Breaking Down Notre Dame And The Final AP Poll
When a program like Notre Dame finishes 11-2 the expectation is they would finish the season ranked in the Top 10 of the final polls. That did not happen for the Fighting Irish in 2019, as Notre Dame finished the season ranked 12th in the final Associated Press poll despite winning 11 games, including the final six games by an average margin of 23.7 points per game.
There were a number of factors that went into Notre Dame’s failure to crack the Top 10 by the end of the season, despite the fact the Irish spent the first nine weeks of season ranked 10th or higher.
First, let’s take a look at the final rankings:
Opp. Rec. Refers to the combined record of each team’s opponents, and the Win% is the winning percentage of each team’s opponents. Top 25 refers to a team’s record against teams that finish in the Top 25, Top 15 refers to a team’s record against teams that finish in the Top 15, and Top 10 refers to a team’s record against teams that finish in the Top 10 of the polls.
There were some unique circumstances that had the Irish ranked much lower than one would expect of an 11-2 record.
1. Unusual Year At The Top — Notre Dame was a bit unlucky when it comes to rankings this season, and the first thing I noticed when breaking down the rankings was how many one and two loss teams there were at the Power 5 level. It was a bad year in college football when it came to top matchups, especially out of conference, and combined with top heavy Power 5 conferences there just weren’t a lot of losses in the Top 25 this season.
Last season, the teams that ranked between No. 6-9 all had at least three or four losses. If the same records existed this season there is little doubt Notre Dame and it’s 11-2 record would have resulted in the Irish finishing in the Top 10.
In 2017, teams No. 9-17 all had at least three to four losses.
In 2016, the No. 3 team in the country (USC) had three losses, and teams ranked No. 7-12 all had at least three losses.
In 2015, teams No. 10-17 all had at least three losses. In 2014, teams No. 9-19 all had between three and four losses.
The last time the Top 10 was filled with opponents with two or fewer losses was 2013.
From 2014-18 the odds of Notre Dame finishing in the Top 10 with the exact same record and results is extremely high.
2. Softer Schedule Than Normal — A case could be made that Notre Dame’s 11-2 record was partially due to a soften than normal schedule, but that seemed to impact the program’s final record as well. Notre Dame’s opponents had a combined .551 winning percentage, which was the second lowest of the Brian Kelly era. Ironically, the only year that was worse was 2016, when Notre Dame’s opponents had a .539 win percentage.
The opposition win percentage was lower than the eight other seasons of the Kelly tenure.
For these percentages the Notre Dame result was removed in order to show what opponents did against everyone else. If the Notre Dame result was added the 2019 season would still be the second lowest, but 2010 would have ranked No. 1 and 2017 would rank No. 2.
Notre Dame played only two opponents with at least 10 wins, which tied for the lowest of the Kelly tenure. Every other season had between three to five 10-plus win opponents.
3. Lack Of Big Wins — This ties into point No. 2. Notre Dame didn’t have any big wins this season, at least none that would impress voters. The Irish played just three opponents that finished the season ranked in the Top 25, which was the lowest of the Kelly tenure. Notre Dame’s only win over a ranked opponent came against No. 20 Navy.
That was overshadowed by the 45-14 loss to Michigan, and the lack of big victories limited Notre Dame’s ability to impress voters beyond blowing out average to bad teams. It wasn’t just the AP and Coaches Poll voters that were unimpressed, Notre Dame was No. 15 in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
Wisconsin ranked ahead of Notre Dame despite a 10-4 record, and that was likely due to Wisconsin winning three games against Top 25 teams and a convincing victory over No. 10 Minnesota. Some Irish fans will likely point to Wisconsin’s four losses, which included a loss to 6-7 Illinois, but if you evaluate the teams based on who they beat it’s not really close.
The two teams that Notre Dame has the strongest case of being ranked higher than based on this metric are Florida and Alabama from the SEC. Both teams had identical records against Top 25 opponents (1-2), and while Florida had a win over a Top 15 opponent the Gators also had two wins over FCS opponents. Alabama’s record against top opponents is almost identical to Notre Dame’s, and its best win was over No. 18 Michigan, who beat Notre Dame.
But Alabama’s overall schedule was incredibly soft. They lost to the only two good teams the played in the regular season, and their best wins were over 8-5 Texas A&M and 8-5 Tennessee. Overall, Alabama opponents were under .500 on the season.
Looking at teams 1-through-12, Notre Dame and Alabama are the only teams to not defeat a single opponent that ranked in the Top 15.
Final Thoughts — Notre Dame should have been at least ranked No. 10 in the final poll. Some might not think it matters, but rankings do matter. Who knows if Kelly has built in bonuses for finishing in the Top 10, and the reality is being ranked in the Top 10 does matter from a perception standpoint, especially with recruits.
Personally, I would have ranked Notre Dame ahead of Alabama and Wisconsin. Alabama had an elite offense, but their defense beat up on inferior opponents and struggled against the two best teams they played. Their overall strength of schedule was a joke, and despite Alabama beating Michigan that’s too transitive for me to care much about.
Wisconsin’s three Top 25 wins and victory over No. 10 Minnesota is impressive, but their loss to Illinois cannot be ignored, neither can its blowout loss to Ohio State in the regular season.
I considered Florida as well, but the Gators win over No. 14 Auburn bests any Irish win, and they were competitive against both LSU and Georgia.