Notre Dame's Conference Independence Debate Could Flare Up in Pandemic-Shortened Season

Should Notre Dame join a conference? No matter how the 2020 schedule is reconstructed for an abbreviated season, this enduring debate could be a point of contention.
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In terms of ceaseless debate, the second-most enduring argument in college football is whether Notre Dame should join a conference.

(The most enduring argument is the postseason, no matter what variation is in vogue at the time. We’re not going there today.)

The Notre Dame debate could be fed fresh oxygen in the coming weeks. Because one of the potential models for a pandemic-abbreviated 2020 football season involves teams playing a conference-only schedule. “I think it’s a very real possibility,” Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick told Sports Illustrated this week.

Where would such a scheduling crunch leave the small Catholic college in northwest Indiana, which has been proudly (some might say arrogantly) conference-free in football for the entirety of its 131 seasons playing the sport?

Probably OK. But potentially in trouble. Those are the two most likely answers at this still-early, still-uncertain date.

Either way, the old reliable Notre Dame debate is well-positioned to flare up with renewed fervor if non-conference games disappear for everyone except the non-conference flagship program.

Swarbrick acknowledged that the situation is “nerve wracking,” but also sounded confident. The school’s ties with the Atlantic Coast Conference and overall allure as a marquee game on every opponent’s schedule could allow the Irish to play as many games as everyone else—maybe even more—with just a little wiggle room.

“There is support for a conference-only, plus-one [non-conference game] schedule,” Swarbrick said. “If that's the model, we'd be fine, because we would be most people's plus-one. The ACC has been a great partner for us, and we've got six ACC games scheduled this year instead of the usual five. That's a pretty good building block.”

That’s not only a good building block, but one solidified a bit by ACC commissioner John Swofford on a Zoom call Thursday. Notre Dame’s ACC membership in every sport but football and men's hockey (Big Ten) has its gridiron privileges, and they are reciprocal to the schools who get to play the Irish every year. In 2020, those programs are Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Duke, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Louisville.

“The fact that they’re already playing six games against our teams is important,” Swofford said. “If that’s something that’s best for the ACC and Notre Dame, we would certainly have that conversation. It is part of our discussions, but that’s only one of multiple paths this could take.”

In 2020, those Notre Dame ACC opponents are Wake Forest, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech on the road; Duke, Clemson and Louisville at home. If those games are played, that gets the Irish half a schedule.

It’s the kind of arrangement that is win-win for both the ACC and Notre Dame. Those are prized schedule dates that for decades went to the likes of Big Ten programs Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Northwestern, but now help a conference that needs the boost in football. For the Irish, it provides Power-5 opponents that are mostly beatable while retaining the freedom to schedule the other half the season as it sees fit. They can date around without getting married, while still enjoying something of a committed relationship.

It’s also the kind of arrangement that infuriates so many others schools and their fans, who see Notre Dame operating by its own set of rules while still retaining the scheduling clout to compete for a College Football Playoff spot. The Irish may not be winning national championships anymore (32 years and counting since the last one), but they still have the cachet to command their own TV deal and more scheduling freedom than anyone in the land. Those are facts.

But what if a virus-curtailed season leaves Notre Dame with half a schedule? Is that possible? And would it lead to cackles from the conferences that dislike the school’s privileged position?

Let’s do the match on the schedule. Swarbrick said Navy “is adamant about playing us,” even if that Aug. 29 game winds up being moved out of Ireland, which seems highly likely. That’s seven games.

Notre Dame football schedule 2020 Brian Kelly

Let’s go through the rest, game-by-game, applying Swarbrick’s conference-only plus-one construct:

Sept. 12, home against Arkansas. Razorbacks fans with tickets to that once-in-a-lifetime road game will badly want it to be played—but would the school? Perhaps not. Given the looming budgetary apocalypse, Arkansas might prefer its lone non-conference game to be at home. Those currently on the schedule offer no sizzle (Nevada, Charleston Southern, Louisiana-Monroe), but would provide revenue without creating travel cost. They’re also far more likely to be wins than the trip to South Bend.

Sept. 19, home against Western Michigan. The Broncos would do everything possible to keep that game on the schedule, even if it looms as a likely blowout. The guarantee money and chance to play Notre Dame make it a must-do for a Mid-American Conference program.

Oct. 3, against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field. This is Notre Dame’s annual “Shamrock Series” game, a home contest that isn’t played at home. It’s on NBC, the program’s broadcast partner, but the deal for the game calls for the two programs to split both costs and receipts. Wisconsin would obviously want the game, a high-profile opportunity played in its home state, and the anticipated revenue would probably be enough to make this a keeper on the schedule for the Badgers if it came down to choosing one non-conference game.

Oct. 10, home against Stanford. This is an annual game for a reason, with both schools valuing it. But this could be deemed expendable compared to a home game. Stanford keeps a tight athletic budget, and the expenditure associated with this road game might be daunting compared to, say, playing BYU in Stanford Stadium. Stanford also figures to be one of the more cautious schools in the nation when it comes to taking virus-related athletic risks, another reason why staying home might be the preferable option. Then there is the Pac-12 season as a whole, which leads to …

Nov. 28, at USC. One of the great rivalries in the sport would still have to happen, right? Well, Trojans coach Clay Helton said this week that the Pac-12 has discussed an 11-game, all-conference-game schedule. If that came to pass, it would mark the first time since 1945 that Notre Dame and USC would not play each other.

So in a world wherein teams are playing only league contests plus one non-conference opponent, Notre Dame could wind up with nine scheduled games. Maybe that's in line with the rest of the nation, maybe it's not. But if the plus-one part of the equation is eliminated, things could get dicey. Even if the ACC keeps its six ND matchups—the league only plays eight league games, one fewer than most of the rest of the Power-5—that’s only half a season.

Other opponents could materialize along the way, if schools are mixing and matching scheduling openings during a tumultuous season. Maybe those nearby traditional Big Ten rivals re-enter the picture in pandemic-induced marriages of convenience, safety and fiscal expedience.

But understand this: if the college football schedule is thrown into tumult in the fall of 2020, Notre Dame’s conference affiliation (or lack thereof) will be a hotter point of contention than ever.