Should Notre Dame Just Join a Conference?


We’re a little over two weeks away from the start of a new college football season, and, as usual, Notre Dame is expected to impress. Some of the big story lines that have developed over the summer for the Irish include the loss of Greg Bryant, the return of Keivarae Russell and Malik Zaire taking over at quarterback. One story line in particular has made some noise, but not enough to take the headlines.

The College Football Playoffs is going into its second year of being in effect, and many are starting to notice how much it has changed the requirements teams need to fulfill in order to make the top four at the end of the season. Coaches from all over the country have chimed in the summer on how Notre Dame lacks the leverage needed to make the playoffs.

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“Absolutely Notre Dame needs to be in a conference or play 13 games to be in the College Football Playoffs,” Coach Dabo Swinney from Clemson said earlier this summer. Missouri’s head coach, Gary Pinkel also mentioned that every team in the top four should have played in a conference championship game urging Notre Dame to join a conference so that they could compete in such game.

Last season, both Swinney and Pinkel’s points were demonstrated when Baylor and TCU were left out of the College Football Playoffs despite going 11-2 and 12-1, respectively. Before the final four were announced, it looked like one of those programs were a sure-fire pick to make it in, however, Ohio State’s thrashing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game proved otherwise. So, was the College Football Playoff committee putting Ohio State in over TCU and Baylor their way of telling everyone that winning a conference championship makes or breaks a team’s resumé? I’d say yes.

Four years ago, Mike Chiari, a featured columnist for Bleacher Report wrote a piece on why Notre Dame was smart for remaining independent. He listed three key reasons for his argument: 1) Not being tied down to a conference meant that Notre Dame didn’t have to compete with one geographical area for recruits. Instead, they can choose where they want to recruit and choose who they would like to recruit against. 2) The freedom of scheduling gives the Irish the ability to play against almost anyone in the country to boost their strength of schedule, and it looks appealing to recruits who want to play across the country. It also gives Notre Dame the uniqueness of having rivalries with teams like USC and Michigan. 3) Notre Dame is guaranteed an at-large bid if they win at least 10 games, and if they happen to go undefeated, like in 2012, they’re a lock to play in the BCS National Championship game.

Those are pretty good reasons as to why Notre Dame should stay independent. However, the reasons for why Notre Dame should remain independent are no longer valid four years later. With the BCS gone, I’d say two out of three of those reasons no longer apply.

Notre Dame can still recruit freely given that they have remained independent. But they can no longer schedule games against anyone they want, at least not all 12 games. In 2012, the Irish relinquished that privilege when they agreed to play an average of five games against ACC opponents a year. Last season, Notre Dame played Syracuse, North Carolina, Florida State and Louisville. This season, they’ll play Virginia, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College.

On top of having to fulfill the agreement with the ACC, Notre Dame also has to uphold their usual rivalry games against Navy, USC and Stanford. So that gives them about three or four games that they can schedule freely, but when you look at how tough their schedule is after fulfilling those requirements, it’s almost likely that the Irish schedule games against weaker opponents (Ex. UMass and Temple).

So, by partnering with the ACC, Notre Dame is trying to show the College Football Playoff committee that it can be partially considered a member of a conference in hopes that that is good enough to be given some leverage in the discussion of who should be in the final four. But I don’t believe that it’s enough for them to make it into the playoffs if they’re 11-1 competing with another program who is also 11-1 with a conference championship on their resumé.

Lastly, with the BCS out of the picture, Notre Dame is no longer guaranteed anything when they finish 10-2 or 11-1. Are they more likely to make it into the playoffs if they’re 11-1? Of course they are. But 10-2 might not cut it, and CBS reporter Dennis Dodd doesn’t think that 10-2 will even guarantee them a spot in a “New Year’s Six” bowl game.

Last season, TCU was robbed a spot in the College Football Playoffs, but at least they could blame the Big 12 for not having a conference championship game. If Notre Dame fails to make the final four at 11-1, I don’t think they can blame anyone but themselves. Do you want to make the College Football Playoffs, Notre Dame? Go 12-0.