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Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Observer

Zwiller: Examining Notre Dame's College Football Playoff outlook in 2024

The Notre Dame football team sings the Alma Mater after losing 17-14 to Ohio State at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 23.

The Notre Dame football team had wildly different expectations depending on who you talked to at the start of the season. Many people (okay, fans) had College Football Playoff (CFP) expectations, while some had the team as a New Year’s Six hopeful.

The rollercoaster of a season that we got was neither of those things. Instead, it was a confusing 12 games with unexpected results, both good and bad. The New Year's Six drought and disappearance from the CFP continued as the Irish now prepare to play No. 19 Oregon State in the Sun Bowl.

But all that should change next year with the CFP expansion to 12 teams. The excuses run out for the Irish. They no longer have to be 12-0 to make the playoffs. Notre Dame could even host a playoff game in the next few years.

So, while the CFP semifinals won’t be played for another few days, I want to see what it would take for the Irish to make next year’s expansion.

Notre Dame's Schedule

First, let’s walk through Notre Dame’s schedule next year. There are 11 scheduled games and a potential 12th game against Army at Yankee Stadium in late November.

The good news for Irish fans is that this schedule feels much easier than last year's. Yes, the Irish open up the year on the road at Texas A&M. But after that, they host Northern Illinois, go on the road to Purdue and then host Miami (Ohio).

The Irish then host Louisville and Stanford at home before playing at Georgia Tech and facing Navy in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Notre Dame wraps up their season by hosting Florida State and Virginia before a quick road trip to the Coliseum to face USC.

By no means is this one going to be too challenging. Yes, Louisville and Florida State played in the ACC championship game, but the Irish got both teams at home. Texas A&M and USC are both challenging but also winnable road games.

At the risk of jinxing the team, I will start counting automatic wins: NIU, Purdue, Miami (Ohio), Stanford, Georgia Tech, Navy, Virginia and possibly Army.

Texas A&M and USC are hard-to-win road games, but I’ll put them in the same bucket as Louisville and FSU: toss-ups.

So, for now, the working assumption is Notre Dame finishes next season at 10-2 or better, and I’ll work through all those scenarios to see what would happen to the Irish.

Hypothetical CFP Brackets

To determine Notre Dame’s chances of making a 12-team field with a record of 10-2, I created a 12-team field for each year the four-team CFP existed. I did throw out the 2020 rankings, as COVID made it a shortened season.

My process to create the 12-team field was to award each of the four major conferences an auto bid and the highest-ranked Group of Five team.

Notice I said four major conferences, not the Power Five. I’m assuming the new CFP model will go to a model of including 5 conference champions plus 7 at-large bids, instead of the original 6-6 distribution, as the Pac-12 won’t be around next season.

The 5+7 model does help the Irish, as the team won’t win a conference championship anytime soon. According to my hypothetical scenarios, 12-win teams comprised roughly ten percent of at-large bids. 11-win teams comprised 27%, while 10-win teams comprised 51% of at-larges. The remaining 11% went to nine-win teams, though a nine-win squad would not have made it into the CFP since 2019.

So, the good news for Notre Dame is that the Irish can go 10-2 and still feel relatively good about their chances of making the CFP.

Home-field Advantage

Assuming they finish with a 10-2 record and make it into the playoff, the next question is, would Notre Dame host a home playoff game in the first round? As I tried to award conference champions the byes, I would say there is a good chance of Notre Dame hosting a playoff game next year.

In my hypothetical scenarios, 80% of teams earning a home game had 11 or 10 wins. The other 20% of teams with a home game had 12 wins.

Now, considering that the Irish have one of the weaker schedules in recent years, the Irish likely need to get to 11 wins to secure home field. If my hypotheticals are correct, 10-win teams had a 58% chance to end up on the road. 11-win teams had a 74% chance of hosting a playoff game.

It is worth noting that more often than not the Group of 5 teams, which get an auto-bid but do not automatically get home field or a bye, might be skewing those numbers a little bit.

So, what does that mean for Notre Dame?

If the Irish go 12-0…

For starters, a lot went right for Notre Dame and they are likely one of the best teams in the country. The Irish should automatically make the playoffs and lock up one of the better seeds, like five or six.

What will be interesting is how the team’s strength of schedule ages. Georgia Tech, Louisville and Miami (Ohio) all finished better than expected this year. If they regress, that could hurt Notre Dame’s strength of schedule. Meanwhile, USC and Purdue both took significant steps back. USC will struggle in the Big Ten, so I don’t see them as tremendous assets to Notre Dame’s schedule.

If the Irish go 11-1…

Obviously, it matters who the team lost to and how bad the loss is. If it’s 13-0 FSU by a large margin, I could see that being used against the team, especially if Texas A&M and USC have mediocre years. I still think Notre Dame gets a home game. However, it might be a more formidable opponent than the Irish would like.

If the Irish go 10-2…

Notre Dame makes the Playoff at 10-2, though the Irish need a signature win over USC or Florida State. If the Irish went 10-2 but lost to what are most likely the hardest games on the schedule, I can see the team either having a challenging road game or getting left out of the CFP altogether.

If the Irish go 9-3…

Given recent trends and a weak Strength of Schedule, the Irish are left out of the CFP. The field is too crowded.

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