Why Irish count as BCS busters

I’ve gotten some grief over the past few weeks from readers who disagree with my inclusion of Notre Dame as a “BCS buster,” calling that label in my imaginary weekly rankings unfair — and calling me far worse — because the Irish, my detractors have said, actually are an automatic-qualifying team.

So I’ll attempt to explain my mention of Notre Dame in the rankings before the Irish inevitably start losing and have to be taken out, rendering this discussion irrelevant.

The first argument is the most obvious, for me anyway. As an independent, Notre Dame does not have a formal “conference” to win, and as such, they cannot automatically qualify via that avenue. That’s the most basic, bare-bones case for their inclusion.

The Irish can’t just go 9-3 (and 5-2 in the weak Big East) like BCS No. 23 West Virginia did last year — or like unranked, 8-4 Connecticut did the year before — and still get in, by virtue of simply being the best of the bad in their league.

In fact, in the history of the BCS, 25 teams have received bids as BCS conference champions, despite being ranked outside the top eight in the final BCS standings. Additionally, 13 teams have reached BCS bowls (12 of them conference champions) with three or more losses in a season; Notre Dame never has reached a BCS bowl with more than two defeats.

So as far as I’m concerned, Notre Dame would be “busting” the BCS if it were to earn a spot in a BCS game on this argument alone. The path to the BCS is much easier if a team has a conference to win.

Even still, some will point out, there exists a “Notre Dame rule,” which guarantees the Irish a spot in a BCS bowl if they finish in the top eight of the final BCS standings, no questions asked. No other team has that specific a rule, but that exception hardly gives Notre Dame a leg up on the competition, either (as I’ll explain later).

It’s also not the only rule that paves the way for non-automatic qualifying teams to get in.

For example, by rule, the champion of Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt or WAC gets an automatic BCS bid if it finishes ranked in the top 12 of the BCS standings — or if it closes the season ranked in the top 16 but finishes ranked higher than a BCS conference champion (which seems likely to happen this year with the Big Ten).

Boise State would have automatically qualified last year under that rule, just like it did in 2006 (and like TCU, Utah and Hawaii have done, as well) had it won its conference. But it didn’t, so the one-loss Broncos only had themselves to blame for that. Boise State also could exercise that rule this year, even with a loss, if it runs the table and the chips fall correctly in the other conferences.

Similarly, either Ohio or Louisiana Tech, who have been mentioned in my weekly rankings, can put itself in the same boat as Boise State. All those teams have to do is win their conference, a reasonable task for either program, and finish in the top 12 — or, again, maybe even the top 16 — and the higher-ranked of the two (or three, if Boise State wins the MWC) is in.

(The rules currently only allow for one non-AQ team to get an automatic bid through this top-12/16 rule, so should multiple non-AQ teams win their conference and all happen to finish in the Top 12 — an unlikely scenario — the highest-ranked of them would get the BCS bid; the others could still be eligible for at-large bids.)

At the end of the day, if any of these non-AQ teams win their conference and doesn’t get in, it’s because they didn’t play a tough enough schedule to warrant a top 12/16 ranking, and that’s not on Notre Dame or the BCS bylaws.

However, strength of schedule isn’t an issue for Notre Dame, which plays what is arguably the most challenging schedule in the country. And frankly, if the Irish go 10-2 and automatically get into the BCS by virtue of finishing in the top 8 despite their losses, they deserve the bid a lot more than Ohio or Louisiana Tech would for going 12-0 and finishing in the top 16, should it happen that way.

But suppose, for a moment, that we live in a vacuum where the top 12 non-AQ rule doesn’t exist, and Notre Dame’s top 8 rule is the only one of its kind. Even then, I’m not sure what advantage that gives Notre Dame, because the top 8 rule essentially applies to every team in the country, when it comes down to it.

If you look back on the last six years of the current five-bowl, 10-team layout of the BCS, only six teams have finished in the top 8 of the final standings without earning a spot in a BCS bowl, and three of them (Arkansas, Boise State and Kansas State) did it last season.

Last year, of course, was an aberration that does nothing to support the argument that the “Notre Dame rule” gives the Irish a clear advantage when it comes to reaching the BCS. If anything, it supports the argument that Notre Dame’s road is tougher because it doesn’t play in a conference.

Recall, the Big East was epically bad last season (with aforementioned West Virginia getting the league’s AQ bid — one that they only earned via tiebreaker with 9-3 Cincinnati and 7-5 Louisville), and No. 15 Clemson stunned Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.

That ACC title gave the Tigers an automatic bid while knocking the Hokies from No. 5 in the BCS standings to No. 11. Virginia Tech’s fall opened the door for one of those three spurned schools to get into the top 8 — we’ll say Kansas State, since they weren’t in the top 8 before that game.

The other two top 8 teams that got “shafted,” No. 6 Arkansas and No. 7 Boise State, lost the “automatic” BCS bids that Notre Dame would have gotten, making them at-large candidates instead, because:

• Three of the six conference champions (Clemson, West Virginia and Wisconsin) were ranked behind them in the BCS standings

• Alabama qualified for the national championship

• Stanford got an automatic bid by virtue of the 3/4 rule (which hasn’t even been discussed yet, but gives any BCS conference team ranked third or fourth in the BCS standings an automatic bid, even if they don’t win their conference).

Additionally, Arkansas, under normal circumstances, would have been excluded from the BCS altogether, anyway, as the third BCS team from the SEC. The only reason the Razorbacks were eligible to get in at all was because LSU and Alabama played in the BCS title.

In 2008, No. 7 Texas Tech was excluded from a BCS bowl, as was No. 6 Missouri in 2007 and No. 7 Wisconsin in 2006. But all of those teams fell victim to the rule that Arkansas avoided, which only allows two teams from the same conference to play in a BCS bowl, unless the two teams are playing for the BCS championship.

In Texas Tech and Wisconsin’s case, they were the odd team out, but in both instances, their conference had the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the country so they were the easy exclusion to make. (Though, in Texas Tech’s defense, that year’s Big 12 South was brutal.)

In Missouri’s case, the Tigers were left out of the BCS in favor of No. 8 Kansas, despite being the higher-ranked team and having beaten the Jayhawks during the regular season. But that one’s on the Orange Bowl committee, not the rulebook. And either way, one of those teams wasn’t getting a BCS bid.

In any case, though, the path for Notre Dame to get into the BCS is much more treacherous than the one teams from BCS conferences follow, and the school’s top-eight rule is only Notre Dame-specific in theory, but not in practice.

As such, I’m going to keep the Irish in the BCS Busters rankings — at least until someone else eliminates them from contention on the field.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.