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Should Notre Dame be ranked in the Top 2?

Before I get to the question of the day, below is a quick roundup of some good college football articles I read this week:

  • Bill Connelly, of Football Outsiders and SB Nation, argues that Texas A&M’s victory proves head coach Kevin Sumlin was the right man for the job and that the spread works — even in the SEC.
  • You may recall that Alabama’s last chance to win the game was ruined when they fell for a hard count on a 4th down play with Texas A&M lined up to punt. Chris Brown highlighted how Sumlin has a history of success with the hard count — the day before the game.
  • Dan Wetzel, writing for Yahoo!, argues that the BCS is screwing over Notre Dame because of the Irish’s preseason ranking.
  • Stewart Mandel over at Sports Illustrated discusses the far-reaching impact of the Aggies’ upset victory
  • Matt Hinton at SB Nation provides us with the latest and greatest on the BCS race, including a terrifying-but-not-unrealistic theory on how we might get another All-SEC BCS title game.

As we move towards the final few weeks of the regular season, the picture is almost in place. We know that Oregon and Kansas State are atop the BCS standings, and if both remain undefeated, will end up facing off in the BCS National Championship Game. That would leave Notre Dame, as a potential 12-0, left out in the cold. Is this fair?

Of course not. Any system that is designed around a two-team playoff format is not going to be equitable when you have three teams finish a season undefeated. That’s basic math. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the BCS for another 14 months. So the real question isn’t whether an undefeated Notre Dame would be getting screwed — they would be, just like countless other teams before them. No, the more interesting question is, assuming we are absurdly limited to the ridiculousness of choosing two out of three undefeated teams, should Notre Dame be one of those two teams?

The cast of characters in this case can easily be plotted a continuum, with “margin of victory” champs on one side and “strength of schedule” warriors on the other. On the left, a dominant offense; on the right, a dominant defense. It’s a case of “beauty contest winners” vs. “resume champs.” Or, if you prefer, the best predictive teams vs. the best retrodictive teams. In any event, you’ve got Oregon on one side, Notre Dame on the other, and Kansas State square in the middle. We’re left trying to magnify miniscule differences to figure out which two teams belong.

The case for Oregon

The Ducks lead the country in points per game and rushing yards per carry, giving them the most explosive offensive attack in college football. The Ducks are so prolific that they’ve managed to achieve these milestones despite largely shutting things down for large stretches of the game nearly every week: Oregon has had a lead of at least 32 points in nine of ten games, and in 8 of those games, they scored at least 4 straight touchdowns at one point (of the exceptions, in one they had two runs of three straight touchdowns and in the other, they broke USC’s school records for yards and points allowed).

Oregon ranks #2 in the SRS, just a hair behind Alabama, which would make them a 9-point favorite over Notre Dame on a neutral field. From a predictive standpoint, Oregon is clearly better than Kansas State and Notre Dame. Based on style points and margin of victory — and the SRS — Oregon deserves a ticket to Miami.

The case for Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s average opponent has an SRS rating of 45.3, giving the Irish the 19th toughest schedule according to the SRS. Conversely,, Kansas State has faced the 28th toughest schedule, while the Ducks have had the benefit of playing only the 40th most challenging slate of opponents. All else being equal, a perfect record against the toughest schedule should trump all. Notre Dame is also tied with Alabama for fewest points allowed in college football at 111. It’s not always pretty and the margin isn’t always great, but based simply on resume — i.e., looking just at who won and lost — Notre Dame has a more impressive set of heads on its wall.

That’s exactly why the computers have the Fighting Irish at #1. Both Kansas State and Oregon played games against an FCS school and a Sun Belt school, while Notre Dame has limited itself to schools from BCS conferences and BYU and Navy. Notre Dame generally has a difficult schedule with Michigan, Michigan State, USC, and Stanford on the slate, and this year was no exception — and they traveled to play Oklahoma.

The case for Kansas State

Kansas States schedule is comparable to Notre Dame’s — both can claim victories in Norman as their defining moments of the season — and the Wildcats fit squarely in between Oregon and Notre Dame when it comes to style points and the SRS. KSU is in the top 15 in both scoring offense and defense, joining Florida State and Northern Illinois (who both benefit from significantly easier schedules) as the only schools that can make such a claim. KSU ranks third in the SRS, and will have run through a strong conference (even if no one knows exactly how good the Big 12 is) unscathed in order to achieve an undefeated record. They also sport Collin Klein, the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

If you were to create rankings as of today, November 16th, it would be pretty difficult to leave out Notre Dame; I’m sympathetic to the argument that they should be in the top two in the BCS right now. However, things are going to change pretty soon. And who ranks 1st or 2nd in mid-November is pretty meaningless. Here’s the key: assuming Oregon and Kansas State win out, Notre Dame won’t have much of an argument as to why it deserves to be ranked ahead of either school.

Notre Dame still plays USC, but first will play Wake Forest, currently ranked 105th in the SRS. And if USC defeats UCLA this weekend, Oregon will finish its season with three straight games against teams ranked 14th, 13th and 11th in the SRS (and if UCLA defeats USC, it’s possible the Bruins jump into the top 15; in any event, Oregon will face a good team in the Pac-12 Championship Game).

Those three games will raise the Ducks’ SOS up to 44.4, and drop Notre Dame’s SOS to 44.8. At that point, Notre Dame’s biggest argument will disappear. Let’s not put the carriage in front of the horse — Oregon needs to actually beat those three teams — but if they do, it will be hard to argue that the Ducks aren’t deserving of all the accolades that will come their way. Kansas State, with two games remaining against Baylor and Texas will end up with the toughest SOS of the trio, at 45.2. But at this level, the margins are razor thin. Assuming the SRS ratings do not change, here will be the final SRS ratings of the opponents of each of the three teams, sorted from highest to lowest:

RankOregonKansas StNotre Dame
1Southern Cal (55.8)Oklahoma (61.1)Oklahoma (61.1)
2Southern Cal (55.8)Texas (54.5)Southern Cal (55.8)
3Oregon State (55.4)Oklahoma St (53.9)Stanford (55)
4Stanford (55)Texas Tech (51.8)Michigan (51.6)
5Arizona St (51.8)Baylor (47.9)Brigham Young (50.8)
6Fresno St (50.6)TCU (46.9)Michigan St (46.1)
7Arizona (49.2)Iowa St (46.9)Miami FL (41.8)
8Washington (47.1)West Virginia (43.9)Purdue (39.8)
9California (41.3)Miami FL (41.8)Pittsburgh (38.2)
10Arkansas St (40.7)Kansas (36.1)Navy (36.6)
11Washington St (33.9)North Texas (29.7)Boston College (31.8)
12Colorado (24.4)Missouri St (27.8)Wake Forest (28.9)
13Tennessee Tech (16.3)

Kansas State and Notre Dame both defeated the Sooners, clearly trumping any single head on the Ducks’ wall. Notre Dame and Oregon will have both beaten USC and Stanford, but Oregon should add Oregon State in two weeks. Once it does that, it’s easy to argue that neither KSU nor Notre Dame has as impressive a top quartet of victories. The same is true if you look at the best five, or six, or seven, eight, nine, ten, or eleven wins. Essentially, Notre Dame’s tougher schedule argument will amount to arbitrarily holding up each team’s “toughest three opponents” or “toughest single opponent” as the true measure of difficulty. Once you dig any deeper than three, Oregon’s schedule holds up as being every bit the Irish’s equal.

It’s easy to throw out Oregon’s game against Tennessee Tech, an FCS school, especially since the Ducks will play one more game than Notre Dame and Kansas State, anyway. But keep in mind that Oregon has already played its version of Wake Forest while Notre Dame has not, and the Ducks will face three of their toughest four opponents over the next four weeks. And while maybe Notre Dame would deserve to be ranked ahead of Oregon now, the uproar would be even louder if the Irish were passed in a couple of weeks despite them defeating the teams on their schedule.

Unfortunately, the SOS argument form the only legs the Notre Dame table is built on; once you even up the schedules, there’s no more table for Notre Dame. The Irish nearly lost to Pittsburgh in triple overtime, needing a missed field goal to secure victory against the 71st team in the SRS… at home. Notre Dame had a controversial victory over Stanford, again in overtime. The margins against both Purdue and BYU were only a field goal, with both games being played in South Bend. Are we picking nits? Of course. But how else do you split up three undefeated teams?

One last note: the latest BCS odds make Oregon the favorite at 6/5, with Kansas State not far behind them at 7/5. The bookmakers are not fans of the Wildcats, so those odds make sense: they’re essentially saying K-State has an easier remaining schedule but is going to be a pretty heavy underdog in the championship game if they face Oregon or Alabama.

Speaking of the Crimson Tide, they’re tied with Notre Dame with the third best odds at 6/1. Similar logic is going on there: while Alabama needs two of Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame to lose, *and* needs to defeat Georgia, while Notre Dame only needs one of those three to lose (or to magically rise in the standings) and beat USC, the Crimson Tide would be much more likely to win once they enter the championship game. Lastly, Georgia is at 20/1 right now, which isn’t a bad bet even though I think they’re massively overrated (and by that I mean they’re the 8th best team in the SRS).

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