How an expanded College Football Playoff would benefit Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For the Notre Dame’s gotta join a conference crowd, Thursday was like Christmas.

Until they realized it really was a lot more like Groundhog Day.

The first meaningful and seismic stride toward expanding the seven-year-old College Football Playoff from four teams to 12 — likely in 2023 — is neither a threat nor an enticement for Notre Dame to reconsider its independent status in football.

Beyond that, the proposal from a four-person committee that included Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick presents some give and take for the Irish in the new format, but ultimately a perceived net gain.

Now remember this is still in the proposal stage, with all 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conference commissioners and Swarbrick meeting next week in Chicago to nudge it along to university presidents and chancellors. That group would then put it to a vote June 22.

A positive outcome at that level would bring on a period to study nuances, details and possible alternatives, with September the earliest a final decision would come.

The model is not without its flaws and legitimate concerns, especially in the areas of its perpetual shotgun marriage to the bowl system and the additional wear and tear on student-athletes.

OPINION: CFP expansion to 12 teams is long overdue — and complicated, writes Dan Wolken

ANALYSIS: How last year’s CFP field would have looked with 12 teams

It’s also not necessarily a panacea for parity, but it does widen the gateway for opportunity and inclusion. As Swarbrick pointed out, 78% of the playoff slots in its first seven years were taken by five teams.

Yet a major momentum shift from what Swarbrick, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson concocted seems unlikely.

What it looks like:

►The field will be made up of the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams. No particular conference is guaranteed a spot for its champion, so last season the Pac-12 and Oregon, for instance, would have been left out for Sun Belt titleist Coastal Carolina.

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There also is no limit on the number of teams from a particular conference to fill at-large spots.

►The four highest-ranked conference champions would receive the four byes. The other two conference champs and the six at-large teams would be slotted in positions 5-12, based on the final CFP rankings.

►Seeds 5-8 would host first-round games at their home stadiums. All subsequent rounds would be at neutral sites, utilizing the bowl system.

“I look forward to never hearing again about how we played one less game or don’t have a conference championship,” Swarbrick quipped when pressed Thursday about how he felt about the Irish being blocked from a chance to earn a first-round bye.

But having six at-large spots beats having to compete for four — or two. That’s the number that would have been available had the working group pushed out an eight-team model instead. That’s a big win for Notre Dame.

Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) leaps over Notre Dame cornerback Nick McCloud (4) as he makes a long run Jan. 1, 2021, in the College Football Playoff semifinal hosted by the Rose Bowl in AT&T Stadium.
Under this format, the 2015 Irish would have made the playoff.

Hosting a team for a first-round game in December in South Bend weather isn’t better than a bye, but it is a huge advantage, especially if the opponent is from somewhere where snow doesn’t exist.

Giving up the prospect of a bye hurts, but there’s also a sense of balance and fairness in that equation, as Swarbrick explained.

“From my perspective, it was an appropriate trade-off to get a model that I thought was the right one for college football,” he said. “Even though we don’t play in a conference, I recognize the importance of strong conferences and providing opportunity to the (Group of 5 conferences). We wanted to do that.

“And then finally, as I said somewhat sarcastically earlier in this, I do think it’s helpful to us to be able to say, ‘Look, Alabama puts its position at risk in its (conference) title game, or Oklahoma puts 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 1 through 4 seed.

“I didn’t go into it thinking 12 (teams), and I certainly wasn’t thinking about (the) implications of 12. But you needed to keep the broader interest of the game in mind, and we all understood that.”

Swarbrick also understands that his aggressive scheduling for the next decade won’t likely come back to bite him or his successor. The Irish play Clemson and Ohio State in the 2023 regular season — in likely the first year for the new expanded format — and could conceivably still make the playoff even if they lost both games.

No way does that happen in a four-team playoff world.

Notre Dame opens the 2024 season on the road at Texas A&M. Clemson pops up twice more in the 2020s, while Alabama appears on the schedule in 2029 and 2030.

If joining a conference meant perhaps having to beat Clemson twice each year to get a first-round bye, well we saw that movie already.

We also know from the current playoff format, Notre Dame’s most efficient path to winning playoff games and really competing for a national title is aiming higher in recruiting and hitting those goals.

Interestingly, the most consequential recruiting month in at least the Brian Kelly Era is already unfolding. And with admittedly a lot left to play out, it’s feeling more like Christmas than Groundhog Day.

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