It’s late October and Notre Dame is ranked third in the nation. This is, of course, far from uncharted territory for the program as of late, having reached #7 in 2019 and #3 in both 2018 and 2017. We will grant that Notre Dame is almost surely not the third-best college football team in the country, having previously outlined our thoughts on the matter after the Louisville clunker. What we will not grant, though, is that Notre Dame has earned a reputation of fraudulency; that this always happens, that the media machine hypes the Irish early on before they are eventually revealed to be a paper tiger, unable to hang with actual quality teams, something something join a conference. It’s a bad faith argument, and I hesitate to engage with bad faith arguments, but this line of thought persists even after a playoff appearance and 37 wins in 43 games and the longest active winning streak in FBS. And hey, we’re in the comfort of our own paywall anyway, so let’s talk it through.
No need to relitigate the Willingham or Weis years, when this was admittedly a more reasonable opinion to hold. Brian Kelly’s been around long enough for those to feel like ancient history, anyway (hopefully readers can say the same). I’d like to evaluate in just about the simplest possible terms — AP ranking before the season, and AP ranking after the season. I’ve taken the liberty of dropping that data from 2010 to 2019 right here, with additional detail broken out for ND and several rivals/peers that jockey for position with the Irish with some frequency. That we are not Alabama or Clemson or Ohio State is a given, and their pre- and post-season data comparisons wouldn’t be too interesting anyway. The standing question is whether Notre Dame is markedly unreliable compared to other big name, blue blood schools.
[One disclaimer to this data is that only having top 25 rankings available makes mathematical analysis challenging, namely when accounting for unranked starts or finishes. My imperfect solution is to treat those data points as a #26 ranking, even though, for example, 2016 ND certainly would not have finished that high (obligated to note that they were a top 25 team according to SP+, which will never not be equal parts funny and upsetting). Accounting for it this way cuts down on variance more than I would like, but for the sake of this exercise, I think it’s fine.]
The teams I chose to compare ND with are: Michigan, Southern Cal, Texas, Florida, Wisconsin, Stanford, Oregon, Penn State, and Miami. Oregon is the only other team of the bunch with a playoff appearance, but they feel otherwise comparable to Notre Dame, at least in terms of resources dedicated to their football teams and general public opinion.
In this 10 year stretch, Notre Dame has finished the year ranked higher than they started three times, and seen the opposite happen five times. Those don’t seem to be particularly good or bad figures, and the data backs it up — both are right on the average for the group as a whole. Cool, what about aggregate moves in the polls (each year’s difference between beginning and ending place, all summed together)? On the whole, the Irish dropped…0 total spots, a considerable improvement on the group average (again, everyone’s playing with the same funky unranked = #26 math here). That it adds up to literally zero is a funny but telling coincidence; meanwhile, Michigan, Southern Cal, Texas, and Miami all look considerably worse by comparison, having suffered from more dramatic falls.
ND is tied for the most instances going from unranked to the top 25 (twice), and tied for the most times going from unranked to the top ten (once). They’ve tumbled from the top 25 three times, but USC and Florida did so on four occasions each (never forget the Trojans kicking off 2012 at #1 and finishing unranked). Only once, in Brian Kelly’s first year as head coach, did the Irish start and finish outside of the AP poll. There are a lot of ways to slice this data, but it’s hard to find angles that are all that unfavorable to the Irish.
The data also highlights how (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) hard it is to consistently win in college football, and how even marquee programs can be lost in the desert for extended periods. Miami ended the 2010 season unranked, and didn’t see that change on either side until they finished #20 in 2016. Same with Penn State, who finally managed a top 10 finish that year. Texas slipped from preseason #15 in 2013 and didn’t sniff the end-of-year top 25 until 2018.
The only team on the list to finish higher than their initial ranking more than half the time is Wisconsin, which has been a model of consistency during this time period (not that they’ve always hit the mark, having dropped from preseason #4 to out of the polls completely just a couple years ago). The polls have generally gotten them right, as most of their jumps are only by a few spots, but exceeding expectations 70% of the time is something to hang your hat on in a sport like this. ND’s closest peer, as borne out by this data, might be Oregon, although the Ducks’ average finish does exceed ND’s thanks to a truly stellar run to start the decade.
We’re left with this takeaway: if one really, desperately wants to call Notre Dame frauds, then they’ve locked themselves into calling, like, 124 FBS teams frauds as well. Which I guess you could do. I just don’t think that’s what college football’s inherent randomness is about — yes, there are a lot of not-so-good football teams, but it’s more fun to just accept that the sport itself is a big stupid mess that can be really, really hard to predict, even in an age where only a handful of teams contend for titles. The Irish are mathematically at the top end of this somewhat randomly, somewhat logically selected peer group — that’s the situation. This perpetually accusatory narrative about Notre Dame football is fatally flawed; it’s something close to downright nonsense. They can’t tell us nothing.