ESPN flashed a graphic projecting Ohio State and Notre Dame playing in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, it’s important to keep in mind the committee’s guiding principles for selecting those teams and their venues.

That is, “The committee shall create the best matchups in these bowl games in light of the following considerations:”

• The committee will use geography as a consideration in the pairing of teams and assigning them to available bowl games.

• The committee will attempt to avoid regular-season rematches when assigning teams to bowls.

So no Temple-ND rematch.

Also, since all of the teams that appear to be in the Fiesta/Peach pool are closer to Atlanta than Arizona, the committee may give that geographical preference to the higher-ranked teams, but again, there’s enough gray area to make it interesting until Sunday’s formal announcement.

The Irish have played in the Fiesta Bowl four times previously (1988, 1994, 2000 and 2005), but never in the Peach.

An interesting debate for the committee, if not this year, certainly in others is this: Are all Power 5 Conference championships created equal?

If West Division champ Iowa edges Michigan State Saturday, do we really know if the Hawkeyes are a better team than, say, the No. 3 squad in the East, Michigan?

And it’s interesting to note that the committee deems two-loss Florida State from the ACC Atlantic worthy of a higher-ranking at this point than the ACC Coastal champ.

Strength of schedule should, an apparently does, matter.

Notre Dame’s current strength of schedule is No. 8 per the Fremeau Efficiency Index.

And here’s how the Irish SOS stacks up against those teams either playing in a conference title game this weekend or in the clubhouse with a league championship already:

• Pac 12: No. 4 USC vs. No. 31 Stanford

• SEC: No. 17 Florida vs. No. 24 Alabama

• Big Ten: No. 27 Michigan State vs. No. 72 Iowa

• ACC: No. 67 Clemson vs. No. 79 North Carolina

• Big 12: Oklahoma is in at No. 49

• AAC: No. 63 Temple vs. No. 107 Houston

• Mountain West: No. 126 San Diego State vs. No. 57 Air Force

• Conference USA: No. 111 Western Kentucky vs. No. 97 Southern Miss

• MAC: No. 94 Bowling Green vs. No. 55 Northern Illinois

• Sun Belt: Arkansas State is in at 107.

And as far as the ACC coaches, who lamented last summer that Notre Dame should be a full member in the conference or not at all, imagine what Clemson’s résumé would have looked like this year without the Irish on it, or for that matter Florida State’s last year.

Those games were scheduled as part of ND’s five-a-year (games on average) arrangement with the ACC, and wouldn’t have likely been played otherwise.

Consider it another myth busted.

Notre Dame's C.J. Sanders (9), here celebrating a touchdown Saturday night against Stanford, had reason to celebrate Tuesday night after ESPN's latest College Football Playoff rankings show. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)