Breaking down Notre Dame's most likely postseason scenarios
Theoretically, though not realistically, there are 16 possible postseason landing spots in play for the 16th-ranked Notre Dame football team (5-1).
That the college football playoff semifinal sites — Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl — aren’t the most remote among them, halfway through the 2017 season, is a testament to what Irish coach Brian Kelly was able to accomplish last December, during ND’s first bowl-less winter since Kelly replaced deposed coach Charlie Weis in December of 2009.
The difference between being the fourth Irish coach in history to experience an eighth loss in a season and say, a barely bowl-eligible 6-6 mark, was time.
Without the obligation of having to go through the motions in a meaningless bowl game that would likely have changed nothing in the bigger picture, Kelly actually had about five extra weeks to formulate his own reinvention and of that of his coaching staff.
That included the mid-December hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Elko, with his influence on the field and late in the 2017 recruiting cycle having boosted the Irish onto the cusp of the playoff discussion.
Out of the discussion realistically are two of the three bowls which represent the new floor of postseason possibilities for ND and the 14 ACC full members whose bowl pictures largely mirror — but not entirely — those of the Irish.
The old bottom was the St. Petersburg Bowl, since rebranded as the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, was contractually eliminated before the season. The new lowest rung, at least perceptually, is a coin flip between the Independence Bowl, Dec. 27 in Shreveport, La., and the Quick Lane Bowl, Dec. 26 in Detroit.
They are probably the only two of the 16 bowls off the table, along with the Music City Bowl (Dec. 29 in Nashville, Tenn.), because the Irish can’t contractually play there again until 2020 since they did so in 2014.
So that leaves the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton, Peach, Citrus, Camping World, Belk, TaxSlayer, Pinstripe, Sun and Military in the discussion, once the Irish reach the bowl-eligible threshold with their next win.
Here’s the most likely postseason scenario at each possible record beyond ND’s current five victories:
11-1, Playoff Semifinal
Ohio State in 2016 showed that a team with one loss, with no conference title and with only 12 games played could make the playoff field, a nice precedent for Notre Dame. The Buckeyes had four games against teams in the final CFP top 8, three of them on the road. And OSU collected three wins in those four games. The remaining Irish schedule may actually have that kind of octane. Per the NCAA formula, ND’s remaining opponents, at 27-6 (.818), constitute the second-toughest finishing stretch in the FBS, behind only Georgia Tech’s (33-6, .846). In ESPN’s Power Index, the remaining ND schedule ranks fourth-toughest. The Irish do have a remote chance at a spot in either the Peach, Fiesta or Cotton bowls, but their most likely New Year’s Six landing spot at 11-1 would be the Orange Bowl against the best ACC team that’s not in the playoff field. ND’s competition for the Orange Bowl slotting would be the highest-ranked SEC or Big Ten non-champion that’s not involved in the playoff.
10-2, Citrus Bowl
A slot opposite an SEC team in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 1 opens up for the ACC/Notre Dame only if a Big Ten team is selected for the Orange Bowl. Otherwise, a Big Ten team gets priority here. This is the top spot in the ACC’s bowl package beyond the New Year’s Six games. Two things to keep in mind: The CFP committee does not pick the participants in bowls beyond the New Year’s Six, so fan appeal/popularity comes into play in games like the Citrus. And for ND to ace out an ACC team, the Irish only need to be within one total win over the competing ACC team to be selected. For the Irish to land in the New Year’s Six with a 10-2 mark, they’d likely have to finish no lower than 10th in the CFP final rankings.
9-3, Camping World Bowl
Like the Citrus, this game is played in Camping World Stadium in Orlando, but four days earlier (Dec. 28). And unlike the name suggests, camping is not actually required. The Irish played in this bowl in 2011, when it was the Champs Sports Bowl. In between, it morphed into the Russell Athletic Bowl. A 10-2 Irish team could fall here if it’s shut out of both the New Year’s Six and the Citrus Bowl. The opponent would come from the Big 12.
8-4, Camping World Bowl
The one-win rule means at least three — and likely four ACC teams — would have to amass 10 wins or more to push the Irish out of Orlando and into the five-bowl “Tier One” level of games. Those are the TaxSlayer (vs. SEC), the Music City (vs. SEC), the Pinstripe (vs. Big Ten), the Belk (vs. SEC) and the Sun (vs. Pac-12). The TaxSlayer and Music City split six ACC/ND selections evenly over a six-year period and can only choose the Irish once in that cycle. That means the Music City (2014) is out.
7-5, Belk Bowl
Got Belk? The Charlotte, N.C., game is the only one of the five in Tier One that hasn’t hosted the Irish at some point in its history. ND’s desire would likely be to play in the new venue, though the Tier One bowls, which would hold a non-binding lottery for first shot at the Irish, do have some say-so.
6-6, Belk Bowl
The ACC had 11 bowl teams in 2016 and eight of them entered bowl season with more than seven wins, both unusually high numbers. If that scenario repeated itself, however, it might be enough to push ND into the ACC’s Tier Two, and specifically the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md., against a team from the American Athletic Conference.