CHICAGO – When Brian Kelly began stumping for Notre Dame’s schedule last month he tried to get ahead of an argument.
With the Big 12 hyper-focused on adding a championship game to level the scheduling field against the other Power 5 conferences, the Irish head coach attempted to get in the first word about how Notre Dame’s slate still won on quality if not quantity.
“I think my 12 stand up against another team's 11 at any time, and I'm saying 11 because one of those games is really an effective bye week because it's an (FCS) team,” Kelly told ESPN. “Then if they play a championship game, it's my 12 against their 12, and then that's where the committee will have to make a decision – my 12 against their 12.”
Consider College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock convinced.
In the eyes of the College Football Playoff Committee, Notre Dame’s 12-game regular season can be better than another program’s 13-game slate that includes a conference title game.
“It is absolutely feasible,” Hancock said. “To me, it’s not as much having a 13th game as much as who you played in your complete schedule.
“A lot has been made in the Big 12 area about the 13th data point. That’s become the buzzword. But what that means to the committee is it’s just another game against a quality opponent. Notre Dame has shown through the years that their schedule is packed with quality opponents.”
The impact of that position on Notre Dame is clear. Despite the fact that the College Football Playoff Committee does value conferences championships, Notre Dame can virtually win one with a schedule that cuts into four Power 5 conferences most seasons. The Irish face ACC, Big 12, Big 10 and Pac-12 opponents this year. Next season the SEC (Georgia) replaces the Big 12 (Texas).
Hancock said Notre Dame’s expansive schedule against four Power 5 conferences makes it easier to evaluate the Irish against other playoff contenders. For example, if the Irish had beaten Stanford and USC – both played in the Pac-12 title game –Notre Dame would have vaulted that league in playoff consideration.
“It’s not much more complicated than that,” Hancock said. “Their schedule traditionally gives the committee plenty of views at how they performed against quality opponents. So from that standpoint it’s probably easier to evaluate them. Teams that play good schedules are a little easier for the committee to evaluate.”
That means the same could have been true if Notre Dame had won at Clemson last October. That would have given the Irish a 6-0 mark against the ACC and a road win over the conference’s eventual champion.
Despite that loss at Clemson, Hancock restated the talking point that falling against a good team on the road can help a team’s playoff standing too. He said those losses against Clemson and Stanford were seen as positives for Notre Dame relative to their overall schedule.
The Irish finished the regular season at No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, trailing only Stanford among two-loss teams. That included coming in ahead of No. 10 North Carolina, which had played a 13th game, a conference title game loss to Clemson.
“Just playing a good schedule puts in a team in a very good position to be in this playoff,” Hancock said. “And Notre Dame obviously plays a good schedule.”