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Forde-Yard Dash: Another Notre Dame Playoff (and ACC) Debate Looms

Plus, who gets in if the ultimate championship-weekend chaos scenario unfolds?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Traitor” banners sold separately in Norman):

MORE DASH: Lincoln’s Path

SECOND QUARTER: THE NOTRE DAME DEBATE FLARES ANEW

If the upcoming championship weekend plays out according to expectation, we are heading toward a five-team logjam for four College Football Playoff spots: Georgia, Michigan, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame. But really, the debate would be smaller than that—Georgia and Michigan would be in without question and Cincinnati would be a near-lock unless the selection committee gets brand-name cute and ignores a certain Bearcats victory in South Bend. That would leave Oklahoma State (11) and Notre Dame (12) to tussle over the final CFP bid.

(If the upcoming championship weekend does not play out according to form, this could all become really wild. More on that in a few paragraphs. The Dash will pick the title games in a later quarter.)

The signs are ominous for the Irish, who beat Stanford by 31 points and lost ground in both major polls. The AP and coaches poll voters moved the 12–1 Cowboys ahead of 11–1 Notre Dame on Sunday, after they had been behind the Irish for the previous five weeks. At least the pollsters are consistent; having overvalued Oklahoma all year, they assigned a lot of weight to Oklahoma State beating the Sooners on Saturday.

Notre Dame QB Jack Coan points

Jack Coan and the Irish are hoping an 11–1 record will be enough for the playoff.

The margin between the two teams is slim, just 27 points in the AP poll and 35 in the coaches poll. But it stands to reason that Oklahoma State would only improve its standing by winning the Big 12 title game against 10–2 Baylor.

The CFP selection committee could see it differently, of course. It has had Notre Dame one spot ahead of Oklahoma State in each of its rankings to date. Thus we arrive at the only committee rankings that matter to date, because the hay is all in the barn for the Fighting Irish. Their work is done at 11–1. So what the committee thinks of them Tuesday night should be what it thinks of them come Selection Sunday.

The eternal conference affiliation question flares anew: Would being an Atlantic Coast Conference football member have Notre Dame in better position to make the playoff? Worse position? No change?

Last year’s ACC rental membership was a godsend for the Irish. It gave them a firm and desirable schedule to play instead of trying to paste it together like BYU’s ransom note of a 2020 slate. It also gave them the opportunity for a signature win (over Clemson in South Bend) and the proverbial “extra data point” of an ACC championship game. Notre Dame was trucked in that ACC rematch with the Tigers but still made the playoff field.

The Irish made the 2012 BCS championship game undefeated and the 2018 CFP at 12–0. They made it last year as an ACC team with an 11–1 mark. If they were an ACC team this season and playing either Wake Forest or Pittsburgh in Charlotte on Saturday, a win could conceivably lock up a bid. Can an independent afford to lose a game and still finish in the top four? Especially without a signature win? We’re about to find out.

If it doesn’t work out this season, don’t expect a playoff snub to jolt Notre Dame into joining the ACC or any other league. The school has stayed independent this long for a reason. And playoff expansion is coming—perhaps very soon. That could certainly benefit the Irish, although a good indication of how much they cherish independent status would be the school’s willingness to accept a 12-team playoff that gives highest seeding to conference champions. Heck, athletic director Jack Swarbrick is one of the architects of the plan.

(There is speculation that one motivation for the ACC’s favoring something smaller than a 12-team playoff is to coax Notre Dame into membership, which would unlock the league’s disadvantageous media-rights contract with ESPN. The ACC is stuck with a long-term revenue problem if that contract stays as is. After failing to land Texas and Oklahoma, adding Notre Dame is just about the only way it could trigger a lucrative renegotiation.)

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SNAPSHOTS OF THE SIX TEAMS THAT MATTER MOST HEADING INTO THE FINAL WEEK

Georgia (13) is in the field at this point, unless the Bulldogs somehow lose 50–0 to Alabama on Saturday in the SEC championship game. (In terms of precedent, Notre Dame lost by 24 to Clemson on the final weekend last year and still made the bracket.) At 12–0, Georgia is the only undefeated Power 5 team, and it has played exactly one close game—the season opener against Clemson in Charlotte. This is a done deal, though the Dogs have multiple scores to settle with the Crimson Tide and should perform accordingly in Atlanta.

Michigan (14) is in with a victory over Iowa on Saturday in the Big Ten championship game. Its lone loss was on the road by four points against a team that finished 10–2, and there was some controversy attached. Just win and a No. 2 playoff seed is there for the taking. The primary concern for the Wolverines will be an emotional letdown against the Hawkeyes, after pouring heart and soul into knocking off Ohio State for the first time since 2011.

Cincinnati (15) is in with a victory over Houston in the American Athletic Conference title game, which will be a home game for the Bearcats. If they lose and there is upheaval elsewhere they might still get a chance, but probably not. That’s a benefit of the doubt not often (O.K., never) extended to a Group of 5 team. Having beaten Notre Dame by double digits, Cincy has effectively boxed out the Irish in the playoff rankings.

Alabama (16) needs to beat Georgia to make the field. If the Crimson Tide lose, it’s hard to see them getting in at 11–2 unless things get strange. Bama’s lone loss has looked worse as the season unfolded, coming against a Texas A&M team that finished 8–4. Scraping by 6–6 Auburn, 6–6 LSU and 6–6 Florida doesn’t help much, either. Beyond brand name and an SEC strength of schedule rating, there isn’t a lot to love about the Tide at the moment.

As noted, Notre Dame is in the clubhouse at 11–1. The Irish have a better loss than Oklahoma State (Cincinnati vs. 7–5 Iowa State) but not much in the signature-win camp. The best: over 8–4 Wisconsin and 8–4 Purdue. The only other team Notre Dame has beaten that has a winning record is Toledo (7–5).

Oklahoma State (11–1) has wins over 10–2 Baylor and 10–2 Oklahoma. If it can add a second victory over the Bears, that might be enough to get in the field, provided the chalk holds elsewhere. In addition to the Iowa State loss, there was this close call: A one-point victory at 7–5 Boise State came with controversy attached, when a Broncos fumble return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter was overturned because an official’s whistle blew the play dead.

Oklahoma State vs Baylor

The Cowboys' playoff hopes hinge on beating Baylor for a second time in 2021.

AND NOW, THE CHAOS SCENARIO

Who gets in if the following happens: Georgia beats Alabama; Iowa beats Michigan; Houston beats Cincinnati; Baylor beats Oklahoma State; Oregon beats Utah? That would result in Georgia being in for sure, Notre Dame likely in and suddenly thankful it didn’t have a 13th data point, and would leave the rest of America convulsing in confusion (17).

The nation would be teeming with two-loss Power 5 teams (18): Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Oregon and the winner of the ACC title game (either Wake or Pitt). Of those, Iowa, Baylor, Oregon and the ACC winner would be league champions at 11–2. The Wolverines, Crimson Tide and Cowboys also would be 11–2. The Spartans, Buckeyes and Sooners would be 10–2.

Then there would be the one-loss AAC tandem (19) of Cincinnati and Houston. The Cougars lost their opener to Texas Tech, taking a 21–7 lead and then being outscored 31–0 in the second half. They haven’t lost since. If they upset Cincy in Nippert Stadium, could they vault into consideration from far outside normal CFP consideration?

How about someone from the FBS remainder bin (20)? BYU is finished at 10–2, with a 6–1 record against P5 competition; the losses are to Baylor and Boise State. San Diego State is 11–1 heading into the Mountain West title game against Utah State. Louisiana is 11–1 heading into the Sun Belt championship game, with an opening loss to Texas. UTSA is 11–1 heading into the Conference USA title tilt against Western Kentucky.

The Dash guess is that the committee then would fall back heavily on strength of schedule to fill out the final two spots behind Georgia and Notre Dame. Per the Sagarin Ratings, that currently would favor Ohio State (No. 16 schedule) and Alabama (No. 18 but about to go higher based on playing Georgia). Those would be big-brand additions, and the howling out of Ann Arbor (and elsewhere) would be deafening.

MORE DASH: Lincoln’s Path