STANFORD, Calif. — They looked about how you’d expect after their grandest aspirations were torn from their chests and kicked into oblivion on a spine-tingling night in late November. Sheldon Day, Notre Dame’s senior anchor on the defensive line, was face down on the turf. Joe Schmidt, the senior linebacker and willful former walk-on, took a knee around the 18-yard line and stared toward the goalposts, frozen in place. His partner with the extraterrestrial talent, Jaylon Smith, stood nearby and gnashed on his mouthpiece. Jerry Tillery, a freshman nose tackle, put his head in his hands as his teammates zombie-walked off the sideline. When one of those Fighting Irish teammates tried to help Tiller up, he just collapsed back to the ground.
Leaving Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoff will be painless after all, even if the path there was as excruciating as imaginable. This time, a field goal with no time left made it a 38–36 victory for Stanford on a harried Saturday when, literally, the team with the ball last won. Appended to the waterlogged near-miss in Clemson a month and a half earlier, it neatly doubled as the Irish’s eviction notice. No one has to argue common opponents or style points anymore for a 10–2 team. This was a full stop in the land of start-ups. And though it’s may be a bit reductive, the end came with four points separating this team from where it wanted to go and where it wound up. That’s a terrible anguish because there’s nothing Notre Dame should do to change it except try, try again.
“I put this team up against anybody in the country,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Fact of the matter is, we’re not going to get that chance. We get that. We understand it.”
It was refreshing honesty in the face of a bracing end. Notre Dame had its chances and it didn’t come through. And there is nothing particularly wrong with that except the result.
There are many people who believe they know how Notre Dame should run its football program. They are the people screaming from inside the wormhole of circular arguments and mind-bending logic created when a one-loss team chases a championship. Surprisingly, there are people actually paid to run Notre Dame’s football program, and they have some very clear ideas of how that program fits into the current structure for College Football Playoff participation. And, as it happens, they think it fits just fine.
They think a four-team playoff is fine. They think playing 12 games, when the schedule is designed the way Notre Dame aims to design it, is fine. They especially think not being in a conference is fine. They think it’s fine to set up a dozen solid games and try to win 11 or 12 of them and see what a committee of people thinks about that. And it is hard to argue against this plan. Because the margin between the plan working perfectly and not at all was two points at Clemson and two points at Stanford. It’s probably easier, in fact, to contend that this season demonstrated just how effectual the plan is.
Jack Swarbrick, one of those people actually in charge of the program, tends to think of it that way. “I know there have been some people who have speculated that this is creating pressure on us to give up independence,” the Notre Dame athletic director told Sports Illustrated as he stood on the sideline before Saturday’s game. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. We are as comfortable with the benefits for the university of independence as we have ever been.”
The comfort was evident everywhere with everyone. About 80 minutes before one of the most consequential games in recent program history, Kelly casually strode on to the Stanford Stadium turf while a few members of his team warmed up. Notre Dame’s head coach was so edgy and preoccupied that he stopped after 20 yards to watch television. While Kelly took in the USC-UCLA game on the big screens overhead, he chit-chatted with his small security entourage, then made small talk with broadcasters. A few moments later, Swarbrick caught up with school president Rev. John Jenkins on the sideline. They talked not about the playoff and related dilemmas of football independence but about how their Thanksgivings went and about Swarbrick’s daughter getting engaged in Sonoma a couple days earlier.
If you were looking for men oppressed by the moment, fretting over their place in the grand scheme, they didn’t occupy the visitor’s sideline. Swarbrick conceded that there was not enough data to come to any definitive conclusions about how Notre Dame does or doesn’t fit into the playoff era—give it another three or four selection cycles, basically—but nothing to date has raised red flags. “From the perspective of someone who participated in the decision making for the structure, [I’m] very pleased with how it’s gone, especially the approaches taken by the selection committee,” Swarbrick said. “Relative to Notre Dame, we’ll need a lot more data points to make any assessment of how it impacts us directly. Obviously we’ll get important information this year, subject to tonight’s game. But what you can’t do, on the few data points of a couple years or three years, is draw any conclusions.”
The 13th game—specifically Notre Dame’s lack of one—may be the central flashpoint, given how it helped boost Ohio State into the very first playoff. It also could be a red herring. The perspective of Kelly and others is simple: If that 13th game was a championship game, it’s a coin flip. Maybe it would help, and maybe it wouldn’t. If it were just another regular-season game that the Irish appealed to add, it likely wouldn’t feature a top-shelf opponent anyway. And perhaps most importantly, Swarbrick just isn’t sure it matters like everyone thinks it matters.
In fact, the Notre Dame athletic director would argue, the architecture of the playoff supports quality teams who play 12 games. “The notion that there’s some unfairness built into it just isn’t true,” he said. “A one-loss team that doesn’t make their conference championship, and their only loss is to a great team, they should still be able to be under consideration. Well, that’s a 12-game team. They shouldn’t be disadvantaged, nor should we be. You get to compare those schedules. And I’ll stack our 12 (games) up against most people’s 13.”
Someone always will be disappointed no matter how anyone structures a postseason. Winning 11 games against a quality schedule—that is an argument that everyone from Swarbrick to Kelly to the players on the field are willing to stand on, annually, even if the committee ultimately bypasses them. It’s a sentiment echoed in the way Kelly addressed playoff hopes to his team since early October, when he addressed them at all: The Irish lost their chance to control their destiny when they lost at Clemson. What was left was to win every game and then let the committee decide the rest. That was a satisfactory dynamic, and not just because the Irish didn’t have much of a choice in it.
“We didn’t get it done,” Kelly said. “We didn’t win enough games. But this is a really good football team.”
The same could be said for Stanford, which by proxy almost buoys Notre Dame’s plan. The Cardinal could be an 11–2 team that is the champion of a conference that sends 10 of its 12 teams to bowl games in what Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott called Saturday “a historic level with the depth and competitiveness of our conference.” But Stanford lost at Northwestern to begin the season. And it lost again after that in a league that may have cannibalized itself out of playoff consideration. Cardinal coach David Shaw was defiant late Saturday, declaring that his team didn’t have to prove anything to anybody—and that was true only in the sense that the selection committee doesn’t have to look terribly hard at a two-loss team when there are unbeatens and/or one-loss league champs available.
“We knew we kind of took it out of our hands a couple weeks back,” Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan said after throwing for 269 yards and four touchdowns against Notre Dame, “but I think that no one in the country wants to play us right now.”
It’s small consolation because it is all Stanford has. Likewise, with all the talk of Notre Dame coming up two plays and four points short of a playoff, there was of course more than that precluding their participation. The Irish ran up 533 yards of offense on Saturday and lost. A defense that allowed Stanford to convert 8 of 12 third downs and looked absolutely porous on the back end is clearly not playoff-caliber. It has allowed 24 touchdown drives of 75-plus yards this year. Whatever outrageous talent it boasts in a future first-round pick like Smith, it also has severe limitations that allowed the Cardinal to drive to Conrad Ukropina’s game-winning 45-yard field goal, directly after DeShone Kizer scored on a naked bootleg run to give Notre Dame the lead with 30 seconds to play. In terms of playoff consideration, the Irish were flawed long before they were moot.
But they had a chance, regardless, in late November. And that was the plan. “I truly believe that this team is one of the better teams in the country,” said Kizer, the redshirt freshman who threw for 234 yards and ran for another 128 on Saturday. “For us to come up short of our goal is very disappointing. A 10-win season is very successful, and when you have the goals set as high as we did, it looks like a disappointment. But you have to understand there’s a probably a good chance we’re going to play in a really good bowl game. There’s probably a good chance we’re going to be able to go out and prove we still are one of the best teams in the country.”
All that’s left is to try again. The plan will be the same next year and it seems increasingly likely that the man in charge of executing it will be as well, with the chances of Kelly springboarding to the NFL seeming to lose steam. “I love my head coach,” Swarbrick said before the game. “I think he loves Notre Dame. So we’re counting on him being around.”
It was the final week of the regular season, and this was a team with a chance to make the College Football Playoff. The acute agony the Notre Dame players felt as they trudged off the field shouldn’t distract anyone from the reality that the plan nearly worked. The only thing that needs to change is the ending.