Notre Dame And The College Football Tier Rankings

Bryan Driskell

There is constant conversation about the tiers of college football, and among Notre Dame faithful, where the Fighting Irish rank among those tiers. Fox Sports host Colin Cowherd recently gave his views on the issue, and his breakdown certainly provided a good laugh.

The tier system isn’t universal, and everyone has their own standards. For me, I like to look at it in five-year blocks. Here’s my tier rankings:

CFB Tiers

Tier one is the truly elite programs, the schools that have won titles and are consistently in title contention. Over the last five teams there are only two that fit that mold, Clemson and Alabama.

Tier two are teams that are consistent title contenders, teams that recruit at a high level and teams that have won big games over the last five years. There are only four programs in that category (Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, Georgia).

Tier three are strong programs, but programs that aren’t quite there yet. It can be for a number of reasons. Programs in tier three are close to jumping into the top two tiers, but they haven’t done it yet on the field. Some are up-and-coming programs, others are steady programs that just can’t get over the hump.

LSU, for example, would have been a tier three team in 2019; they were good, but they weren’t on the level as other program. After finishing as a Top 10 team in 2019, LSU went out and won a national title last season, which jumped them into tier two. They would have to string together a couple more strong seasons to jump into tier one.

So what about Notre Dame?

Notre Dame was a tier two program for me going into 2019, but the 11-2 record actually dropped the Irish out of tier two. Notre Dame has been consistent in the last four seasons, with the 2016 season being the exception, but the Irish have gone 33-6 since that anomaly of a season.

Among the teams broken down for this ranking, Notre Dame ranked ninth in win percentage, tied for ninth in total wins and tied for fifth in 10+ win seasons. Notre Dame is one of just two tier three teams to have a College Football Playoff berth under their belt (Washington).

The issue for Notre Dame, and what keeps it from being in tier two, is their inability to win big games. LSU won more than twice as many games against Top 10 teams (finished) in 2019 (five) than Notre Dame has won in Brian Kelly’s entire tenure (two).

Notre Dame has not defeated a Top 10 team since 2013, and it’s 0-6 against Top 10 teams during the five-year stretch examined in this breakdown. The Irish are just 4-8 against teams that finished ranked in the Top 15 during that five year stretch, which includes three-straight losses against such teams.

Losses to Georgia and the blowout loss to Michigan knocked Notre Dame out of tier two. It’s hard to justify a program being a borderline title contender when it has shown an inability to beat anyone else that’s a title contender. Notre Dame’s “best win” in the last five years is a 2017 victory over a USC team that went 11-3, ranked 12th and lost to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl that season.

The good news is Notre Dame is the top team in tier three in my opinion. Penn State and Florida are certainly charging hard, but their lack of a playoff appearance keeps them behind the Irish. The other bit of good news is Notre Dame will get another chance to earn the kind of victory that could thrust it into tier two.

Another playoff berth in 2020 will vault the Irish back into tier two. An 11-win, non-playoff season with a victory over Clemson would also put the Irish back into tier two territory.

Notre Dame’s recruiting concerns in the 2020 (defense) and 2021 classes are also cause for concern, but the current staff has done a good job taking lower ranked players and getting them to perform. If Notre Dame wants to take the next step, and jump into tier two or three, it needs to start recruiting better and win some games that truly matter.

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Comments (15)
No. 1-5

Best way to change attitudes and perceptions is to win big games on the field.
ND has been close with FSU-Clemson-UGA during Kelly's tenure....but no cigar.

The Michigan meltdown was due in part to a major rift during the Bye Week and that turmoil ultimately led to Chip Long being fired.

It's a journey and ND can't quickly and easily match major programs who over recruit and have recruiting standards that border on/actually are "pay for play" and players don't try hard in the on line courses classroom.

ND's Recruiting has gotten a lot better and the S&C and staff coaches are the best ND's had in many years---but some of that pales in comparison to what other programs are doing and have been doing for years now.

It's hard to play catch up for ND because they don't quite have the roster momentum some of the Top Tier programs have sandbagged and piled up over the years with loads of 4 & 5 Stars.

ND has to get their "back end of the 85 man roster" much stronger and they have done that of late so that not only do they have quality top 1 to 22 and maybe up to best 35 players ...but some good top 36 to 60 guys for rotations and competition too. Freshmen and redshirts can make up the other 20-25 to get to 85 total.

They've done a much better job on bringing in good quality Preferred Walk Ons too...something other teams have done for years and ND recently bought into as well. Training Table is not that old either.

All I can say is they are getting closer and can't get away with what other programs we need to be realistic.

They can make what they have work but it's an uneven battle...but then it's always been that way and ND can overcome the odss.

Ohio Irish
Ohio Irish

This is a very honest evaluation of the Notre Dame Football program. Notre Dame is a solid program but has not had a big win and has completely folded under the pressure of the big game. If the staff and players can change that on November 7, 2020, at home against Clemson, that would be a good start. ND has a shot to make the playoff this year but Clemson stands in their way. That game will be the biggest home game all season and if the crowd, players and coaches show up, ND can win.


I don't agree with Oklahoma. They should be top of Tier III. There isn't a program that lives off hype more than Oklahoma currently. Oklahoma has had one impressive win over the last 5 years. At OSU in 2017. The other top 10 wins came against over rated Big 12 teams. Oklahoma has an elite offense and the Big 12 is weak right now.
That's why they have went to 4 CFP's. They have been beat soundly every year they went to the CFP's except 2017. I mean last year was the worst beatdown I've seen a supposedly top 4 team take. Since Stoops retired OU has lost any semblance of a defense. Under Riley the offense has been elite but the defense is bad. All the other Tier I and Tier II teams are complete teams.


I’ve got no problem with Notre Dame being ranked in tier 3 or the teams ranked ahead of us. I think we’ve had better teams than Oklahoma over that span (2015 and 2018), but overall theyve been better for the 5 years.

Notre Dame will have a chance to move into tier 2 this season, but will likely need to win a playoff game or beat Clemson to do so.


I agree with this eval. I think the culture within and around the program doesn’t demand to win the top 10 games anymore. As long as we hit our 9-10 win quota, it seems the majority are happy. I’m very thankful BK has brought us here, but I am souring on thinking he will take us all the way.