Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 10, 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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4 SEPT. 10, 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED T he rivalry renewal and m a rq u e e o p e n i n g - w e e k e n d m a t c h u p b e t w e e n N o t re D a m e and Michigan served as exactly what the NCAA College Football Playoff selection committee or- dered, and more evidence into an evolving mindset in recent years among col- lege schedule makers. There was a time, not too long ago, that teams would treat the early part of the schedule as noth- ing more than a chance to stockpile easy wins and use September to work out the kinks while con- ference play loomed and the games became increas- ingly more difficult. With the advent of the four-team College Football Playoff (CFP) in 2013-14, and the selection committee's insistence on playing quality opponents, the landscape has thankfully changed so that Septem- ber games are finally more entertain- ing and meaningful. Notre Dame and Michigan right- fully drew top billing for college football's opening weekend. But this Labor Day slate was full of impor- tant matchups between ranked oppo- nents: Washington-Auburn, Miami (Fla.)-LSU and Virginia Tech-Florida State, just to name a few. In 2017, Michigan-Florida and Al- abama-Florida State highlighted the opening weekend. LSU-Wisconsin, Notre Dame-Texas and USC-Ala- bama were the must-see games for week one in 2016. College football is unique in that one loss can often ruin a season for the top programs competing for a national title. But by scheduling a marquee opponent in early Sep- tember, athletic directors are giving their programs a chance to secure an important résumé win while at the same time building in a mulligan. Last year's Irish team is a perfect example. All CFP hopes seemed lost when Notre Dame dropped a 20-19 heart- breaker to Georgia in week two. But by Nov. 11, Notre Dame had reeled off seven straight wins and headed into its showdown at No. 7 Miami with a No. 3 placement in the CFP rankings and seemingly in control of its own postseason destiny. Well, we all remember what hap- pened in that forgettable 41-8 loss to the Hurricanes, but the scheduling strategy and head coach Brian Kelly's takeaway from it remain valid. "If you lose one, better be at the right time, and you better play well at the end [of the season]," Kelly said. "Playing well at the end usually helps you more than it hurts you." And there is plenty of evidence to support Kelly's assertion in the four seasons since the CFP format was adopted. • In 2014, Ohio State lost to Vir- ginia Tech Sept. 6, but reeled off 11 straight wins to get in as the No. 4 seed after the Buckeyes leapfrogged two other one-loss teams in the final CFP rankings (Baylor and TCU) that lost their single game later in the sea- son. The Buckeyes eventually beat No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon to claim the national title. • In 2016, Penn State actually lost two games in September, but won nine straight afterward and climbed all the way to No. 5 in the final CFP rankings, just one spot shy of an in- vite, in no small part be- cause those two losses came early. • And just last season, Wisconsin remained un- defeated until late No- vember but tumbled from No. 4 and squarely in to No. 8 and far out of any consideration when it lost in the Big Ten title game in December. Closer to home, Notre Dame has twice in the last three years overcome losses in the first half of the season to play its way back into CFP consider- ation deep into Novem- ber. The blowout at Miami derailed any Irish hopes last season. And in 2015, Notre Dame lost 24-22 at No. 11 Clemson in early October, then won six in a row and moved to No. 6 in the CFP rankings before falling 38-36 to No. 9 Stanford in a regular-season finale that served as an elimination game. A win in Palo Alto might still not have punched its CFP ticket, though — mainly because Oklahoma also won its last seven after getting stunned by a mediocre Texas team (one that was crushed 38-3 by Notre Dame in the opener) in early October. After that tough loss to Stanford, which capped a 10-2 regular season for the Irish — with the two losses coming on the road against top-15 teams — Kelly explained a desire among college coaches to expand the CFP to eight teams, perhaps when the 12-year contract for the four-team format runs out in 2025. "Until the new agreement comes up and there's negotiations with it, we are playing with four, and it's very selective," Kelly said four days before the Michigan opener. "So hun- ker down and fight, fight, fight." And win, win, win … especially from October on. ✦ Lose Early, Win Late Is The Preferred Playoff Path UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at The Fighting Irish battled back from an early loss to Georgia to get into College Football Playoff contention last year, but late losses to Miami and Stanford knocked them out. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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