How Notre Dame fits in a 12-team College Football Playoff

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Notre Dame has made two College Football Playoff appearances in the last seven years. How much would it benefit from the playoff field expanding?

The College Football Playoff committee on Thursday unveiled a proposal for a 12-team format that will be considered later this month. The four-team CFP will not change for at least the next two seasons, but some wrinkles in the planned new playoff would impact the Irish.

“We cannot qualify for a bye. It’s limited to the four highest-ranked champions,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said on the College Football Playoff teleconference. “I look forward to never hearing again about how we played one less game or don’t have a conference championship.”

BENDER: Why we love (and hate) the idea of a 12-team CFP

The second part of that quote is laced with sarcasm. Notre Dame returns to independent status in 2021, and its role in a possible 12-team playoff is polarizing as usual.

“You needed to keep the broader interest of the game in mind, and we all understood that,” said Swarbrick, who is a member of the subcommittee that wrote the expansion proposal. “From my perspective, it was an appropriate trade-off to get a model that I thought was the right one for college football.”

But is it right for the Irish? Sporting News looks at the pros and cons of a 12-team setup for them:

Pros: More playoff chances

The Irish are 33-5 the last three seasons under Brian Kelly, who has the program on steady ground.

That’s the fourth-best record in the FBS behind Clemson (39-3), Alabama (38-3) and Ohio State State (33-3) since 2018. There is a gap between the Big Three and everyone else, but the Irish would be a playoff regular in a 12-team setup.

MORE: Five best bets to crash the CFP in 2021

“I do think it’s helpful to us to say, ‘Look, Alabama put its position at risk in its title game or Oklahoma put its position at risk in its conference title game. We’re doing the same thing in the first round,’” Swarbrick said. “We are on par in that regard other than enjoying a potential 1-4 seed.”

Looking back at the last seven seasons, Notre Dame would have made four CFP appearances in a 12-team model. That would suggest Notre Dame could still maintain independent status, and that large NBC contract, and still make the CFP on a regular basis without having to go through a conference championship game.

Is that good enough?

Cons: Tougher road to a title

Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since 1988, one of the more pronounced droughts among blueblood FBS programs.

The disadvantage of not having a first-round bye is that it would take four wins to win a national championship. Notre Dame has gone undefeated in the regular season three times under Kelly.

The Irish were the No. 4 seed in last year’s four-team playoff. Using the 12-team proposal metric, Notre Dame would have been the No. 7 seed last season. That means the Irish would have had a first-round matchup with Georgia before a second-round matchup with Clemson.

Will Notre Dame join a conference again?

Is a 12-team College Football Playoff the nudge that puts Notre Dame in a Power 5 conference for good?

The Irish took advantage of its one-year tour of the ACC, which was made necessary because of the impact of COVID-19 on the 2020 college football season. Notre Dame reached the ACC championship game and split its two games with Clemson, and that was good enough to make the CFP.

Now, look at the 2021 schedule:

  • ACC opponents: at Florida State, at Virginia Tech, vs. North Carolina, at Virginia, vs. Georgia Tech
  • Other opponents: vs. Toledo, vs. Purdue, vs. Wisconsin*, vs. Cincinnati, vs. USC, vs. Navy, at Stanford

* At Soldier Field, Chicago

The only ACC opponent ranked in SN’s Preseason Top 25 is North Carolina. The other ranked opponents are Wisconsin, Cincinnati and USC.

Would a 12-team playoff put a strain on Notre Dame’s arrangement with the ACC? Or would it prompt the university to look into joining the conference full time? That question will be answered in time, but Swarbrick insists this is the right plan for the Irish.

“Even though we don’t play in a conference, I recognize the importance of strong conferences and providing the opportunity to the [Group of 5],” Swarbrick said. “We wanted to do that.”

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