Until 1992, market forces applied. Long before the BCS, Notre Dame was one of the most recognizable brands in sports. It played in its first bowl in 1924 (Rose) and through the late-1980s it was still seen as a national power. From that 1969 through 1992 it played in 17 bowls in seven different cities.
That changed when college football's power brokers began movement toward the current BCS set up. The idea was give the game more certainty at the top. That also meant that Notre Dame's grip on the bowls began to slip.
Bowl Coaltion (1992-94)
In order to facilitate a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game the SEC, Big Eight, Southwest Conference, ACC and Notre Dame joined with the Orange, Gator, Cotton, Fiesta, Gator and John Hancock bowls. Five bids were extended to five conference champions and five at-large teams. The Pac-10 and Big Ten did not contribute their champions, choosing to stay aligned with the Rose Bowl.
In 1995, Notre Dame, at 6-4-1, played No. 4 Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl losing 41-24.
Bowl Alliance (1995-1997)
In this era, the champions of the ACC, Big East, SEC and the new Big 12 (in 1996) committed their champions to Alliance bowls. Notre Dame also participated if selected. The Fiesta, Orange and Sugar agreed to host games. Again, the fatal flaw was that the Pac-10, Big Ten and Rose Bowl did not participate.
Notre Dame qualified for one of the four BCS bowls – five beginning in 2006 – if it finished within a certain point in the BCS standings. Currently that standard is top eight for an automatic berth, top 14 for consideration of a BCS bowl.
Below the BCS from 1998-2001, Notre Dame could replace a Big East team in either the Gator, Insight or Music City Bowl if it did not reach the BCS. Gator had the first pick followed by, Insight and Music City. The Irish could play in the Gator twice within a four-year cycle -- one each in the Insight and Music City if it did not reach the BCS.
From 2002-05, Notre Dame was involved in a Big East bowl agreement with Gator and Insight. Gator had first choice over the Insight.
From 2006-2009, Notre Dame had Big East and Big 12 for berths in the Gator and Sun bowls. There was also a loose agreement with the Cotton Bowl involving the SEC.
From 2010 to the present, Notre Dame was tied in with the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando. The Champs could choose Notre Dame once within a four-year period. It exercised that option last season.
College football playoff (2014-2025 seasons)
The top four teams as determined by a human committee will play in a bracketed playoff in yet to be determined locations. Six bowls will participate in a rotation which, again, has yet to be determined. The Rose and Champions bowls are in the process of determining how often they want to participate in the semifinals over a four-year period.
At the moment, Notre Dame is guaranteed no special access. If it finishes in the top four, it will be in the playoff. If it finishes ranked fifth through 12th, it will have a chance to play in one of the four bowls below the semifinals. It has been widely speculated that ND will sign a deal to meet the ACC champion in the Orange Bowl if it meets certain criteria.