Tolerance has its limits.
Notre Dame’s football independence, though always groused about to some degree, was accepted as a part of the college landscape and tolerated if not fully blessed by the masses through the years.
The shift to a playoff format – deemed successful to all but the Big 12 in the first year of its existence – has brought the issue of the 12 games vs. 13 games disparity to the forefront.
And it’s not going away. In fact, the dissent is gaining momentum.
The outcry among FBS coaches recently that Notre Dame needs to play a 13th game/join a conference – mainly ACC coaches with others chiming in as well – won’t dissipate until the playing field among playoff contenders is leveled.
“I don’t think any program should be treated differently,” said Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer. “Notre Dame is a great school, but we all need to be in the same boat as far as the playoff.”
“I agree 100 percent that Notre Dame should be in a conference,” said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. “It’s the only way to a level playing field.”
The tilted gridiron is a result of the implementation of the playoff system, which replaced the Bowl Championship Series, which replaced the Bowl Alliance, which replaced the Bowl Coalition. Some would say the field has always been slanted to some degree.
The playoff system asks teams that gain entry into the exclusive four-team club to participate in a conference championship game – a 13th game – as opposed to the 12-game format currently employed by Notre Dame and the Big 12, which has just 10 members, falling short of the necessary number of teams needed for a conference championship game.
Notre Dame would argue that their schedule is perennially among the sternest in the country. They’ve done all they can to make it challenging while still giving themselves a chance to compete at a high level. They’ve even given up a home game for the traveling show called the Shamrock Series.
But regardless how stringent Notre Dame’s schedule is, this is a chasm that can’t be bridged until the Irish and the Big 12 add a 13th game to their schedules, whether that be a 13th regular-season game for Notre Dame or a championship game for the Big 12. Brigham Young and Army, too, just in case.
The Big 12, or at least Baylor and TCU in ’14, is a national title contender. Notre Dame played for the national title three years ago.
And yet until an adjustment is made, the committee that selects the four playoff participants has to make a judgment with imbalanced criteria influencing the decision. The Big 12’s lack of a championship game cost the conference a spot in the exclusive dance, although Ohio State needed an 11-game winning streak – and a 59-0 pummeling of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship – to skip past the Bears and Horned Frogs. The complaints were mollified when the Buckeyes defeated Alabama and manhandled Oregon.
As long as the current rules exist, Notre Dame and others deserve to be judged fairly. By the same token, if the Irish are to play on an even field with the rest of college football competing for a playoff spot, the rule of 12 regular-season games must be waved and Notre Dame needs to find another foe.
Notre Dame can make it a seventh home game, which they should be playing anyway. It’s another home payday. And while it’s not joining a conference – which Notre Dame shouldn’t be strong-armed into joining – it bridges the gap, particularly if the last game of the year is a challenging one, which it perennially has been with the alternating of USC and Stanford.
In the meantime, however, an undefeated Notre Dame belongs in the playoff. What if Notre Dame were to defeat a nine-win Texas, a nine-or-10-win Georgia, Tech, a 10-or-more-win Clemson, a 10-or-more-win USC, and a nine-or-10-win Stanford? It would be daft not to include them in the playoff.
At 11-1, Notre Dame certainly would leave the door open, particularly without that 13th game. But you can’t make a blanket statement in July that a one-loss Notre Dame will be or should be excluded from the playoff.
What if a three-loss Big Ten team hammers an undefeated Big Ten team in the conference championship? What if a two-loss ACC team – and let’s say one or both of those losses are “bad losses” – defeats a one-loss ACC team in the conference championship?
The outcry that Notre Dame “must” join a conference is nonsense. Granted, from the outside looking in, Notre Dame seems “holier than thou” by not joining a conference. It’s an understandable reaction. But it’s also Notre Dame’s prerogative to remain independent, and the deal with the ACC – the Irish play six teams from the conference this fall – precludes them from having to completely give up their football independence.
A 13th regular-season game in the future is not an unreasonable demand. If the Irish are in the running for a playoff spot, a 13th game should appease the critics. If they’re not in the running, they have an extra home-game payday.
And yet it’s trickier than it seems as an independent. The Irish can’t just schedule a first-Saturday-of-December opponent because what if that team is involved in a conference playoff? That means a jam-packed regular season with either a) an earlier start or b) no bye week. Could Notre Dame play the Big 12 champ? The Big 12 would have to choose one, contrary to last year. Perhaps Notre Dame and Brigham Young should hook up.
Of course, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves with what-if scenarios that may never occur. Then again, in the first year of the playoff system, the Big 12’s current makeup led to controversy.
In 2015, it’s unreasonable to deny Notre Dame and the Big 12 if they meet the criteria within the parameters of the current setup. In the future, it’s unreasonable not to have a 13th-game alternative, however difficult pulling that off may be.