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Committee clearly cares about head-to-head consequences, including Notre Dame over Michigan

Notre Dame v Northwestern

EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 03: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish leads his team onto the field prior to a game against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field on November 3, 2018 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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One-loss Michigan will not pass unbeaten Notre Dame in the only poll that matters. Don’t take it from a know-nothing writing under the NBC umbrella. Take it from the chair of the College Football Playoff selection committee, Rob Mullens.

He did not say exactly that Tuesday night, but Mullens did explain why the Irish are at No. 3, remaining one spot ahead of the Wolverines in the newest poll.

“In 3 and 4 you have a head-to-head, but at this point, you look at the protocol, through week 10 head-to-head still matters, and it’s still significant,” Mullens said. “That’s why Notre Dame is ahead of Michigan.”

If the qualifiers of “at this point” and “still” cause Irish panic, also note Mullens said the tiers of the rankings went 1 through 3 and then 4 through 6. Notre Dame is currently in a discussion with Clemson, not with Michigan.

As it should be.

As it will continue to be, presuming the Irish remain unblemished. Suffer a loss and all this changes. If/until then, consider what awaits the two teams in this question.

Notre Dame: vs. Florida State; vs. No. 13 Syracuse; at USC.Michigan: vs. Rutgers; at Indiana; vs. No. 10 Ohio State; potentially a Big Ten championship game.

If the seasons to-date have the Irish ahead of the Wolverines, the differences in those upcoming schedules do not favor Michigan enough to tilt the balance. In fact, Notre Dame’s set of games may actually provide a stiffer challenge thanks to the Orange rise, as unexpected as it has been.

“When you look at Syracuse’s résumé, it starts with only two losses,” Mullens said. “They do have a win over (No. 14-)ranked NC State. They’ve been pretty consistent on offensive. I think they’ve got a top-20, a top-15 offense, and they did have a close loss on the road to our No. 2-ranked team.”

If the Irish can beat the Orange, it will not be all that much different than the Wolverines beating the Buckeyes. Unless performances are utterly skewed, perhaps to the extent of needing a controversial call to claim a victory, that similarity should keep the head-to-head outcome as the literal and figurative difference-maker.

Still skeptical? Head-to-head results very clearly matters to the committee. There are five pairs of teams in the poll who met earlier this season and now have the same number of losses. In all five instances, the committee put the head-to-head victor ahead of its counterpart. The AP poll, for context, flipped four of those pairs. Even the S&P+ ratings flip four of them.

— Syracuse beat NC State. The AP ranks the Orange No. 13 and the Wolfpack No. 22, but S&P+ slots them at No. 58 and No. 40, respectively.— Auburn beat Washington. The committee put the two 3-loss teams at No. 24 and No. 25, respectively, compared to the AP ranking the Huskies No. 20 and not ranking the Tigers, while S&P+ gives Washington a No. 10 ranking, five spots ahead of Auburn.— Iowa beat Iowa State, Nos. 21 and 22 in the Playoff poll, though the Cyclones are ranked No. 23 by the AP and the Hawkeyes are unranked.— Now-No. 15 Florida beat now-No. 16 Mississippi State. AP numbers: 19 and 18. S&P+: 27 and 11.— Now-No. 18 Michigan State beat now-No. 20 Penn State. Get the idea?

Shelve the talk of Michigan slipping ahead of Notre Dame. Even if Iowa reaches the Big Ten championship game, that is unlikely to be a victory worthy of changing this conversation. Not to mention, Northwestern remains the more likely Big Ten West champion.

Why does any of this matter? There is no difference between No. 3 and No. 4, right? Aside from avoiding the added stress of being on the fringe, at No. 3 the Irish should be able to put off facing ‘Bama.

All this talk about having a 13th data point with the conference championships … Can you look at the most logical conference championship contenders at the major conference level and see how many have an FCS game? It seems ND would have the same number of data points against legitimate competition. — Dave C.

The reliance on the phrase “13th data point” began some years ago, and while its gridiron-specific etymology is likely lost to history, it should be considered nothing but an unfortunate talking point by now. The conversation has never been about the 13th game, but about the built-in chance at another worthwhile win.

Consider Michigan this year. Actually, wait, let’s make this hypothetical even more distinct. The Wolverines have been so dominant of late the theoretical will not inherently apply. Let’s instead pretend Ohio State pulls off an upset Thanksgiving weekend and heads to the Big Ten title game rather than Michigan.

The Buckeyes would then be in the mix for the final Playoff spot — for this example, presume the top three finish unbeaten — with the likes of No. 6 Oklahoma or No. 9 West Virginia and No. 8 Washington State. Ohio State would find itself cursing the mediocre Big Ten West. Unlike 2014, the Buckeyes will not be able to impress the committee with a 59-0 victory against the country’s No. 11 team. They will be lucky to face an opponent in the top 20 at all.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma could be beating West Virginia for the second week in a row. That will be the difference, as Washington State will face the same problem Ohio State does thanks to the cluster known as the Pac-12 South.

As it pertains to Notre Dame, that Pac-12 South issue includes USC. If the Irish were to lose to Syracuse next weekend, they would then be wishing USC was a top-15 foe. Such would be a final chance at an impressive win, something Notre Dame lacks a surplus of this year, though through no fault of its own. Those 12 FBS games have not included as much legitimate competition as expected.

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