Analysis: Hamilton's knee, Kelly's hubris suddenly factor into Notre Dame's playoff résumé

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton (14) before the Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Kyle Hamilton’s right knee and Brian Kelly’s hubris are suddenly factors in the Notre Dame football team’s postseason trajectory.

It’s in the College Football Playoff selection committee bylaws — in concept, not in specifics — committee chair Gary Barta confirmed Tuesday night. And it’s worded vaguely enough to potentially make a difference whether the CFP No. 6-ranked Irish (11-1) get into the playoff, with the help of some plausible chaos in the conference championship games on Saturday.

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On Tuesday night, in a teleconference that followed ESPN’s reveal of the penultimate CFP top 25, Barta fielded what likely was a record number of questions for a selection committee chair about a No. 6 team this deep into the season.

And as news of Kelly’s departure to LSU potentially sabotaging the players he left behind spilled into Twitter timelines, Notre Dame seemed to become this cuddly, embraceable dark horse — a role usually reserved for the teams the Irish are playing.

Georgia, Michigan, Alabama, Cincinnati and Oklahoma State — in that order — are the five teams ahead of the Irish heading into the final rankings. Those, the playoff matchups and the rest of the New Year’s Six lineup, will be revealed Sunday at noon EST on ESPN.

The fifth set of the College Football Playoff rankings.

That’s when the committee, for the first time this season, can and will project. That includes how injured players rejoining their rosters and how interim coaches and less than full staffs might affect the outcome of postseason matchups.

The Irish check both boxes of intrigue.

In fact, for the record, Notre Dame doesn’t even have an interim coach at the moment. Theoretically, naming one might actually help its postseason profile

Full disclosure? My email box over the years has been peppered with, admittedly, a minority of the Irish fan base — but a loud contingent, nonetheless — that a houseplant standing on the Irish sideline would constitute an upgrade over Kelly.

It’s doubtful any of the 13 committee members would adopt that perception, but they have the latitude to do so. And the opposite is true.

“(That’s) the great thing about the way that the management group has set this up, with protocol and principles,” Barta said. “They don't give specific direction to the committee on how we use it.

“So what I mean by that is there might be one committee who thinks, ‘Hey, this team might be more motivated with their new coach. Or I've seen games where a quarterback who starts or a running back that starts, they put in the next person and the team actually plays better.’

“So it's a piece of information that the management group has said the committee is able to use, but all 13 members may end up using it slightly differently when they place their vote. That's the beauty of the way the committee works.”

It may also be the ugliness of it.

New LSU football coach Brian Kelly gestures to fans after his arrival at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. Kelly, formerly of Notre Dame, is said to have agreed to a 10-year contract with LSU worth $95 million plus incentives.

The potential return of Hamilton seems a little more defined, but still very subjective.

Hamilton suffered a knee fat pad impingement, per Kelly, in the first quarter of a 31-16 victory over USC on Oct. 23. His timetable to return to full football activity was six weeks, which would be the day before the final CFP rankings are determined and revealed.

Despite missing five full games and most of a sixth, he is one of four finalists for the Bednarik Award for the nation’s top defensive player.

After ND’s first full game without Hamilton, a 44-34 survival of North Carolina on Oct. 30, the Irish were 76th nationally out of 130 FBS teams in total defense, 49th in rush defense, 31st in pass-efficiency defense, and 58th in scoring defense.

As of Tuesday, there were 31st, 17th, 29th and 11th, respectively and undefeated without Hamilton. So how does the committee measure his potential return?

The more critical question, which I asked Barta, is how will the committee know whether the old recovery timeline for Hamilton provided by Kelly is still in play?

“The committee wants and the CFP wants every bit of information it can get,” Barta said. “Obviously if, for some reason, Notre Dame would choose not to share that, there's nothing we could do about that.

“We do have another round of calls this week where we'll be talking to the conferences and the representatives. So there will be an opportunity for the information to be shared.”

Even a healthy version of Hamilton could eventually opt out, depending on ND’s postseason destination and the advice of his support system. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior is still projected as a top five pick in next spring’s NFL Draft.

But he doesn’t need to make that determination until after ND’s postseason destination is locked in.

If the season ended Tuesday night, that would be a Jan. 1 date with No. 11 Michigan State in the Fiesta Bowl, but so much could still change in a few days. Just for fun, if the 12-team playoff format with its original selection criteria were in play, the sixth-seeded Irish would host No. 11 Michigan State in a first-round game.

The winner would play fourth-ranked but third-seeded Cincinnati in the quarterfinals on a neutral field, with the Michigan/Ohio State/Oregon survivor awaiting them in the semifinals.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI