Seeking College Football Playoff Chaos? Notre Dame’s Your Team

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Root for Notre Dame.

So why cheer, cheer, cheer for ol’ Notre Dame, currently ranked No. 5 with a 6-0 record? Your Veteran Scribe likes the college football version of chaos theory. (“Chaos theory” is a branch of mathematics focusing on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. YVS has no idea what that means and just likes the term “chaos theory.”)

As writing colleague Matt Zemek opined earlier this week,  it’s foolish speculating on who will make the College Football Playoff and what teams’ records will be when the calendar hasn’t reached mid-October. But YVS suggests his credentials of foolishness have been firmly established based on four decades of writing (and at one time thinking Houston’s Michael Young would make a better pro than Michael Jordan.)

While we greeted the creation of the four-team playoff as cavemen regarded the wheel, it’s flaw(s) were apparent. To start, four spots for five power conferences meant that one league would be outside looking in each year. Notre Dame, which has been granted a lifetime membership in The Club without paying the dues of joining a conference, will sideline a second conference in any year it’s selected.

It took four seasons – last season – for the CFP committee to break the seal on selecting two teams from one conference; the year before, it chose Ohio State, which didn’t win its Big Ten division or conference titles. What is becoming obvious is that the parameters used by the committee to choose the four “best” teams are arbitrary.

In 2014, the first season of the CFP, the Big 12 was assured that it’s lack of a conference championship game would not impact its chances of placing a team in the bracket. But when TCU and Baylor each finished 11-1 and gave the One True Champion conference Two True Champions, neither team made the first CFP.

That’s because committee chair Jeff Long started mentioning a “13th data point” – translated to sports-ese, a 13th game provided by conference championship games. That led the Big 12 to jury rig a championship game, which debuted last season and was won by Oklahoma, which was selected for the CFP for the second time in three seasons.

Notre Dame, no matter its final record, will not have a 13th data point. It will not play in a conference championship game; that’s an impossibility for an independent. The Irish’s next five opponents — Pitt, Navy, Northwestern, Florida State and Syracuse — are a combined 14-14. It’s not a stretch to imagine Notre Dame being 11-0 heading into its Thanksgiving weekend season finale at USC.

During the CFP’s first four seasons, only three of the 16 teams to participate were undefeated through the regular season. That can somewhat be attributed to playing 13-game (or, data point) schedules. But, Notre Dame being in the hunt for a national championship since 2012 (which did not work out well), the CFB committee could have some knotty problems to untangle.

One scenario: Notre Dame goes 12-0 while Ohio State and Clemson each finish 13-1. If Georgia and Alabama enter the SEC championship game undefeated, would the loser be selected over one-loss conference champions from the Pac-12 and/or Big 12? And how hissed off would those conferences be at being shut out in favor of the Irish and their 12-game schedule – which could wind up considered no better than average.

Second scenario: Let’s say Notre Dame finishes 11-1 and their undefeated champions from the Big Ten, ACC and SEC along with one-loss champions of the Pac-12 and Big 12 plus a one-loss loser in the SEC championship game. How much weight would the Irish’s name brand carry? And again, Notre Dame would need its strength of schedule and its 12 data points to carry the day.

Obviously, there are many other scenarios possible. It’s unlikely that an undefeated Notre Dame would not earn a CFP berth, but how will the committee consider one less data point and an independent schedule. Conference games are much more meaningful and teams that can get through a 13-game schedule with nine or 10 games against familiar opponents who cherish opportunities to ruin a league rival’s late-season finish.

If there is a controversy involving Notre Dame being selected, it could start the coveted chaos theory. If two conferences are left out for the second consecutive season or if three conferences are locked out with Notre Dame and two SEC teams taking three spots, would that speed up expanding the playoff field?

Perhaps. If the Big Ten is excluded for two consecutive seasons, that could raise the temperature – especially with Notre Dame, a school that twice turned up its nose at Big Ten membership, making the bracket. If just the Pac-12 and the Big 12 are excluded, those leagues don’t have the gravitas to affect change.

When the 12-year contract for the CFP was announced, the Power Five commissioners were adamant that they didn’t envision the bracket expanding past four teams. But 2025 is a distant four-digit number on the calendar.

Plus, the commissioners of the five conferences who run the sport have a history of speaking with forked tongues.

When the Bowl Championship Series debuted two decades ago, it was touted as the best way to select the top two teams to play in a title game. But that declaration smelled like barnyard excrement. The BCS also staged three “other” bowl games to bloat the bank accounts of the major conference schools. For those three “other” bowls, selection was more about brand name than record. (Ask Cal how it enjoyed its Holiday Bowl trip while Texas played in the Rose Bowl.)

The death of the BCS and the birth of the CFP occurred when the Powers That Be faced legal action. Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff threatened to sue the BCS for antitrust violations. In 2008, Utah finished the regular season 11-0. The BCS title game matched 11-1 Florida against 12-0 Oklahoma. The Utes dismantled Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Perhaps the only way to move the chains and expand the CFP field – which, with its original four spots for five conferences started at ludicrous and has been losing ground ever since – is to mimic the Utah game plan.

CFP executive director Bill Hancock, who has a history of writing checks his organization can’t cash, said recently that “there is a path” for UCF to make the bracket. There’s no map where that path exists. This week, Hancock told The Athletic about the Group of Five: “It’s the first time ever, that group of schools has a guaranteed berth in a top-tier bowl game. The CFP is way better than the BCS for them.”

Last season, the Golden Knights went 13-0, capping the season with the validation of a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn. The school claimed a phantom national championship. If UCF goes undefeated and has a 25-game winning streak – and there is carnage in the Power Five leaving multiple teams either with one or two losses – there will be a hue and cry to include the Golden Knights. That likely won’t happen because there’s a glass ceiling in college football. If the Group of Five’s best team is undefeated but again eating at the kids’ table, lawyers will be lining up to file lawsuits and collect billable hours.

So, root for Notre Dame … and UCF. It’s like rooting for chaos.