Why Notre Dame could cause major CFP headaches

Brian Kelly, the winningest active FBS coach with 226 wins, signed a six-year extension signed this winter that, should he see it through, will make him the longest-tenured Notre Dame coach not named Knute Rockne. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

Now that the Big 12 and Sun Belt have approved conference championship games, all 10 FBS conferences will have a title game by 2018, creating a more similar path to the College Football Playoff from coast to coast.

One major outlier remains.

The day Notre Dame gets into the playoff is the day two Power 5 conference champions are left out.

Let that sink in a minute.

There are four spots, so naturally somebody from the ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten or Big 12 will always be snubbed. Notre Dame, assisted by the power of its brand and the muscle of its independent schedule, has the potential to elbow one more big-time champ out of a semifinal spot.

Proof: Look back at Week 12 last year, when a one-loss Notre Dame team was sitting at No. 4 in the committee's top 25, along with No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State.

The Big 12 and Pac-12? Buh-bye.

Notre Dame continues to cling to its independence, and it should because of the freedom it has in creating schedules tailor-made to impress the 13-member selection committee. Notre Dame isn't stuck playing division cellar-dwellers every year. It's not judged by how good any entire conference is from top to bottom. Notre Dame's playoff worth is simply determined by who it schedules and who it beats. As long as Notre Dame continues to schedule aggressively, which it intends to, one loss likely won't keep the Irish out of a semifinal unless there are several undefeated conference champs to consider.

"I think my 12 stand up against another team's 11 at any time, and I'm saying 11 because one of those games is really an effective bye week because it's an [FCS] team," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "Then if they play a championship game, it's my 12 against their 12, and then that's where the committee will have to make a decision -- my 12 against their 12.

"There are SEC schools that are effectively playing bye games in Week 11," he said. "If there are any complaints I have with the committee, I don't know how you reward anybody and keep them out there in the rankings when they effectively take a week off by playing a [FCS] opponent."

Notre Dame, which has never played an FCS opponent, has yet to be at a disadvantage in this system -- but it also has yet to earn its way in, making the Irish the biggest X factor in the game right now. Only when Notre Dame finishes with one loss or better will everyone know how the committee regards an independent with no conference title to its name. In 2014, Notre Dame finished with five losses and wasn't a factor, but last year, the Irish were in the mix until the loss to Stanford in the regular-season finale knocked them out for good.

"I really think the filter is simply how the schedules set up and the strength of schedule, and if you lose, you better lose early," Kelly said. "You have a chance to make up for that. We've seen it over the last two years with Ohio State and Oklahoma, who were able to make up for really, really bad losses and still make it to the playoff."

There's a chance Notre Dame could lose in Week 1.

Notre Dame has one of the most difficult openers in the country, as its Sept. 4 game at Texas (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) is part of a blockbuster Week 1 lineup. Notre Dame embarrassed Texas 38-3 in last year's opener, but ESPN's Football Power Index projects this to be one of the closest games of the weekend, giving Texas a 54 percent chance to win.

"They remember what happened last year," Kelly said. "It's Sunday night, they're bringing back all of their former All-Americans. It's a red-letter game for them. Certainly it's a big game for us because it sets the season in motion for us. We know what's at stake -- it will be an important opener for us and we know that."

It's exactly the kind of game Notre Dame is looking for in the playoff era.

Notre Dame will face the Big 12 (at Texas), the Big Ten (Michigan State), the Pac-12 (Stanford, at USC) and five teams from the ACC this year, per its agreement with the league. Those are opponents from four of the Power 5 conferences, and next year, Notre Dame will host Georgia.

"We want markers against every single conference, and we'll continue to do that in scheduling," Kelly said. "As long as we have markers against each conference across the board -- and I mean the top schools across the board -- I think that's the most important thing for a college that's independent like us."

While the Big 12 once again dominated the headlines this offseason with all of the fuss over how to best position itself for the playoff, Notre Dame has watched quietly from the sidelines in a similar situation, without any title game to play in -- no "13th data point" to measure.

"We accept the consequence of playing one fewer game and understand there are years where that could be to our disadvantage," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said this spring. "Our obligation as a program is to figure out how to use it to promote the university. Independence allows me to promote the university -- a la the Shamrock Series -- that would be hard to do otherwise. You wind up comparing the two and say, 'Yeah, we're comfortable with that. We understand there may be times it's going to hurt, but that's all right.'"

The reaction, though, from fans and media has been vastly different than the hoopla surrounding the Big 12's perceived dilemma.

Silence. Indifference. A big, fat so what?

There seems to be a general acceptance that Notre Dame is and always will be unique in its status as an independent, but even Swarbrick knows it could be a gamble in the CFP.

Then again, so are conference championship games.

Notre Dame doesn't need a 13th game to impress the committee. It needs to beat the opponents it already has on the schedule.

Just like the Irish, it stands alone.