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Notre Dame’s Opponents: The Fiesta-Peach Anomaly in a top-heavy year

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Most years, going 10-2 will be enough to land Notre Dame in a New Year’s Six bowl. The prevailing angst about this perceived slight stems from an anomaly in the Playoff semifinal rotation, not from an agenda against the Irish or from an oversight in the ACC agreement.

Half the New Year’s Six bowls have conference contracts while the remaining three pull from the rest of the top 12 when not hosting semifinals. The 2019 anomaly, one that will next appear in 2022, is that both the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl are hosting semifinals, leaving only one true at-large opening available, guaranteed to face the highest-ranked Group of Five team.

This issue will arise exactly once every three years in the current system. The rest of the time, going 10-2 should assure the Irish a spot in Dallas or Phoenix or Atlanta. For that matter, if the SEC were not so vastly superior to the Big Ten this season, Notre Dame could be heading to the Citrus Bowl rather than the Camping World Bowl, as is almost certainly the case in 2019.

The committee is not jobbing the Irish; the partial membership with the ACC is not failing its intentions; Notre Dame should not turn down a bowl game because it is heading to Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28. This is simply a reality of that Fiesta-Peach turn in the rotation.

If anything, maybe this complication should have been foreseen when setting up the cycle. Pairing a conference-contracted bowl with a free agent bowl as the semifinal sites each year would have been possible, and it could have been done while keeping one game in the Eastern time zone and one in the Central or Pacific each year.


This is where the intention was to illustrate the anomaly by plotting bowl matchups across the last two years of New Year’s Six bowls with those respective semifinal sites factored in. Instead, doing so reliant on a chalk-filled final three weeks to the season brought to the surface another reason the Irish will not come near sniffing those headlines.

This college football season is more top-heavy than usual. Not only are three teams undefeated and likely to remain so — that was supposed to be a 2018 abnormality, there had been only three undefeated teams to reach the first four Playoffs combined — but even with that becoming at least a two-year possibility, the real shift in 2019 is how many Power Five teams will finish with no more than two losses.

2014: One undefeated team after the regular season; 8 total with two or fewer losses.
2015: One undefeated team; 12 with no more than two losses.
2016: One undefeated team; 7 with no more than two losses.
2017: No undefeated Power Five teams; 10 with no more than two losses.
2018: Three undefeated Power Five teams; 8 with no more than two losses.
2019: Three projected undefeated teams; 13 projected teams with no more than two losses.

That last number breaking 11 changes this argument. If that becomes the usual, then a 10-2 Notre Dame will need better wins than No. 23 USC to bolster its own standing within the rankings. The Irish, presuming two more wins this season, will likely finish ranked at No. 11 or 12.

When the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl host the Playoff, like last year, finishing No. 11 will be good enough to get an invite to the Peach Bowl. When the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl host the semifinals, a la 2017, No. 11 will result in heading to … the Camping World Bowl.

The difference? The Orange contractually needs to make room for a middling ACC team when not hosting the Playoff if Clemson is in the Playoff.

Let’s amend the original thesis to … Most years, going 10-2 will be enough to land Notre Dame in a New Year’s Six bowl because its schedule will hold up better and because the rest of the country will not, logically speaking.


All that is to say, Notre Dame’s slim hopes of reaching the Cotton Bowl remain unchanged. If both Pac-12 Playoff contenders win this weekend, slim will be reduced to utterly improbable. Considering No. 6 Oregon is favored by 14.5 at Arizona State and No. 7 Utah is favored by 22 at Arizona as of early Wednesday a.m., things may already be utterly improbable.

Operating under the belief both the Ducks and the Utes reach the Pac-12 championship game 11-1, the Irish have no discernable path back to Dallas. The simple roadblock features the Pac-12’s best going to the Rose Bowl and the loser taking the Cotton Bowl at-large slot.

The alternate possibility includes the Pac-12 champion in the Playoff. In that scenario, no number of coming losses would knock No. 4 Georgia or No. 5 Alabama behind Notre Dame. One would head to the Sugar Bowl while the other filled in the Orange Bowl. All it would then take to 100 percent deny the Irish any Cotton hopes would be No. 11 Florida beating Florida State on Nov. 30.


The Camping World Bowl it will be then. Cynics find delight in scoffing at any bowl short of the Playoff but dismissing the Dec. 28 contest is foolhardy. It will open the day of semifinals, on ABC opposite the Cotton Bowl on ESPN. Which will get more eyeballs, No. 12 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 Iowa State on ABC or No. 9 Utah vs. No. 16 Memphis on ESPN? (Those rankings are rough approximations of future events.)

Even if it is the latter by a slim margin, this will likely be the third consecutive Camping World Bowl to feature a top-25 matchup and fourth in five years.

Iowa State needed a last-second field goal to hold off Texas’ upset bid Saturday, winning 23-21. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)

Yes, now-No. 22 Iowa State took the practical lead to be the Irish opponent with its last-second victory against Texas on Saturday. No. 21 Oklahoma State may take exception to that, but the Cowboys would have to upset Oklahoma to remain in the driver’s seat, while the Cyclones will need to top Kansas and Kansas State.


Louisville (6-4): The Cardinals reached bowl eligibility with a 34-20 win at North Carolina State. Now they host a reeling Syracuse (4 ET; ACC Network) as 9-point favorites. A combined point total over/under of 62 suggests a 35-26 finish.

New Mexico (2-8): The Lobos lost 42-29 at now-No. 20 Boise State, getting out-gained 509 yards to 292. They will now play a rescheduled contest against Air Force (2 ET; ESPN3). The Falcons are favored by 22 with an over/under of 55.5, but frankly, it is hard to envision New Mexico scoring 17 against a triple-option offense.

No. 4 Georgia (9-1): The Bulldogs survived their toughest remaining regular-season challenge with a 21-14 win at now-No. 15 Auburn. Georgia got out to a 21-0 lead before Kirby Smart became overly cautious and allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns. If he can avoid doing that again, the Bulldogs should hold off Texas A&M (3:30 ET; CBS) as 13.5-point favorites. The over/under of 45 points sets a relatively high-scoring bar of 29-16.

Virginia (7-3): The Cavaliers come off an idle week with Liberty’s arrival (12 ET; ACC Network Extra). Don’t underestimate the Flames; there is a reason they are only 17-point underdogs. But Bronco Mendenhall’s defense should make good on the 36-19 score projected by a 55.5-point over/under.

Bowling Green (3-8): This space did not see fit to preempt the newest rankings with this weekly recap just to preview the Falcons 66-24 drubbing at the hands of Ohio on Tuesday. That makes it Opponents 110, Bowling Green 27 in the last two weeks.

No. 23 USC (7-4): The Trojans raced past Cal, 41-17, thanks to freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis’ four touchdowns and 406 yards on 29-of-35 passing. USC ends its season a week early against UCLA (3:30 ET; ABC) as 13.5-point favorites. Given Slovis’ successes and UCLA’s SP+ defensive ranking of No. 81, maybe the over/under of 63 and its expected result of 38-25 is conservative.

No. 13 Michigan (8-2): The Wolverines outscored Michigan State 27-3 in the second half en route to a 44-10 walloping and now carry that momentum to Indiana (3:30 ET; ESPN) as 9-point favorites with an over/under of 53. Michigan is on a roll right now, so a 31-22 win might be underwhelming.

Virginia Tech (7-3): The Hokies blanked Georgia Tech, 45-0, giving up only 134 yards and forcing defensive coordinator Bud Foster to reiterate he will retire after this season. Before he does that, though, Virginia Tech will lean on its defense against Pittsburgh (3:30 ET; ESPN2) as 4-point favorites with an over/under of 46.5 hinting at a 25-21 result.

Duke (4-6): The Blue Devils fell apart against Syracuse, 49-6. They will try to redeem themselves at Wake Forest (7:30 ET; ACC Network), but as touchdown underdogs, that may be a pipe dream.

Navy (7-2): The Midshipmen already have more important things to do than worry about last weekend’s 52-20 loss at Notre Dame. Their AAC title hopes hinge on winning against No. 25 SMU (3:30 ET; CBSSN). Navy is favored by 3.5 with an over/under of 68. The Mustangs will not be afraid to get involved in a 36-32 shootout.

Boston College (5-5): The seventh and final opponent to meet the Irish coming off an idle week, the Eagles are 19.5-point underdogs with an over/under of 64 setting up a fourth 40-point outing from Notre Dame, matching last year’s total.

Stanford (4-6): The Cardinal’s bowl hopes are on life support after falling 49-22 at Washington State despite 504 passing yards from Davis Mills. Throwing for 500 yards is worth only so much when the team rushes for six yards on 10 carries. Stanford is a field goal favorite against Cal (4 ET; Pac 12 Network) in a game some would consider — I apologize for nothing — “big” despite its meager over/under of 41.5.