McKenzie Milton is Right. ESPN is Wrong.
McKenzie Milton is the quarterback for the University of Central Florida Knights. The Knights are currently on a 23 game winning streak and, despite having just beaten Cincinnati handily, aren't even getting a sniff of college football playoff consideration. Milton is rightfully peeved and is throwing up a Hail Mary off of the gridiron.
He proclaimed, right before the Cincinnati game, that "UCF is Better Than Notre Dame." "How can that be?" I thought. Notre Dame plays one of the hardest schedules in the country. Then I remembered that I'm old. 30 years ago Notre Dame played the top teams in the nation. Milton correctly pointed out that UCF and ND had 2 common opponents, Pitt and Navy. UCF crushed an average Pitt team and beat Navy by 11. Notre Dame squeaked by Pitt and killed Navy. If there was a true college football playoff, like in Division III, these arguments would be a moot point, but in Division I only the Top 4 teams make the college football playoffs. Because the Power 5 Conferences dominate the conversation for the top 4 spots, no independent or "minor" conference participant without a Fighting Irish Logo is considered. Milton is trying to make his case for UCF getting one of those slots instead of ND. Good Luck with that.
The graphic on the above left was taken this morning on ESPN. Notre Dame has beaten some high ranking opponents, but after doing some cursory research, you'll see that the rankings of the opponents are not current. As of today (November 18, 2018) how many Top 10 teams has Notre Dame beaten? One. Let's take a run at Notre Dames' opponents this way, with rank in parenthesis.
W - Michigan (4) 10-1
W - Ball State 4-7
W - Vanderbilt 5-6
W - Wake Forrest 5-6
W - Stanford 6-4
W - Virginia Tech 4-6
W - Pittsburg (24) 7-4
W - Navy 3-8
W - Northwestern (20) 7-4
W - Florida State 5-6
W - Syracuse (19) 8-3
TBD - USC 5-6
Now Notre Dame supporters would counter that they can't control their opponents records, but you could make that argument about EVERY SINGLE MAJOR COLLEGE FOOTBALL PROGRAM in America. Using the eye test, I see Notre Dame beat up on a lot of average and non-traditional powers.
Back in 1988, Lou Holtz took a good bunch of good football players and turned them into World-Beaters. Using the hindsight of time, you can see what a meat-grinder schedule that the Fighting Irish played that year. Michigan, USC, West Virginia, and Miami all finished the year in College Football's Top 10. The Fighting Irish won their last National Championship that year against some pretty stiff competition. One of the most famous games in college football history pitted the eventual champions against Jimmy Johnson's Miami Hurricanes, the infamous Catholics vs Convicts Game. Miami ended the season with that one loss at Notre Dame as their only blemish.
The only soft spots on ND's schedule were Rice and the Service Academies. And I will never blame Notre Dame for keeping the academies on their schedule, it's tradition. Notre Dame has been playing the academies since the Four Horsemen days of the 1920's.
But today? Oh boy, Ball State, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest. They've slanted their schedule to where they only play 2 or 3 strong teams a year. Their schedule is about as hard as an average Big 10 school, but certainly easier than a team in the SEC. Notre Dame doesn't have to bother with one of those pesky conference championship games. The Notre Dame of 2018 is NOT taking on all comers. They are trying to circumvent the system, not because of any kind of independent spirit, but for self-preservation. Being an average football team in a Power Conference only diminishes the Fighting Irish mystique and limits its ability to manipulate its schedule.
And that's what Milton is trying to get at. UCF's schedule is as soft as a marshmallow (see below), #104 in the country, but Notre Dame's schedule is ranked #59. About the same as 5-6 Tulane's schedule. This is not 1988.
Personally I wouldn't put ND or UCF in the championship game if they both won out. (That's not true. I would put in UCF, because it would be funny to watch ND alumni have fits of rage how they got screwed when they screwed themselves by watering down their own schedule and then they didn't join a power conference when the Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 all came a knockin'.)
Now if you had an 8 team playoff that would make sense. Each Conference Champion gets a seat at the playoffs, while 1 at-large bid would either go to an independent or a minor conference and then 2 "at-large" bids. But it's too late in the game for that plan this year.
When all is said and done, Notre Dame will be the one left without a chair when the college football season ends and the game of Musical Chairs goes from 5 to 4. There's no way the Big 12 will be left on the outside looking in when they instituted a championship game for THE SOLE PURPOSE of being one of those final 4.
I think Milton is hoping for USC to upset Notre Dame and then there's chaos in the winners of the Conference Championship games. It could happen. What if you have undefeated Alabama and a slew of 2 loss teams? Do you put in one-loss Notre Dame over no loss UCF? Or do you chose the 3 "best" 2-loss teams to go along with 'Bama. If Ohio State beats Michigan again, and then OSU beats Northwestern in the title game, Notre Dame could potentially have a schedule with no teams in the Top 10 on it. The absolute same as UCF.
Or, more likely, is that 4 of these 5 teams will either have no loss or 1 loss and are in the playoffs. The highest probability is that Michigan, Washington State, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Alabama are vying for those spots. Don't forget, if they win out, Georgia and Ohio State would finish their seasons with one loss each also. Each and every one of those teams plays a Conference Championship game and should leap frog the Fighting Irish based on strength of schedule points. What if Georgia beats Alabama? Do you put in Georgia and Notre Dame and leave out Alabama? (I don't think that would happen.)
My prediction going into the Playoffs? Today?
4 Washington State
5 Notre Dame
6 Ohio State
McKenzie Milton will be proven to be a soothsayer, but not in the fashion that he had hoped for.