Like most avid Notre Dame fans, I try to listen for Notre Dame as the subject of discussions on talk shows and panel shows as often as I can, whether it's ESPN's general programming, local radio, the Tim Brando Show on CBS Sports Radio (my personal favorite) College Football Daily, Inside College Football or any of the other programs that focus largely on college football.
The one theme that is consistent on nearly all of these programs, and it seems to be nearly a consensus among the hosts and panelists, is that the Irish need to join a conference. The popular line is that college football is conference-driven, and to be taken seriously you need to get your wins within a conference structure and you need to be playing for a conference championship at the end of the season to be considered relevant.
This argument is commonly used as a a way to explain why the Irish have been relatively unsuccessful as a program for the past 20 years or so. In reality, this has nothing to do with it, as this year's Irish and Brian Kelly are proving. The problem has been weak coaching and poor leadership from men who had no idea how to build a program from the ground up in a way that would sustain long-term success.
Tim Brando, to this day, as much as I like him, drives me nuts because he just will not relent on the idea that Notre Dame needs to join a conference. His reasoning is so unsound that I can't believe he is being this stubborn.
He claims that today's players like "bling" and awards above all else and the chance to win a conference championship will afford them this opportunity, thereby helping conference schools in the recruiting process. Therefore, saith Timmy, it is an advantage to be in a conference.
Now I am not going to say there is no truth at all to what he's saying, but I think it's minor. If being in a conference is so important to recruiting, how is it that Notre Dame is among the top schools where strength of recruiting is measured?
Conference or no conference, what helps recruiting is winning, pure and simple. Since the Irish have learned to do that again, their recruiting classes are getting stronger every year.
But the argument for Notre Dame joining a conference that really annoys me and goes against all logic is that being in a conference somehow gives them more credibility in today's polls or in tomorrow's rankings as decided by a panel of experts.
Just one example of where this thinking is flawed is proving itself out this year in the Big Ten. Many believe that that is the conference where the Irish belong based on geography. So for the sake of argument, let's say they are members.
Would their credibility be any stronger this year if they were in the Big Ten? Certainly not with the Big Ten being as weak as it has been this season. Were they in the Big Ten now, they would be faulted for having a weak schedule.
They already beat two of what many believed early on were among the best teams in the conference, and the country even: Michigan and Michigan State. And what has that gotten them as far as credibility?
How would then beating up on the likes of Indiana, Illinois or Minnesota enhance their resume over what it was this year with a nonconference driven schedule against Oklahoma, Stanford, USC et.al.?
Bottom line, to get to the point of my article title, is that Notre Dame, starting when the new "playoff" structure is implemented, needs to finish in the top four at the end of the year to be included. That generally means an undefeated or one loss season against a reasonably difficult schedule.
In fact, strength of schedule will now mean more than ever when a panel of experts begins dissecting wins and losses and what they truly mean before ranking a team. This is a far better approach, and one more favorable than unfavorable to the Irish, who typically play a difficult schedule, than the current system of coaches voting on teams they have not even seen play and where prejudices can sneak in and override logic in the voting process.
As long as the Irish continue to play the kind of schedules they have typically played over the years, and continue to win 10, 11 or 12 games a year against those kinds of teams, a conference affiliation does not mean a thing.