Even Without Chance For A First-Round Bye, Proposed 12-Team College Football Playoff Field A Win For Notre Dame
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Analysis: Even Without Chance For Bye, 12-Team Playoff A Win For Notre Dame

It’s not quite the BCS’ famous “Notre Dame Rule” of old, but like its postseason predecessor, the College Football Playoff’s proposed 12-team format has a specific rule pertaining to the Irish.

This one isn’t quite as helpful as the BCS’ statute that guaranteed Notre Dame a major bowl invite if it finished in the top eight. Under the playoff expansion proposal, revealed Thursday, Notre Dame does not qualify for a first-round bye because those byes go to the four highest-ranked conference champions.

All told, it’s one bullet point in a major announcement that, on the whole, provides much more benefit than harm for Notre Dame.

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Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick
Jack Swarbrick is one of four members of the College Football Playoff subcommittee that recommended a 12-team field Thursday. (Robert Franklin/AP)

The lack of an opportunity to earn a bye is not ideal. It’s a loss and a negative consequence of being independent. It’s also a small trade-off for getting the playoff system that’s friendliest to Notre Dame’s independence. The 12-team format — which would take effect in 2023 at the earliest — includes automatic bids for the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large spots.

The at-large number is the key. If the proposal passes, an 11-1 Notre Dame team would be a near-lock to make the 12-team field. A 10-2 Irish outfit would have a strong chance. (Though the 2019 team that went 10-2 would not have made it had this format been in place then).

In the current four-team setup, Notre Dame has to go 12-0 to be all but guaranteed to make the field. The same would be true in an eight-team format with six automatic bids and two at-larges — the worst expansion plan from a Notre Dame point of view.

The more at-large bids, the more reason to stay independent. Access to the playoff is a driving factor in the practicality of independence. If Notre Dame has satisfactory access, it’s going to be content with the status quo. The Irish will need to play one more playoff game to reach the title, but their access to the playoff and a championship in this format is better than any postseason method college football has employed.

“From my perspective, it was an appropriate trade-off to get a model that I thought was the right one for college football,” Swarbrick said. “Even though we don't play in a conference, I recognize the importance of strong conferences and providing opportunity to the [Group of Five]. We wanted to do that.

“I do think it's helpful to us to be able 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. We are on par in that regard, other than not enjoying a potential No. 1 through 4 seed.”

On that, he’s largely correct. Notre Dame would have played the same number of games after the first round as the top-four seeds because it doesn’t play for a conference title. A top-four seed that wins a conference title game would play 13 pre-playoff games and three more to reach the national championship. A Notre Dame team that plays 12 regular-season games and makes the national championship will also have a 16-game slate.

Inequitable rest isn’t an issue.

In fact, a team that loses a conference title game but reaches the national championship will have played 17 games. There’s no path for Notre Dame to play that many.

The consolation prize for not earning a bye is hosting a playoff game. The CFP’s proposed format puts first-round games at the higher seed’s home stadium, with two subsequent rounds at bowls and the championship at a neutral site. A Notre Dame team that deserved a bye but ended up as the No. 5 seed would be hosting the playoff’s lowest-ranked participant. The deck would be stacked heavily in the Irish’s favor.

As Swarbrick noted, by playing in a conference title game, there’s an assumption of risk. A loss costs a team a top-four seed and an automatic ticket to the quarterfinals. It could also cost someone an at-large bid. Notre Dame is essentially taking that same risk in the first round.

The thing is, though, a conference title game loss isn’t necessarily a playoff eliminator. A first-round playoff defeat is. And yes, a 12-0 Notre Dame team that’s ranked No. 1 or 2 on selection day would get a seed three or four spots lower than it deserves. It would be a bummer in that season. It would be weird.

But Notre Dame isn’t going to run to the ACC to avoid that hypothetical.

Notre Dame didn’t chase conference membership to improve its access to the four-team field. It won’t do so to skip one more playoff game in seasons when it goes 12-0. Not when the path to making the field by going 11-1 or 10-2 has never been clearer.

If nothing else, Swarbrick will be glad to see an inexorable old trope finally put to bed.

“I look forward to never hearing again about how we played one less game,” Swarbrick said, “or don't have a conference championship.”

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