Remember the College Football Playoff?
It was the topic on everyone's mind at Notre Dame as recently as Monday morning. At 11-1, the No. 6 Irish are not eliminated from contention, but they do need some help in front of them. This is one of the few times since the BCS Era began in 1998 that Notre Dame entered conference championship week not knowing whether it will have a chance to play for a national title. It was all very intriguing.
Then, everything turned on its head. Brian Kelly left for LSU, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick declined to name an interim coach, declined to give a timeline for hiring a new coach and Notre Dame slipped to No. 6 in Tuesday night's CFP rankings. CFP Committee chairman Gary Barta said this when asked about how not having a permanent head coach might affect a team's chances of reaching the Playoff:
"After the championships are all played and for our final ranking, the committee does have in our protocol the ability to consider any players that won't be available or any coaches that won't be available and then factor that in along with our other protocol, our other criteria."
But tonight, multiple reports indicated Notre Dame expects to hire defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to be the team's next coach. Will the ink on the contract be dry and an announcement made publicly by Sunday morning when the final CFP rankings are released? That much remains unclear.
Swarbrick, who led the 48-hour coaching search that is expected to end in Freeman's hire, believes the Irish deserve a spot in the CFP. He and Kelly have reiterated since the coach took the job at LSU their belief Notre Dame is one of the top four teams in the country.
"When I look at the team that played the last half of the season, I don't see a gap (with the best teams in the country)," Swarbrick said of the Irish. "I think this team is really well-positioned. I believe we're one of the top four teams in the country. The cumulative results of our last four or five games I think are compelling. I think we can play with anybody in the country right now."
Regardless of the Committee's opinion of Kelly's departure and Freeman's expected hire, it remains likely Notre Dame's fate will be decided Saturday, during the conference championship games. There are four games that will affect where the Irish finish in the final standings. Those four are (with their CFP rankings):
- Big 12 Championship: No. 5 Oklahoma State vs. No. 9 Baylor, Noon, ABC
- SEC Championship: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 3 Alabama, 4 p.m., CBS
- AAC Championship: No. 21 Houston AT No. 4 Cincinnati, 4 p.m., ABC
- Big Ten Championship: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 13 Iowa, 8 p.m., Fox
With that in mind, here's a list of the different combinations and possibilities based on how all of those games go, with some notes on each outcome. Ready? This will get complicated (and fun).
Scenario 1: Chalk Winners: Oklahoma State, Georgia, Cincinnati, Michigan Projected top four after Saturday: Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati Notre Dame: OUT Notes: If all of the favorites win, the Irish would not make the Playoff, even with Kelly. The CFP Committee has already made clear it thinks Cincinnati and Oklahoma State have better resumes than the Irish at present. If those two win, they're in.
Scenario 2: One key upset Winners: Baylor, Georgia, Cincinnati, Michigan OR Oklahoma State, Georgia, Cincinnati, Iowa Projected top four: Georgia, Michigan, Cincinnati, Notre Dame/Alabama Notes: This is the most likely scenario in which Notre Dame reaches the CFP. If Oklahoma State or Michigan loses and everyone else wins, there will be a fight for the fourth spot. Alabama and Notre Dame are the two likeliest contenders and I would make Notre Dame a slight favorite, though this is where having a coach could come into play. The committee has had one hard-and-fast rule since its inception in 2014: no two-loss teams unless absolutely necessary (no two-loss team has ever actually been to the Playoff). Would the Committee pick two-loss Alabama over Notre Dame? It might depend on the manner in which Alabama loses to Georgia.
Scenario 3: One big upset, but Alabama spoils the party Winners: Baylor, Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan OR Oklahoma State, Alabama, Cincinnati, Iowa Projected top four (for Baylor win): Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, Cincinnati Projected top four (for Iowa win): Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati Notes: Alabama winning would very likely keep the Irish out in this scenario. Georgia is almost certainly locked into a spot even with a loss and with two SEC schools in the Playoff, there isn't room for the Irish. It's similar to:
Scenario 4: Georgia blows it, chalk elsewhere Winners: Oklahoma State, Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan Projected top four: Alabama, Michigan, Georgia, Oklahoma State/Cincinnati Notes: Notre Dame is definitely out here. The only question is whether the Committee would also bump undefeated Cincinnati for an Oklahoma State team with a loss to Iowa State. I don't relish the Committee's choice there.
Scenario 5: Big boys fall, Cincinnati survives Winners: Baylor, Alabama, Cincinnati, Iowa Projected top four: Alabama, Georgia, Cincinnati, Notre Dame Notes: This is a chaos scenario and it's a longshot, but the Irish would have to play Alabama in the Playoff for a second season in a row. Woof.
Scenario 6: One loss teams take a second loss Winners: Baylor, Georgia, Cincinnati, Iowa Projected top four: Georgia, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, ? Notes: This is the ideal scenario for Notre Dame, where the Irish rise as high as possible in the final rankings and then get a rematch with Cincinnati in the Playoff in which they might be favored (depending on the coaching situation). The fourth spot is a giant wild card. It would probably be Alabama, but if the Tide get crushed, could Iowa sneak in off their win over Michigan? Would Oklahoma have a chance?
Scenario 7: Cincinnati blows it, big boys survive Winners: Oklahoma State, Georgia, Michigan, Houston Projected top four: Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Alabama Notes: This would probably knock Notre Dame out. It would be difficult for the Committee to put an 11-1 Notre Dame in over a 12-1 Cincinnati team that beat Notre Dame, but it's also not going to put in a 1-loss Cincinnati team unless it has no other choice. It probably turns to Alabama to avoid the controversy as much as possible.
Scenario 8: Georgia stays dominant, everything else collapses Winners: Baylor, Georgia, Iowa, Houston Projected top four: Georgia, Alabama, ???? Notes: In this scenario, Alabama is almost certainly in even with a loss. After that, who knows? Notre Dame might rise to 3 (I just said in Scenario 7 the Irish won't be ahead of 1-loss Cincinnati, but this scenario probably forces the Committee's hand) to face Bama again. But that's no guarantee. Could Iowa get all the way to 3? Could Oregon find its way into the picture? Could Michigan get in even with a loss to the Hawkeyes? Notre Dame is likely in in this scenario, but we know very little about the Committee's thinking after that.
Scenario 9: CHAOS Winners: Baylor, Alabama, Iowa, Houston Projected top four: Alabama, Georgia, ?????? Notes: This might end up with the same discussions as in Scenario 8, except Bama and Georgia will switch spots.
Scenario 10: Michigan reigns supreme Winners: Baylor, Alabama, Michigan, Houston Projected top four: Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame Notes: This is a nightmare for the Committee, which would likely have to defend a decision to put Notre Dame in over Cincinnati despite the head-to-head outcome. The other option would be to put Ohio State or Oklahoma State in over the Irish, but both of those present their own headaches. This also creates a juicy ND-Michigan matchup in the semifinal.
Scenario 11: Oklahoma State stands alone Winners: Oklahoma State, Alabama, Iowa, Houston Projected top four: Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame Notes: Here again, the Committee would have to choose between 12-1 Cincinnati and 11-1 Notre Dame. I really don't envy that.