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Notre Dame's 2020 Alliance With the ACC Is Ultimately a Marriage of Convenience

The Irish will play a full ACC schedule this fall amidst the pandemic, but don't expect the arrangement to last.

The uncatchable bachelor moved in with the faithful, patient suitor who has been waiting for him. It’s the unfulfilled sitcom romance that finally comes together—but it also comes with an expiration date. This is college football love in the time of COVID-19.

Notre Dame and the Atlantic Coast Conference are going to share towels and dishes and even a bank account for one season. (If the season happens. We all get that caveat.) Prior to now, the ACC leaders let Notre Dame store some of its stuff at their house—basketball teams, baseball, volleyball, soccer, etc.—without getting too pushy and demanding a full commitment. Then, when the Fighting Irish wound up down on their scheduling luck, they came knocking.

It’s the romcom of the year. A box-office smash. The stuff of fever dreams for covetous conferences everywhere who have tried to tie down the ultimate football flirt.

Maybe the two decide they can’t live without each other when it’s over. Probably not.

Still, hopeless romantics looking for happily ever after can dream of the two permanently settling down and getting hitched. Those dreams largely rest on ease of scheduling.

Flash back to 2018: As Notre Dame was churning through an undefeated season, the last major impediment was the schedule. The Fighting Irish were playing five games in five weeks in five different locations. It was nuts.

They were hopscotching from a game in San Diego (against Navy) to Chicago (Northwestern) to South Bend (Florida State) to New York (Syracuse) to Los Angeles (USC). It was a less-than-ideal path toward the College Football Playoff. "Who does that?” coach Brian Kelly said before that 2018 season began. “Nobody does that.”

Notre Dame does that. Because it can, but also because it has to.

Turns out, that closing gauntlet was survivable—the Irish finished 12–0 and made the playoff. But the problematic schedule was a natural outgrowth of being a football independent with a nationwide profile and fan base. Notre Dame wanted to be everywhere and appeal to everyone—including recruits—but also had to fit games in where it could without the foundation of a conference schedule to build around.

Notre Dame football lines up against Virginia

The ACC could take care of that problem. It already has, in part, by agreeing since 2013 to schedule five games with Notre Dame every season (a sign of true love, or at least persistent lust). If you build that out to eight ACC games on a permanent basis, that still gives the Irish four with which to construct a national schedule.

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It would be difficult. Something Notre Dame currently cherishes would almost certainly have to go. The set pieces in the schedule are: a midseason home game against either Stanford or USC, and a corresponding Thanksgiving weekend road game against the other; a date with Navy; and a “Shamrock Series” game somewhere that maximizes Notre Dame’s profile in metropolitan areas and in fertile recruiting territories.

Maintaining those set pieces and getting to seven home games, the preferred number for most power-conference schools, would not work. In addition to four ACC home games and either Stanford or USC, Notre Dame would have Navy in South Bend every other season. The Shamrock Series game would have to be replaced with a standing home game against an opponent that didn’t want a return game—and that just gets the Irish to seven at home every other season. It also would increase the difficulty of entering into splashy, home-and-home series like the one with Georgia.

Notre Dame’s reputation as the most national of universities would also be curtailed. Irish Exceptionalism would be harder to smugly embrace while just being one of 15 schools playing by the same rules.

Part of that national reputation is religious affiliation, part of it is academic prowess, but it is also part of the athletic reach—the Irish recruit everywhere. The 2019 team had players from 26 states, the District of Columbia and a Canadian province.

Full affiliation with the Atlantic seaboard, while useful, would be limiting. Keeping an annual game in California helps on the opposite coast, but opportunities to play in Texas and other hot spots would be fewer and farther between.

From a geographic standpoint, the eternally obvious conference for Notre Dame has been the Big Ten. That’s truly the league that the greatest football bachelor has led on the longest and most painfully. But beyond the map, there are other reasons why the ACC is better for the Irish.

School profile is the largest one. Notre Dame is smaller, private and academically prestigious. The only school checking all those boxes in the Big Ten is Northwestern. The ACC has five private schools (Duke, Wake Forest, Boston College, Syracuse, Miami) and six schools ranked in the latest U.S. News & World Report top 40 national universities (Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Boston College). The Big Ten has two (Northwestern and Michigan).

And from a football standpoint, it simply would be easier to win the ACC than the Big Ten. In 2020 in the ACC, Notre Dame’s challenge is to be better than Clemson. That’s a tall challenge, but it’s one program. In the Big Ten, the challenge this year would be Ohio State and Penn State from the East Division, not to mention a Michigan program that pounded Notre Dame last season. There might be a top-10 team from the West as well (Wisconsin or Minnesota being the most likely options).

But the easiest of all paths to the playoff probably remains independence. A 12–0 record that plays a cross-section of brand names and avoids the true dregs of FBS and FCS is almost assuredly going to get the Irish into a four-team playoff. It would absolutely get them in a larger playoff. At 11–1, maybe not—but given the weakened state of the ACC in recent years, going 12–1 in that league might not seal the deal, either. (If Clemson had lost a game last season, it wouldn’t have made the field.)

Ultimately, this is a marriage of convenience. Notre Dame gets a full schedule and the novelty of playing for a league championship. The ACC gets some of the Irish television money, increased wattage on 10 of its games and the enticing possibility of America’s Team in the league title game. (At which point in time, Clemson—or whoever would be Notre Dame’s opponent—would never be more popular within the league.)

It’s a relationship built for now, not built to last. The Irish will keep the escape hatch open and use it. The ACC will continue to leave the light on for them, just in case.

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