The inevitable hot takes about Notre Dame's lack of conference championship game were rendered irrelevant as soon as Conrad Ukropina's 45-yard field goal sailed through the uprights at Stanford Stadium on Saturday. But as Notre Dame exits the 2015 regular season, it should with a fortified confidence in its football independence.
Had Notre Dame beat Stanford and finished the season 11-1, it probably would've been left out of the four-team playoff unless Alabama or Clemson were to get upset in their respective conference championship games. Oklahoma's 35-point margin of victory ensured that the Irish would've needed an all-time upset to make the playoff.
But Notre Dame would've only had itself to blame for missing the playoff at 11-1. That mistake-filled loss at Clemson Oct. 3 was going to be Notre Dame's biggest barrier -- without a slow defensive start, three lost fumbles and/or a curious decision to go for two early in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame would've probably been 11-0 heading into Saturday's game.
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
"It's never about just one series or one play," coach Brian Kelly said. "It's a culmination of the game and the reality is, we're two plays away from being undefeated and being the number one team in the country, you know. One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford."
Notre Dame also left plenty to chance when it slogged through unimpressive wins over Wake Forest and Boston College. The B.C. game was particularly egregious, with five turnovers keeping Notre Dame from blowing out one of the worst teams in the ACC this year. Maybe if that final score is 34-17 instead of 19-16, Notre Dame wouldn't have been passed by Oklahoma, Iowa and Michigan State in last week's playoff rankings.
The point here is Notre Dame didn't need a conference championship game to make the playoff. Oklahoma doesn't play this Saturday, and it won't keep the Sooners from earning a playoff bid. Ohio State made the playoff last year over Baylor and TCU not because of its 13th game, but because it left no doubt with that 59-0 bludgeoning of Wisconsin in what may be one of the more impressive wins of the last decade.
The only logical argument for Notre Dame joining a conference -- which would have to be the ACC, per the university's deal with the conference -- is that the College Football Playoff selection committee mandated that all of its participants would have to be conference champions. If Notre Dame's access to the playoff were completely cut off, it would have to re-evaluate its independence.
But a tournament that's a television ratings juggernaut isn't going to exclude Notre Dame. It's a national fanbase that draws ratings no matter what -- there's a reason why Notre Dame has played nationally-televised primetime games against Navy, Pitt, Purdue, Syracuse and Temple over the last three years. Eventually, if/when the playoff expands to eight teams to further increase its TV revenue, it may open spots for each Power Five conference champion, but that'd still leave three at-large spots for which Notre Dame can compete.
The most important point here is that Notre Dame's identity is in its independence. Its ability to annually play historic rivals in Navy and USC, plus a Stanford program it feels a certain kinship with based on football and academic success, is of utmost importance. The annual Shamrock Series game that serves as a traveling showcase for the university is possible because of Notre Dame's independence. This is a university that relishes doing things differently, and even no-brainer tweaks like artificial turf and a video board were viewed as major changes.
It's key, too, that Notre Dame has a lucrative TV deal with NBC -- which is partnered with Comcast SportsNet Chicago -- allowing for financial comfort as conference networks shell out truckloads of cash across the country.
Eventually, the "debate" over whether or not Notre Dame should join a conference will re-surface, probably in college football's lengthy summer dead period. But it's not a conversation taking place on campus in South Bend, because there's no reason for Notre Dame to have it.