Midweek Musings: Good And Bad Of Conference Play For Notre Dame

Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football
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Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football.


There are two ways to look at Notre Dame's season in the ACC. 

The first is that the partnership between Notre Dame and the ACC allowed the Irish program to put together a Power 5 schedule during a pandemic year in which a number of Irish opponents initially opted out and played in conferences that went to league-only schedules. 

It was a soft schedule for the most part, with the ACC laying the groundwork for a Notre Dame/Clemson matchup in the league title game. That manageable schedule set the stage for Notre Dame getting into the College Football Playoff.

As someone that covers the program, it was a lot of fun looking at the season from a conference standpoint, including watching Notre Dame players earn a lot of All-ACC honors. 

From a more big picture standpoint, the 2020 season also showed the downside of playing in a conference. That is that playing in a conference title game can be damaging for the program.

Notre Dame earned a big regular season win over Clemson this season, and if not for the conference title game rematch, the Irish would have been the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff. That might have ended up with a Notre Dame/Clemson rematch anyway, but there's also a chance the committee would have avoided a rematch in the CFP and bumped Ohio State up to No. 3 with a Big Ten title game victory over Northwestern.

Notre Dame's chances at winning a playoff game would have been significantly higher with a matchup against Ohio State, compared to Alabama, which is who the Irish had to play after dropping to the four-seed following the ACC title game loss to Clemson.

The reality is that rematch didn't impact Notre Dame in 2020 partly because of the Pac 12 playing a shortened season and Oklahoma being a bit down this year. Oklahoma dropped a three-point game to Kansas State and a seven-point game to Iowa State. If the Sooners won just one of those games, which they do in most seasons, likely would have dropped Notre Dame out of the playoff after the ACC loss to Clemson.

To me, the way the 2020 season played out showed that a case could be made that playing in a conference creates more risk of Notre Dame getting knocked out than it aids them at getting in, or getting in with a more favorable matchup.

From a pure on-field standpoint, from the standpoint of what gives the Irish the best chance at making the College Football Playoff, independence is still the way to go.


The way-too-early Top 25s are already coming out, and they are as comical this year as they usually are. I've already seen a number of absurd Top 25s, including one from ESPN that had Notre Dame ranked 15th, behind North Carolina, Texas A&M, Iowa State, Indiana, Cincinnati, Iowa and .... wait for it .... USC.

Well, I don't think it's right to criticize rankings without being willing to offer my own. I won't do a full Top 25 until we get closer to the season and we have a better idea of who is losing which players, and who is landing what transfers.

But here's my way too early Top 10.

1. Clemson Tigers - Clemson suffered through injuries and youth problems this season, and both will serve the program well in 2021. The experience QB D.J. Uiagalelei should serve him well, as will the experience gathered by the young linemen on both sides of the ball. Getting Justyn Ross back will be huge for the offense.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide - A case could be made that Alabama is simply losing too much talent at too many key positions to once again be a top two team. But it's Alabama, and while I could see the Tide start to slowly take a step back, until that actually happens they will and should be considered either the best or second best program.

3. Oklahoma Sooners - Oklahoma loses some key pieces along the offensive line, but they return a lot of skill talent and should once again be an explosive offense. The reason I have Oklahoma ranked this high is their defense got a lot better this season, and their non-conference schedule is really soft. 

4. Ohio State Buckeyes - Losing Justin Fields will sting, as will the loss of at least two starting offensive linemen and wideout Chris Olave. But make no mistake, the Buckeyes will be reloading in 2021 and will once again be a playoff contender.

5. Georgia Bulldogs - From a pure talent standpoint the Bulldogs could be ranked higher, but they still have a lo to prove for me. Getting JT Daniels back was huge, but the Bulldogs lost a lot from their back eight and they have to prove they can score enough to get over the hump.

6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Notre Dame loses a lot from its lines, and the loss of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will hurt a lot. The Irish have a lot of talent coming back on offense at the skill positions, and they played a lot of defenders in 2020 that will return. Another manageable schedule should help the Irish to once again be a 10-2/11-1 type of team.

7. Iowa State Cyclones - The Cyclones will challenge Oklahoma for the league title, but I'm going with the Sooners ranked higher in the preseason because they score more points and because their regular season matchup will be in Norman. I wouldn't be shocked if the experienced Cyclones prove me wrong and win the Big 12 next season.

8. Cincinnati Bearcats - Losing Marcus Freeman will sting, and reports are the Bearcats could also lose OC Mike Denbrock. Despite those coaching losses, Cincinnati returns a lot of talent next season, and they get UCF, SMU and Tulsa at home. There's also no Memphis or Houston on the schedule. 

9. Oregon Ducks - Oregon suffered through a lot of opt-outs that cost them in 2020, but that will pay off for them in 2021. Going into year two running Joe Moorhead's offense should also help. The Ducks should be really good on defense, and their run game will pick back up.

10. Texas A&M Aggies - Texas A&M loses quarterback Kellen Mond and three starters along the line. The defense should be salty and the skill is solid, but I don't love the offense Jimbo Fisher is running, the QB will be inexperienced and the schedule will be much tougher in 2021 with road games against LSU, Missouri, Ole Miss and Colorado, plus a home game against Alabama.


Former Notre Dame star offensive lineman Aaron Taylor earned a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame this week. This tweet from Notre Dame should remind us of how great Taylor was for the Irish.


Notre Dame needs to shoot for top players at running back in 2022. One of the top targets on the board, if not the top target on the board, is Shillington (Pa.) Mifflin standout Nicholas Singleton. This film will give you a glimpse as to why.

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