Blue and Gold Illustrated

August 2021

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

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4 AUGUST 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED F or full disclosure, my im- mediate reaction when the NCAA unveiled in June a proposal that will expand the College Football Playoffs to 12 teams beginning as soon as 2023 was that Notre Dame got taken to the cleaners. The announcement was ini- tially troubling because Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick was a key member of the NCAA management com- mittee that created a playoff plan that provided conference mem- bers an easier road to a national title than what Notre Dame faces as an independent. How could Swarbrick help to devise and ultimately approve a format that reserves the four top playoff seeds, and therefore four opening-round byes, only to conference champions and leaves Notre Dame ineligible to earn either? Even if Notre Dame finishes a regular season undefeated as it did in both 2018 and 2020, No. 5 is the best playoff seed it could re- ceive under a proposal that is on the fast track to implementation. Again, only conference champions are guaranteed a top-four seed and an opening-round bye, so as an inde- pendent No. 5 is the best place Notre Dame could ever land. Once the initial surprise and be- wilderment cleared, the advantages of this "trade-off" arrangement for Notre Dame came into better focus. Under the current four-team model, an independent Notre Dame team essentially needs to go un- beaten in the regular season — as it did in 2018 and 2012 — to have any shot at a playoff berth and a national title. The Irish reached the 2020 playoff as a single-loss team, but that was as a one-year Atlantic Coast Con- ference member. And even with its only defeat coming in the confer- ence championship game to playoff- bound Clemson, Notre Dame's inclu- sion was still open for debate and not guaranteed last season. Under the expanded plan, even a two-loss Irish team could hold hope of being ranked high enough after the regular season to still secure one of the 12 playoff spots. But most importantly, the ex- panded format will protect Notre Dame's most sacred commodity — its independence and the national appeal its sovereignty provides. During Kelly's tenure, the Irish have played in 20 different states — including nine of the 10 most popu- lous — and a trip to Ohio State in 2022 will make it 10 for 10. Indepen- dence is also part of the reason why Kelly has signed recruits from 30 dif- ferent states, the District of Colum- bia, and even Germany in just the past five years. "We're not going to be squeezed because we're independent," Kelly told Blue & Gold Illustrated beat writer Patrick Engel. "The 12 teams give us an ability to stay independent as long as we choose to." Once this proposal becomes reality, the four highest-ranked conference champions would be seeded one through four and each would receive a first-round bye. Meanwhile, the eight teams seeded Nos. 5-12 would play each other in the first round on the home field of the higher- ranked team: No. 5 would host No. 12; No. 6 would host No. 11; No. 7 would host No. 10; and No. 8 would host No. 9. The winners of those four games would feed into the four idle teams that earned byes for an eight-team quarterfinal round. Applying this format to last season, Notre Dame would have forfeited its No. 4 CFP ranking, dropped to a No. 5 seed instead, and hosted No. 12 Coastal Caro- lina at Notre Dame Stadium in the first playoff round. Because it won the Big 12 championship, No. 5 Oklahoma would've leapfrogged Notre Dame, been given the No. 4 seed and awarded a first-round bye. So, while securing a bye and automatic advancement into the quarterfinal round would have been nice for Notre Dame in 2020 and looking forward, gain- ing an extra home game — a playoff game at that — might serve the school even better. After all, if you couldn't beat Coastal Carolina at home last season, a deep postsea- son run wasn't likely in the cards anyway. No matter how you weigh it, this 12-team format is a win-win-win for Notre Dame. It provides easier access to the playoffs and perhaps a first national championship since 1988. It creates an opportunity to bask in the hype and bounty of an extra home game. And it indefinitely protects the re- cruiting momentum and the added attention of playing a national and independent schedule. "It's a trade-off, no doubt, it's real," Kelly said of his program's place in an expanded playoff. "But I think it was an acceptable trade-off to get what we wanted, and that is to main- tain our independence as long as we can control that." ✦ Notre Dame Basks In Its Expanded Playoff 'Trade-Off' 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 Head coach Brian Kelly believes the new 12-team College Football Playoff format will provide the Irish continued access to compete for national championships while maintaining their independence. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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