Notre Dame Football: Perception vs. Reality
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Of the four teams to earn a berth to the College Football Playoffs there is little doubt that Notre Dame was the biggest surprise. It took quite some time for even the most ardent Notre Dame supporter to believe this team was actually good enough to become a playoff team.
Notre Dame had been close before, but its November woes kept some from completely buying in, but the Irish seemed to save their best for the final month. The team’s biggest margin of victory month was the final one of the season, and two of the team’s three biggest blowouts came during November, including a 33-point victory over previously 12th-ranked Syracuse.
By the end of the season many of the doubters – both followers of the program and those in the national media – had come to respect to Irish team. But not everyone has completely bought into the reality that Notre Dame is actually one of the four best teams. Most accept that Notre Dame “deserved” to be in based on their undefeated record, but when the discussion turned to the four “best” teams the Fighting Irish are often dismissed.
Fox Sports personality Clay Travis summed up best what he and others like ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit think about Notre Dame.
“Who is the best team and who is the most deserving. Alabama and Clemson were the most deserving teams, they were the one and two,” Travis recently said Outkick The Coverage. “The only regret I would have as a larger media culture is I think we didn’t debate Notre Dame enough.
“I think there’s a legitimate debate to be had about whether Notre Dame is good enough that they’re deserving 12-0 schedule was worthy of being put into the College Football Playoff, because I think Notre Dame is substantially worse than other teams we were considering down the stretch.”
“I think Ohio State would beat Notre Dame, I think Georgia would beat Notre Dame, I think Oklahoma would beat Notre Dame, I think Clemson would beat Notre Dame, and I think Alabama would beat Notre Dame.”
Travis then went on to talk about what happened the last time Notre Dame made a game like this – the 2013 BCS National Championship Game – and the fact the Irish were routed 42-14 by Alabama. Let’s ignore for a second that Travis didn’t bring up the same concern with Ohio State – who lost to Clemson 31-0 just two years ago in the playoffs – or that the Tigers were whipped handily by Alabama a season ago. No, the only team whose past performance matters – a performance that was six years ago – is Notre Dame.
ESPN’s Joey Galloway had a similar comment soon after the Irish were announced as a playoff team.
“If we’re truly saying let’s just find the four best teams regardless of record or how they looked in their last game whether they won or lost, then I do believe Notre Dame,” Galloway said. “… If we’re not worried about wins and losses, we’re not worried about the two losses (for Georgia) we’re not worried about the zero at the end of Notre Dame, they need to be in the conversation if we’re trying to find the four best teams, because if that is the case then I don’t believe Notre Dame deserves to be there.”
Herbstreit loves to talk about the “eye test,” which is a pretty bad place to start this discussion since one’s “eye test” is the most subjective of all subjective metrics.
So where does this mantra come from? Is it really about what their “eye test” tells them or is there still a bias against Notre Dame – and a somewhat reasonable bias based on history – based on the team’s past failures.
Are they right? I don’t believe so. I believe what tends to happen in these venues is talking points emerge and sometimes subconsciously many people in this business tend to grab onto the same talking points and perception becomes reality. But sometimes perception isn’t reality, and there are numbers that back that up.
Let’s take a look at some numbers for the four playoff teams and the two teams in Georgia and Ohio State that some believe should have been in over Notre Dame.
This graph is a breakdown of the point differential and difference in yards gained between those six teams and every opponent they faced that was either ranked in the Top 25 or was a team that received votes for the Top 25 according to the Associated Press.
Of the four actual teams that made the playoffs only Alabama had a bigger margin of victory than did Notre Dame, and the Irish were 4.5 points above Clemson. Notre Dame had four opponents that fit this criteria and three of those wins were by double figures while Clemson had just one double digit victory, which came against unranked NC State.
Notre Dame’s difference in yards gained relative to its opponents tops everyone involved in this discussion, including Alabama. In fact, Notre Dame doubles every team in the discussion other than Alabama. Three of Notre Dame’s four games were double figure wins with a yardage advantage of at least 215 yards. Clemson’s largest yards differential was +174 (vs. NC State), Ohio State’s largest yards gap was +189 (vs. Northwestern), Georgia’s largest yards margin was +154 (vs. Florida) and Oklahoma’s largest yards margin was +72 (vs. Iowa State).
Notre Dame had games of +321 (vs. Stanford), +229 (vs. Syracuse) and +215 (vs. Northwestern).
Again I must wonder where the notion that Notre Dame isn’t as dominant as the other teams in this discussion comes from.
If you want to focus on just the best teams on the schedule, let’s look at the same metrics using just teams that finished in the final CFP Top 25.
The only change for Notre Dame is that Alabama jumps ahead of it in difference in yards gained vs. yards allowed, but even still the Irish blow away anyone else in the conversation and their numbers double that of Georgia, Clemson and Oklahoma.
Its point differential triples the number for Oklahoma, almost quadruples the number for Georgia and quintuples the number for Clemson. Notre Dame won games over ranked opponents by 33 points (Syracuse), 10 points (Northwestern) and seven points (Michigan). Clemson’s two wins over ranked opponents were by a combined six points.
When Georgia’s losses are removed they match Notre Dame’s margin of victory total, so you’d have to pretend that Georgia didn’t lose to Alabama by a touchdown or to 9-3 LSU by 20 points in October.
If you remove Oklahoma’s loss its average margin of victory was 8.3 points per game, which Notre Dame doubles.
You have to use a lot of asterisks with teams that didn’t make it or with teams ranked below Notre Dame to get their numbers to come close to stacking up with Notre Dame.
None of this will change anyone’s mind, but what it does is show that even people with astute football minds – which I believe Herbstreit and Galloway to have – perception doesn’t actually equal reality.
Does this mean that Notre Dame will beat Clemson? No, that's not the argument being made. What this data shows, and what the eye test for anyone that has watched Notre Dame week after week, is that Notre Dame deserves to be in the playoffs because it is one of the four best teams in the country.