Notre Dame is a member of a football conference — at least for one season.
The Irish will play a full 10-game ACC schedule in 2020. Notre Dame is eligible to compete in the ACC championship game, too, and that creates an interesting dynamic that could have an impact in future seasons.
CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd explored the idea of Notre Dame joining the ACC as a full member in the future, and he writes that “maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it once sounded.”
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The ACC schedule release leads to even more questions.
What if the Irish win the ACC championship this season? Would that prompt Notre Dame to re-think its independent status? Would the ACC lean on Notre Dame to join the conference full go?
Those questions will take on a new meaning if Notre Dame wins the ACC this season. You look at that relationship — past, present and future — to see the answer.
Would status quo return?
Sporting News spoke with ACC commissioner John Swofford at ACC Media Days last season, and the question of Notre Dame football was the lead topic of conversation.
“If Notre Dame reached a point where they were interested to join in football, we would readily have that conversation,” Swofford said. “I don’t expect that to happen. When we made the arrangement with Notre Dame, some people thought, ‘Well it’s just a matter of time in football.’ I’ve never really thought that.”
Notre Dame began playing a rotation of ACC schools every season in 2014 — and the Irish are 22-9 in those games. That included a 5-0 record last season. The big games are a different story. Notre Dame is 0-3 in top 10 matchups against ACC schools in that stretch. That includes losses to No. 2 Florida State (2014), No. 7 Miami (2017) and No. 2 Clemson (2019) in the College Football Playoff.
It would have seemed that relationship — ESPN’s contract with the ACC runs until 2036 — would have stayed that way for the foreseeable future.
That was before the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
Will this year change that?
The ACC and Notre Dame are helping each other this season amid the scheduling mess created with COVID-19 as the backdrop. The Irish get to play a full schedule, and the ACC gets a piece of the NBC television money from Notre Dame’s contract with the network.
It’s a one-year experiment that the rest of college football will be monitoring with great interest. Notre Dame made the BCS championship game in 2012 and the College Football Playoff in 2018. The Irish finished 12-0 in both of those regular seasons but did not have to play a conference championship.
That opportunity finally exists in 2020.
Can Notre Dame win the ACC in 2020?
The schedule features some exciting matchups against Preseason Top 25 opponents.
The marquee road game on the schedule is a trip to No. 22 North Carolina — an up-and-coming program under second-year coach Mack Brown. The quarterback matchup between Ian Book and Sam Howell should be fun, too. Georgia Tech, Boston College, Wake Forest and Pitt also are on the road schedule.
The home schedule has more intrigue. The matchup with No. 22 Louisville should be more difficult, and Florida State, Louisville and Duke all visit Notre Dame Stadium.
It comes down to the home matchup with No. 1 Clemson, however. Sporting News billed that as its Game of the Year this summer, and the stakes for both teams will be high in the College Football Playoff race.
The agreement, however, changes those stakes a bit. What if Notre Dame and Clemson split the regular-season matchup and a conference championship game? What impact would that have on the relationship with the conference in the future.
Last summer, Swofford was asked who he was rooting for when Clemson met Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl Classic semifinal.
“You pull for the ACC team,” Swofford said. “With all respect to Notre Dame when it’s a football game, you lean toward in this case Clemson or the ACC team because it technically is a nonconference game. Notre Dame against everybody else, I’m pulling for them.”
So, now what happens if the Irish win that conference championship game and represent the ACC in the College Football Playoff?
What happens next?
That debate might be forced if the Irish make the ACC championship game.
If Notre Dame does not make it to Charlotte, then the decision to remain independent in 2021 is that much easier. It was a one-year experiment that benefited both sides, and the Irish can cling to the independence through the College Football Playoff era and play a traditional schedule that includes rivalry games with USC, Navy and others.
If the Irish win the conference in a one-year setup, however, then perhaps that would warm the alumni and boosters up to the idea of staying in a conference. Notre Dame has fared well in the ACC, and their brand enhances a conference in which Clemson is 38-2 over the past five seasons. Notre Dame can rekindle rivalries with Florida State and Miami that go back to the ’80s and ’90s, and college football wins in the end.
What if Notre Dame wins the conferences and decides to stay independent? That could strain the relationship with the ACC. Coaches from other programs within the conference likely would bristle at the idea of being used, and Notre Dame would be called out to join a conference even more than ever across the Power 5.
All those scenarios are in play if there’s a college football season, and it’s one more reason to get there as soon as possible.
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