On Saturday night, the 2020 Notre Dame Fighting Irish could accomplish something that the Four Horsemen, Joe Montana, Jerome Bettis, Walt Patulski, Paul Hornung, Tony Rice and Leon Hart combined couldn’t: a conference championship.
The second-ranked Irishman will face No.4 Clemson at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium in front of an audience of around 5,200 – with an audience from national television and the college football playoff selection committee to watch carefully.
There has been a lot of speculation about what the committee might do if Notre Dame is destroyed by the Tigers in the rematch of their November game, won in double overtime by the Irish.
But what if Clemson loses?
What if the Tigers were won by the top team on their relatively meager schedule? Would the CFP committee ignore all the precedents they have set since the event was introduced in 2014 and select Clemson on the basis of 1) a single win over Miami, currently ranked 18th by its own top 25; 2) the Tigers’ tradition of success in the event, which includes appearances in the last five titles as well as two titles; and 3) whether to promote All-America nominee Trevor Lawrence as a participant?
Of the 24 teams chosen so far, none have ever entered with two losses. Only three teams were selected without a conference championship – Ohio State in 2016, Alabama in 2017 and Notre Dame in 2018 – and those teams had an average record of 12-1.
With a loss to the Irish, the Tigers would be 9-2. And it wouldn’t be an inspiring 9-2, if such a description could be accurate. One of the Tigers’ victories was over opponent FCS La Citadelle. To date, their eight FBS victims hold a composite record of 38-44. Beyond Miami’s 8-2 mark, the Tigers’ best casualty record is 6-5, shared by Pitt and Boston College.
That’s why ESPN’s ‘Strength of Record’ metric, which doesn’t take into account the margin of victory but focuses on the quality of the opposition – ranks Clemson up to No.9, behind teams such as Indiana, USC, Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati.
Without a win over Notre Dame, Clemson’s resume wouldn’t live up to any other playoff contender. His case would boil down to victory over Miami – which devalued in a 62-26 loss to North Carolina – and dominance over a series of mediocre teams. Clemson beat his FBS opponents 411-183, averaging 25.3 points per game which ranks No. 4 in the nation.
With his tomfoolery ranking since the very first week, shattering perfect records for Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina and even USC, the committee has created a conundrum for itself that only a Clemson victory over the Irish – preferably by a narrow margin in an attractive match – can solve.
If the Tigers lose, the committee will likely be forced to 1) stick with the Tigers and admit that the whole operation is brand-based; 2) Placing No.5 Texas A&M in an unappealing rematch of a four TD loss to No.1 Alabama; or 3) squeeze another two-game losing team on the field, like Iowa State or Georgia.
This season has been unprecedented in college football, due to delays and interruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no doubt that the CFP committee would prefer a dose of normality for at least one weekend in December.