By Stewart Mandel
November 14, 2012

Undefeated Notre Dame received one first-place vote in this week's USA Today Coaches' Poll -- from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. Should 10-0 Kansas State, 10-0 Oregon and the 10-0 Irish all win out, self-interest will surely rule the day come Dec. 2. The Ducks will inevitably get the Pac-12 coaches' votes, while the Wildcats will capture their Big 12 brethren's.

But who will stand up for the independent Irish?

"We'll have to start seeing how many coaches are Catholic," Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick joked this week.

Notre Dame has long been envied for its status as college football's most popular contrarian and all the perks that come with it: the school's NBC contract, rampant East Coast media adulation, its own clause for BCS bowl qualification and a seat at the BCS governance table. But with the third-ranked Irish in national title contention in November for the first time since the BCS' inception, their lack of a conference identity is becoming a potentially costly disadvantage.

"It's the flip side of independence," Swarbrick said while attending Monday's meetings in Denver to discuss the forthcoming college football playoff. "We love it and all the benefits it gives us, but the conference anchor, the perception of the conference, you never have a benefit from it.

"People appropriately have a great respect for Big 12 football. It's excellent. And this system going forward, too, there will be a presumption in favor of conference champions. We understand that, but it's the tradeoff we're making. It's one we accept."

When Kelly left Cincinnati in 2009 following the Bearcats' 12-0 regular season, he probably figured his new employer's exalted stature would negate the type of perception problem he faced at that Big East school. Much like his current team, that Cincinnati squad was stuck behind other unbeatens, from the SEC (Alabama and Florida) and Big 12 (Texas).

At the time, Kelly didn't do much lobbying, basically conceding that those power-conference teams were more deserving than the Bearcats (which was essentially confirmed when the Gators stomped them, 51-24, in the Sugar Bowl shortly after Kelly departed for South Bend). This time, however, Kelly is prepared to defend his team, particularly since most indicators suggest the Irish have thus far played a slightly tougher schedule than either Oregon or K-State.

According to Jeff Sagarin's ratings, Notre Dame's strength of schedule is 28th nationally. Kansas State's is 29th, Oregon's 45th. The Irish did not play an FCS opponent and played just one non-AQ foe (Navy). Their opponents to date are a combined 54-45. Kansas State's competition (which includes one FCS foe) is 49-48; Oregon's (ditto) 48-54. The Irish, in turn, rank No. 1 in the BCS computers, but the human polls, which account for two-thirds of the current formula, have them slotted at No. 3.

"The only thing that confuses me is that everybody in college sports uses a strength of schedule index -- I know they use it in basketball, it seems to be part of the vernacular -- but when it comes to college football, strength of schedule is kind of a forgotten topic," Kelly said in an interview this week. "We think the schedule we've played is pretty darn good. ... We feel that as an independent, we have done the right things relative to scheduling to merit us being part of the conversation."

To be fair, the primary reason Notre Dame is No. 3 right now is not its schedule, but something it has no control over: the preseason polls. The Ducks, Wildcats and Irish sit in the same order they did back in August, when Oregon opened at No. 5 in the Coaches' Poll, Kansas State sat at No. 21 and Notre Dame checked in at No. 24. As the Ducks and Wildcats have largely cruised through their schedules, voters have not found reason to bump the Irish -- which have survived two overtime wins and several other close calls -- ahead of two teams that haven't lost.

The Irish have also been hurt by the fact that several of their most touted opponents coming into the season have either underwhelmed (5-5 Michigan State and 7-3 USC, which looms in their regular-season finale) or lost to other quality opponents shortly before the Irish faced them (7-3 Michigan, which lost 41-14 to Alabama in its season opener, and 7-2 Oklahoma, which, coincidentally, lost 24-19 to Kansas State).

But here's the biggest difference. When one of Oregon or Kansas State's opponents loses in conference play, it means that one of its other foes looks a little bit better. For instance, when Washington upset then-No. 8 Stanford on Sept. 27, it likely diminished Notre Dame's subsequent Oct. 13 win over the Cardinal in voters' eyes. However, that same result also moved the Huskies into the rankings, albeit briefly, so voters saw "No. 23" in front of Washington's name when the Ducks trounced the Huskies 52-21 on Oct. 6.

"For all the things people want to write about all the benefits associated with the path we chose, there are a lot of negatives," said Swarbrick. "We're very happy with the balance we strike, but absolutely, that's one of them."

It may be that for Notre Dame, the new postseason system can't come soon enough, and not just because it will allow two more teams to play for the national championship. An NCAA basketball-style selection committee will replace the traditional voter polls, and the BCS commissioners have said repeatedly that strength of schedule will figure prominently in their discussions.

However, the commissioners' most heated debate last spring was whether or not winning one's conference championship should be a required entry point to the playoff. They ultimately compromised, thus allowing Notre Dame to remain an independent, but not without stressing that conference titles will be a point of emphasis.

"There's going to be an annual presumption that the Big Ten champion, the SEC champion, the Big 12 champion and Pac-12 champion be in the final four, for good reason," said Swarbrick, whose program will become a partial ACC member in 2014. "We understand that ... We'll have to have very tough schedules to make [our] case."

Notre Dame thinks it will have that case this season if it wins its last two games against Wake Forest and at USC. But it would be uncharacteristic for voters to move the Irish ahead of an undefeated major-conference team this late in the year.

Since Notre Dame has no conference championship to win, its best hope is that BCS No. 2 Oregon doesn't win one, either.

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