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Brian Kelly and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick are in lockstep with the proposed and seemingly inevitable 12-team College Football Playoff expansion plan.

Both see it as a win for the Irish’s football program – even without the chance to earn a first-round bye. Swarbrick was on the four-person committee that designed it and expressed his satisfaction with Notre Dame’s place in it. Kelly underscored the biggest reason why: It’s fuel for the program’s status as an independent.

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Brian Kelly thinks Notre Dame benefits on the whole from potential 12-team playoff expansion.
Brian Kelly thinks Notre Dame benefits on the whole from potential 12-team playoff expansion. (Photo by Bill Panzica)

“What this really says more than anything else is we won’t be forced to do anything because we’re independent,” Kelly told “That’s off the table now. We’re not going to be squeezed because we’re independent. The 12 teams gives us an ability to stay independent as long as we choose to.

“That’s obviously a huge thing that Jack Swarbrick wanted to accomplish. That’s a legacy piece for him and for our university that we’re going to have access to a national championship and still be independent.”

The proposed format has six automatic bids for the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large spots. That’s an easier access path than the current four-team setup, which essentially demands Notre Dame go undefeated the regular season if it wants to feel assured of a spot. The Irish reached the 2020 playoff as a one-loss team, but their inclusion wasn’t a given.

Compared to other expansion plans, the 12-team one is much friendlier for Notre Dame than an eight-team field with six automatic bids for conference winners. That’s Notre Dame’s worst-case expansion scenario, and another situation where anything less than 12-0 invites doubt about inclusion.

In the 12-team format, Notre Dame has reasonable hope to make it with two losses. For instance, the Irish’s 10-2 season in 2015 would’ve resulted in a playoff bid if the proposed expansion were in place that year.

To Kelly, that increased access is worth the trade-off Notre Dame has to make if the proposal passes: If the Irish are ranked in the top-four, they won’t receive a first-round bye because those are for conference champions only.

“We get a week off after Stanford or USC anyway,” Kelly said. “There’s our bye week. And we get a home game. That’s more than we’ve ever gotten. I think the trade-off was acceptable. It’s a trade-off, no doubt. It’s real. But I think it was an acceptable trade-off to get what we wanted, and that is to maintain our independence as long as we wanted to control that.”

If the expansion is approved later this year, it would not take effect until the 2023 season at the earliest. Members of the College Football Playoff’s board of managers members have indicated it could be even a couple years later.

As beneficial as Kelly thinks expansion would be for Notre Dame, he’s not wholly dissatisfied with current format. The initial move from the two-team BCS Championship game to four was an important change for Notre Dame. It has been kind to the Irish, all told.

“If I’m sitting at Cincinnati, I love it,” Kelly said. “I’m a non-Power Five school and this is great. I have access now. If I’m sitting at Alabama, who needs these guys? And maybe even at Notre Dame. The four-team playoff has treated us pretty good making it two of the last three years.”


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