By Kent Smith—BlockONation College Football Analyst
In an interview with ESPN, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel made comments about Notre Dame and whether or not the Irish should be allowed in the College Football Playoff being an independent rather than being a full-time member of a Power 5 conference.
“Give Notre Dame a year to join a league. They don’t have independents in the NFL," Pinkel said.
Though there is no rule that says Independent’s can’t make the college football playoff, it does make one wonder if Gary Pinkel is right.
The current system in place has a selection committee that picks four of college football’s best teams and those teams that are most likely to be selected are teams that play in the Power 5 conferences, i.e. the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, and SEC.
Notre Dame is not a full-time member of any of those conferences, though, they are a “part-time” sorta-kinda member of the ACC, while still claiming Independent status.
Again, the CFB committee’s job is to pick the four best teams in college football, not just members of the Power 5 conference. By staying Independent, many believe it gives Notre Dame an unfair advantage by having a mixed schedule and no conference championship game.
As frustrating as it may be to some that Notre Dame won’t join a conference, myself included, I also get why they don’t. Notre Dame has built their brand on being an Independent program that can schedule anyone they want, whenever they want, while being the only team played on a major television network.
Not only were they scheduling anyone anywhere—they were beating anyone anywhere.
America quickly fell in love with the Notre Dame program, with their championships, their winning big regular season games, those shiny gold helmets, the catchy fight song, countless All-American players, legendary coaches, academic prestige and famous alumni.
The problem is, this was all happening from the 1930’s to the late 1980’s. Since then, Notre Dame has accomplished little to nothing. Zero national championships, a losing record against ranked teams, a losing record in bowl games, multiple seasons under .500, including losses to Navy and Air Force, several coaching changes, no Heisman winners, fewer All-Americans, fewer NFL draft picks, fewer top national recruits, poor player conduct and last but not least, a dead, fake girlfriend.
All of this is enough to bring up one good question: What conference would Notre Dame win if they were a full-time member?
If you go as far back as to the first year of the BCS in 1998, Notre Dame has only been in the discussion for the national championship four times (02, 05, 06, 12) and only once did they actually play for a national title back in 2012. They were embarrassed by Alabama 42-14.
Though they lost in the title game, Notre Dame did go undefeated during the regular season that year, but many questioned the toughness of their schedule and the fashion in which Notre Dame won those games..
After all, style points do matter in college football—like it or not. 2012 might be the only year in which Notre Dame would have won one or two BCS/Power 5 conferences, but even then, I doubt it.
Yes, Notre Dame swept their B1G opponents, but would they have beaten a 12-0 Ohio State team that year? Unlikely.
Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde would’ve done to Notre Dame’s defense than what Alabama did to it in the BCS National Championship Game.
Would they have won the ACC in 2012? Very doubtful. Even though the ACC wasn’t very deep, both Florida State and Clemson had talented teams that would have likely been too fast and strong for Notre Dame, also like Alabama.
When you try to think back all the way to 1998 and figure out which conferences Notre Dame would have won you immediately think of the weaker conferences, like the old Big East or the ACC.
Looking back at all of Notre Dame’s records in the past 17 seasons, there are plenty of years where Notre Dame would have been a bad team in a bad conference.
If you were to go from 1998 to 2005, Notre Dame wouldn’t have won the Big East once. In that span, Notre Dame had 3 losing seasons and had just one 10 win season (2002).
During that span, the University of Miami had returned to national dominance and was still a member of the Big East. There is zero chance that Notre Dame would have beaten any Miami team in that span when Miami was a member of the Big East. Not to mention, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Each had good teams as well while in the Big East.
The conference America has been begging Notre Dame to join since the very beginning is the Big Ten Conference. It not only makes geographical sense, but it also makes sense for Notre Dame to annually play other Midwestern powers such as Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Penn State.
The addition of Notre Dame to the B1G would likely make the B1G the most powerful conference, not only in college football but, in college sports. With the huge media markets the B1G already possesses, the addition of Notre Dame would bring a much bigger New York City following with the large amount of alumni living in New York City, and the fact that Notre Dame is a giant name itself.
TV revenue would be even higher, TV ratings would be higher, there would be less SEC bias (maybe) and more elite recruits throughout the country would commit to B1G teams. Notre Dame could play in the West Division where the opponents aren't as high profile or elite as several in the East Division are. The Irish could play for a B1G title almost every single year against a traditional power from the East.
Notre Dame would also be joining the best conference for academics, and the conference with the largest alumni bases throughout the country. I mean, what better way to promote a conference when Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan alum’s get together for a game at a bar while living in Southern California or Florida?
Instead Notre Dame not only chooses to remain independent, but to no longer schedule B1G teams and play five ACC teams per year. But why not join the Big Ten? Well I for one think it’s obvious and it’s a reason that Notre Dame and their fans will never own up to—Notre Dame would get crushed, and get crushed often in the B1G.
I looked up Notre Dame’s records every year from 1998 through 2014 to see what years they could have been competitive in the B1G and I was only able to find four seasons: 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2012.
In 2000, Notre Dame lost two games during the regular season and one of those losses was to Michigan State. 2000 was not a strong year for the B1G. The top 5 teams all won eight games while the non-conference and bowl record was not impressive either.
Notre Dame’s other regular season loss was to Nebraska and they would eventually get crushed in the Fiesta Bowl by Oregon State, 41-9. No conference championship for Notre Dame.
In 2002, Notre Dame finished with a 10-3 record. They swept their B1G opponents, but again, it was not a strong year for the B1G.
They were having a good run until an upset loss to Boston College ruined their perfect season and then a beat down from the hands of USC in Los Angeles, losing 44-13. Notre Dame would go on to lose the Gator Bowl to NC State 28-6.
While Notre Dame did go 3-0 against the B1G that year winning close games against Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, it was another team in the B1G that brought home the national championship that year—The Ohio State Buckeyes, who pulled off what some called a huge upset over the "unbeatable" Miami Hurricanes.
Notre Dame may have given Ohio State a tough game and the final score could have been close, just like most games for Ohio State that year, but I don’t see Notre Dame defeating Ohio State, a team with arguably the best defense and special teams in America that year. Once again, no conference championship for Notre Dame.
Finally in 2005, Notre Dame was supposed to officially be “back” after hiring offensive guru Charlie Weis, the former offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, and also a Notre Dame alum. Notre Dame finally had the right coach with the right QB and they were going to return to elite status.
They got off to a good start by defeating Michigan in Ann Arbor in week 2 of the season, only to lose to Michigan State the following week in South Bend. That same year Notre Dame was involved in one of the most controversial games in college football history. Notre Dame hosted #1 USC and lost in the final seconds of the game on a play now referred to as “The Bush Push”.
Eventual Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush illegally pushed the current Heisman winner Matt Leinart over the goal line for a touchdown with just three seconds left in the game.
Notre Dame would go on to face Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl that year, and Notre Dame was actually favored. Many felt that given a month to prepare, Charlie Weis could pick apart any defense and his offense could not be stopped.
The game started off as a shootout like most expected, but it was the Buckeyes who put up the big offensive stats and came out on top with a 34-20 win. The B1G was a little deeper in 2005 and Notre Dame wouldn’t have won the conference.
Finally that brings us to 2012. Notre Dame was coming off a disappointing season in which they were expected to make the BCS and possibly play for a national championship, as they had most of their starters returning and a favorable schedule.
They had a new true freshman QB in Everette Golson but also the eventual Butkus Award winner, LB Manti Te’o leading the defense. Other than that, they didn't have a lot of options and depth, hence why they were ranked 24th in the preseason by USA Today and not ranked at all preseason by the AP.
So to much surprise, Notre Dame not only swept their B1G opponents, but they ran the table and got to play for a national championship for the first time since 1990. Though they would go on to lose to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game 42-14, it still gave Notre Dame a boost back into national relevance after going through five straight painful seasons.
Does that mean they would have won the B1G that year or any other conference (except the SEC obviously)? Yes, Notre Dame went 12-0 during the regular season, but how many of those games did a call late in the game go in Notre Dame’s favor?
For example, the Stanford game? Or the following week where they avoided an upset to BYU, escaping 17-14? Then, two weeks later against Pitt where Pitt missed multiple, costly field goals to keep Notre Dame in the game. Notre Dame would eventually win 29-26.
Other notable games that year include a 13-6 win over an average Michigan team, a 20-3 win over an improving Michigan State team, a 41-3 win over a bad Miami Hurricanes team, a 30-13 win over Oklahoma in which OU collapsed by mid-season, and a 22-13 win over USC, a team under NCAA sanctions and reduced scholarship players.
The 2012 Notre Dame Fighting Irish might be the only Notre Dame team in the last 17 years that would MAYBE win the B1G. Again, Notre Dame did sweep their B1G opponents but they did not have to face Ohio State or Wisconsin. My final answer is maybe.
The remaining 13 seasons going back to 1998 would have been forgettable years for Notre Dame if they were full-time members of the B1G. If Notre Dame had a losing record against Rich Rodriguez when he was the head coach at Michigan, then how in the world could Notre Dame have competed against the consistent teams in the B1G like Ohio State?
You could even do a “what if” of Notre Dame vs. Ohio State between 1998 and 2014 and Ohio State would have a similar if not better record versus Notre Dame as they do against Michigan in that time frame. Since 2001, the Buckeyes are 12-2 vs. the team from Ann Arbor. That is just in case any TTUN fans might be reading this!
Notre Dame will always be a recognizable and admired brand to many, and whether or not you like them, they are good for college football.
Notre Dame joining a conference would do even more positive things for college football and it’s fans, but Notre Dame seems selfishly content remaining an Independent for now.
Until they do join a conference, this college football fan sees Notre Dame as a program that many of today’s recruits will only recognize as a program that used to be great—many, many years before any of them were born.
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