Notre Dame Football: The Effect of a Four-Team Playoff on Past Irish Teams
Last week’s landmark announcement that college football would move to a four-team playoff beginning in 2014 was impactful to Notre Dame in multiple aspects of its program.
First, the implementation of a selection committee ensured the Fighting Irish would have access to the playoff without having to join a conference. Secondly, as it did for all teams, it decreased the likelihood of a 12-0 or 11-1 Irish team being denied an opportunity to compete for the nation title.
While 12-0 and 11-1 seasons are currently a pipe dream for Irish fans (although they may not be in 2014, especially with this schedule), many Notre Dame teams of past years would have benefited from a four-team playoff, including the program’s best team of the past 20 years, the 1993 squad.
Let’s look at how some of the Irish’s greatest teams, going back to 1990, would have fared in a four-team playoff, as well at some who would have just missed the cut.
The lasting image of Charlie Weis’ first season will always be the "Bush Push," which, in the BCS format, knocked the Irish out of the national title picture. However, in a four-team playoff, Notre Dame would have been right in the mix. 12-0 USC, 12-0 Texas and 10-1 Penn State were locks for the playoff. The final spot would have come down to 9-2 Notre Dame, 9-2 Ohio State and 10-1 Oregon.
Notre Dame and Oregon had both lost to USC (Oregon badly, Notre Dame by 3), while Ohio State lost close games to Texas (24-22) and Penn State (17-10). The call here is that a selection committee would have decided in favor of the Buckeyes.
Ohio State had the higher quality losses, was playing better down the stretch and had not played USC, the presumed semifinal opponent for the No. 4 team. It would have been a tough pill to swallow for Notre Dame fans, but at the end of the day, the team was simply not one of the four most deserving teams.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
The Irish also went 9-2 in 1995, dropping the opener to eventual Big Ten champion Northwestern as well as their first meeting with Ohio State in almost 60 years. Notre Dame came in at No. 6 in the final poll, putting them in the discussion for a playoff bid. However, a 10-1 Ohio State team who had beaten the Irish was ranked No. 5, and 10-1 Tennessee, who has lost only on the road to No. 2 Florida, was No. 4.
As the top three teams, 11-0 Nebraska, 12-0 Florida and 10-1 Northwestern were all but guaranteed bids. With the Buckeyes having dropped its last game and Notre Dame without starting quarterback Ron Powlus, the obvious choice would have been Peyton Manning’s Volunteers, who led Florida at halftime in The Swamp before being shredded by Danny Wuerffel and the Gators in the second half.
Losses to two teams ranked ahead of them, including one at home, would have doomed the
Irish despite having wins over SWC champion Texas and Pac-10 champion USC.
Getty Images/Getty Images
A last-second loss to Boston College on David Gordon’s field goal just a week after Notre Dame had vaulted to No. 1 in the polls with a win over Florida State cost the Irish the national title, but a four-team playoff would have given the Irish a reprieve. Both Nebraska and West Virginia were undefeated, while the Seminoles and Irish were ranked No. 3 and No. 4.
A committee would have paired Notre Dame with the Cornhuskers and Florida State with the
Mountaineers for the two semifinals. Nebraska wasn’t yet the juggernaut it would become in 1994 and 1995, having only topped 21 points once in its final four games. Notre Dame’s defense, which featured six players who would go on to long NFL careers, would have contained Tommie Frazier and the Cornhuskers, setting up a rematch with Florida State for the national title.
As LSU found out this past season, beating a great team twice in one season is a difficult task. Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward would have atoned for a poor performance in the first meeting, leading Florida State to its first national title with a narrow win over the Irish.
Chris Covatta/Getty Images
The Irish finished 9-1-1 in 1992, tying Michigan and getting blown out at home by Stanford. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, having a bad home loss would have doomed the team when it came down to selecting the four playoff teams. No. 1 Miami (FL) and No. 2 Alabama were in, as was unbeaten Southwest Conference champion Texas A&M.
Florida State finished 10-1 and had a much stronger loss than Notre Dame, losing by three to the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl after missing a last-second field goal that would have tied the game. There would be little complaining from the Irish fanbase, as the team’s resume was simply not up to par with the top four teams.
As we'll begin to find out in 2014, being ranked No. 5 in a four-team playoff structure is always going to cause a bit of heartbreak. However, the 1992 Notre Dame team simply wasn’t good enough to merit a playoff bid. Yes, the Irish eventually pounded Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, 28-3, but the Aggies had a better record and had beaten Stanford. In early December, Texas A&M was the more worthy team.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
You can debate 1993, but 1990 may have been the year where a playoff would have most helped Notre Dame. The Irish finished 9-2, losing to Stanford at home and on a last-second field goal to Penn State, also in South Bend. No. 1 Colorado and No. 2 Georgia Tech were easy choices, with the final two spots coming down to 10-1 Texas, 9-2 Miami (FL) and 9-2 Notre Dame.
Despite playing in the fairly weak Southwest Conference, the Longhorns’ only loss was by seven to Colorado. The best record of the bunch and a quality loss would have been enough for Texas to earn a bid. While both of Miami’s losses came on the road, it wouldn’t have been enough to overcome a head-to-head loss to the Irish in South Bend, 29-20.
With no better tangible evidence than a head-to-head meeting, the committee would have given Notre Dame the No. 4 spot and a rematch with Colorado, who the Irish had beaten a year earlier in the Orange Bowl.
In reality, the Buffaloes nipped the Irish, 10-9, on a questionable clipping penalty that nullified a Rocket Ismail punt return for a touchdown. However, in a playoff, and with Notre Dame still in national title contention, the Irish would have beaten Colorado to advance to the final. Georgia Tech would have had its way with Texas, setting up a historical final between the Irish and Yellow Jackets.
Florida State was not yet in the ACC, so Georgia Tech was helped by a light schedule. Against Notre Dame, by far the best team they had faced, the Yellow Jackets would have been overwhelmed by a great defense and the speed of Ismail, Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks. Lou Holtz would have won his second national title in three years and have instantly become a Notre Dame legend.
Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images
Holtz's 1988 and 1989 Notre Dame teams would also have qualified for a four-team playoff. The Irish lost only one game in those two seasons combined. Winning the 1988 national title would have much been tougher had the Irish had to defeat both Florida State and Miami (FL). Notre Dame had nipped the Hurricanes, 31-30, earlier that season in South Bend. The Seminoles were the preseason No. 1.
The 1977 Irish vaulted from No. 5 to No. 1 on New Year's Day after a 38-10 rout of top-ranked Texas and a stunning upset of No. 2 Oklahoma by shorthanded Arkansas (coached by Holtz). However, a four-team playoff may not have included the eventual national champion Irish. Strong finishes by Alabama and Michigan likely would have garnered those two teams the final two spots in the playoff, leaving 10-1 Notre Dame on the outside looking in.
A playoff in 1966, the year of Notre Dame's most controversial national title, would have settled the heated debate between the Irish, Alabama and Michigan State. All three teams were unbeaten, while the Irish and Spartans had played to a 10-10 tie in East Lansing in the "Game of the Century."
Follow me on Twitter - @MattSmithCFB