Analysis: Notre Dame's CFP hypotheticals are promising, but its reality is even more so

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The hypotheticals that swirl around Notre Dame and its congealing reality that a national championship isn’t just empty ambition are more twisted and less substantive than ever before this deep into a college football season.

None of which will come into play if the Irish simply take care of their business over the balance of the 2020 season and follow recent history’s template.

Which is:

The last four national champions debuted in the first set of College Football Playoff rankings, during their respective title seasons, in the No. 2 spot. And that’s exactly where the Irish (8-0, 7-0 ACC) landed in Tuesday night’s initial 2020 hierarchy.

Alabama (7-0) was No. 1, with Clemson (7-1) in the unlucky No. 3 spot. No team that debuted third in the initial playoff rankings of all six previous cycles has made the playoff field. Big Ten favorite and playoff regular Ohio State (4-0) was fourth.

The top four teams in the final rankings, to be released on Dec. 20, will comprise the seventh-ever College Football Playoff field.

The selection committee, long before their most recent meetings in Grapevine, Texas, considered playoff expansion this season only because of the scheduling irregularities brought on by COVID-19 complications, but they ultimately decided against it.

In the 32nd iteration of playoff rankings, Notre Dame is in the top four for the ninth time and in its highest position ever. The previous high was No. 3, both in the first two cycles of 2017 and the last four rankings the one year ND actually made the playoff, 2018.

Perhaps the most significant thought selection committee chairman Gary Barta implied in a post-TV appearance teleconference with the media was that all the hair-splitting that’s gone on between teams playing a different number of games in normal seasons wouldn’t be so stringently enforced in the COVID season.

But it’s hardly a non-issue, either. The Irish and Clemson, if they stay on their trajectory and reconnect in the Dec. 19 ACC Championship Game (4 p.m. EST; ABC-TV) will have played 12 games each, barring any more postponements.

Alabama will top out at 10 — 11 if its scratched game with LSU gets rescheduled. Ohio State will max out at eight games. The most any Pac-12 team will play is seven. Utah may struggle to get to five.

“We're going to continue just to look at the body of work,” Barta said when pressed on the subject. “And I mentioned video and watching games is always important, but maybe as important this year as ever before.

“We're going to identify the top four teams and the Top 25 teams based on the games they do play and how strong they are. And so we're not going to hold somebody back because they played a certain number of games.

“There will likely become a number of games where it does make an impact, but we haven't identified an absolute number that we would rest on.”

How the committee ultimately answers that question on Dec. 20 could go a long way toward determining whether a one-loss Notre Dame team could make the playoff field.

Next up for Notre Dame is a road date Friday at North Carolina (6-2, 6-2 ACC), whose No. 19 CFP ranking is significantly higher than how the AP and coaches polls view the Tar Heels.

That’s important, because if you’re comparing an 11-1 Notre Dame team against 8-0 OSU, the Buckeyes have only Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan left before the Big Ten Championship Game, teams with a combined record of 5-12.

The Big 12 and Pac-12 appear to be non-factors, the former because every team in the league has at least two losses and Oklahoma is the highest ranked at No. 11. The Pac-12 champ will at most be 7-0 with maybe one Top 25 win on its résumé if that.

Oregon (3-0) was the highest-ranked of those teams, at No. 15.

If the season ended today — and in 2020 anything’s possible — Alabama would play Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 1 in New Orleans in one semifinal, and Notre Dame and Clemson would reprise their 47-40 double-overtime Irish victory Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

It would be Notre Dame’s first Rose Bowl appearance since Knute Rockne’s Irish thumped Pop Warner’s Stanford team, 27-10, on Jan. 1, 1925 to cap ND’s 1924 national championship run.

The two semifinal winners will square off for the national title Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

The Irish need to win two of their next three games to clinch a spot in the ACC Championship Game, owning two-way tiebreakers with both No. 10 Miami and Clemson and a three-way tiebreaker as well.

If Notre Dame did end up 11-1, its strongest playoff case may be a close loss at North Carolina Friday, followed by dominant wins over Syracuse (Dec. 5) and Wake Forest (Dec. 12) and then a sweep of Clemson.

If the Irish swept their regular-season games, then lost competitively to Clemson On Dec. 19, they wouldn’t be a playoff lock. But barring a Florida upset of Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, it’s hard to imagine them falling out of the top 4 and below No. 5 Texas A&M (5-1) or Kelly’s former school, No. 7 Cincinnati (8-0).

But improvement matters. In 2015, the Irish dropped out of the top four by fading late in the season against inferior competition.

“To Notre Dame's credit, they're 8-0 and they really have improved on both sides of the ball each week,” Barta offered Tuesday night. “I look at Ian Book, who now compared to the beginning of the year, as the season goes on, he just looks more and more comfortable with every passing game.

“The other thing Notre Dame has done is played some very tough defense. They've held five of their opponents to fewer than 14 points.

“Notre Dame came in squarely at No. 2, again, partly because they just have the impressive win over Clemson, but also they're just improving with each week that goes by.”

Wide receiver Javon McKinley (88) and his Notre Dame teammates find themselves at No. 2 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings of the 2020 season.

1. Alabama (7-0)

2. Notre Dame (8-0)

3. Clemson (7-1)

4. Ohio State (4-0)

5. Texas A&M (5-1)

6. Florida (6-1)

7. Cincinnati (8-0)

8. Northwestern (5-0)

9. Georgia (5-2)

10. Miami (7-1)

11. Oklahoma (6-2)

12. Indiana (4-1)

13. Iowa State (6-2)

14. BYU (9-0)

15. Oregon (3-0)

16. Wisconsin (2-1)

17. Texas (5-2)

18. USC (3-0)

19. North Carolina (6-2)

20. Coastal Carolina (8-0)

21. Marshall (7-0)

22. Auburn (5-2)

23. Oklahoma State (5-2)

24. Iowa (3-2)

25. Tulsa (5-1)