Howard Simmons/Associated Press
No conference? No problem for Notre Dame, which is one minor hurdle away from a College Football Playoff that’s supposed to be a reward for power-conference champs.
No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Syracuse was supposed to be the best game of Week 12. Heck, as far as the top eight spots in the College Football Playoff rankings are concerned, it should’ve been the only game worth monitoring into the fourth quarter.
But in a game that most stopped watching by halftime, the Fighting Irish blew out the Orange 36-3 at Yankee Stadium.
With Notre Dame QB Ian Book back under center after missing last week’s game against Florida State—and with Syracuse QB Eric Dungey leaving the game midway through the first quarter with an upper-body injury—this one got ugly in a hurry. The Orange entered the day ranked sixth in the nation in scoring at 44.4 points per game, but they didn’t even take a snap inside the ND 40 until a few minutes into the fourth quarter.
It was a statement win for Notre Dame and its defense—Dungey or not. The Fighting Irish have now held four of their last seven opponents below 250 yards of total offense. That list of shut-down games includes ACC Coastal Division champion Pittsburgh and Big Ten West Division champion Northwestern.
Had this been a close win by Notre Dame, it might have opened the door for the Fighting Irish to get leapfrogged out of the CFP Top Four in the next two weeks. (Probably not, but it would have at least been a point of contention from some fans during conference championship week.)
Had Notre Dame lost to Syracuse, it almost certainly would have dropped out of the playoff picture for good.
Instead, the Fighting Irish merely need a road win over scuffling, 5-6 USC to secure a spot in a playoff that was constructed to keep them out.
Jim Young/Associated Press
Perhaps that’s an insincere way to phrase it. The brainiacs behind the playoff’s inception didn’t sit down in a conference room and say, “All right, how can we make sure Notre Dame never wins another national championship?” Or, at least we can assume that isn’t how it all went down.
However, the intent of the four-team playoff—aside from lots and lots of extra advertising revenue for the NCAA—was to make sure that undefeated power-conference champions and the really good one-loss ones had a chance to play for a national championship.
Over the last six years of the BCS (2008-13), each team ranked No. 3 or 4 in the final standings had either zero or one losses. With the exception of a couple of 12-0 years from TCU when it was still in the Mountain West, those teams were either power-conference champions, teams that suffered their sole loss of the season to another team in the top six of the final standings, or both.
Many of those teams were outstanding and deserved a better fate than they were given by a bunch of computer formulas.
In 2008, Texas’ only loss of the season came on the road on the final second of the last game of a four-week gauntlet against teams in the Top 11 of the AP poll, but it was enough to keep the Longhorns from finishing at No. 1 or No. 2.
In 2009, Cincinnati went undefeated in the Big East (R.I.P.) only to get left out of the national championship because of two other undefeated power-conference champs.
In 2011, Oklahoma State went 11-1 with wins over four ranked teams, but a double-overtime road loss to Iowa State kept the Cowboys at No. 3 and out of the all-SEC title game between Alabama and LSU.
In 2013, Michigan State went 12-1 with a stunning win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, but a four-point road loss to a ranked Notre Dame team in September doomed the Spartans to No. 4 in the standings.
The playoff was conceived so those types of great teams could get a shot at winning it all.
But if there aren’t any major upsets in the final two weeks of this season, it’ll be not one, but two one-loss power-conference champions—not to mention undefeated UCF for a second straight year—left in the lurch while independent Notre Dame plays in a national semifinal.
Stewart Mandel @slmandel
All that stands between Notre Dame and a playoff spot is next week’s game at USC. Last won there in 2012.
We mean no disrespect to Notre Dame here. The Fighting Irish beat Michigan. They smashed Syracuse. And it’s not their fault that Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and USC all turned out to be way worse than anyone imagined. Before the season even began, it was obvious Notre Dame would have a sensational case for a spot in the playoff if it ran the table against this schedule.
You better believe Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby will have something to say about it, though.
He was furious in 2014 when both Baylor and TCU were left out of the playoff at Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, due in large part to not playing a conference championship game. But now that the league has one—the best one, for what it’s worth, since the lack of divisions in the Big 12 makes this the only power conference that guarantees the top two teams face each other—it still might not matter.
If Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Michigan and Oklahoma all win out, the Sooners and mega-stud QB Kyler Murray are going to finish at No. 5, behind a Fighting Irish team that doesn’t play a conference championship game.
(Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott won’t be too thrilled, either, as Washington State could get to 12-1 and conceivably not even finish in the Top Six, given its pathetic nonconference slate and the overall weakness of the rest of that conference.)
The good news for those of you of the mindset that including four teams isn’t enough and the playoff should be expanded to six or eight teams, this is the type of perfect storm that could turn that pipe dream into a serious conversation among the people who matter. We could be headed for four undefeated teams, a trio of one-loss power-conference champions and a pair of excellent two-loss also-rans out of the SEC. That’s quite a few quality teams (and conferences) that are going to be mighty unhappy about not getting to play for a title.
It’s not going to change anything this year, though. Barring a disaster at USC next Saturday, Notre Dame is going to lock up a spot in the playoff while (at least) two power conferences prepare for a league championship game that won’t much matter to the selection committee.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.