The 2020 college football season is looking less and less likely, with Power Five conferences reportedly on the cusp of calling off or at least postponing fall sports. Cancellation has seemed inevitable as players across the country have tested positive for COVID-19, though the move would deal a crushing financial blow to athletic departments, costing athletes a season of their careers and schools a shot at glory.
One of those schools might have more to lose if play is halted because of changes the coronavirus already forced. Late last month, the sport’s most rigid tradition was toppled: For one year and one year only, Notre Dame was to have dropped its independence and played in a conference. The school’s temporary admittance into the ACC — which Notre Dame confirmed in a terse, two-sentence statement1 — became a necessity when major conferences began canceling nonconference games. But after more than a century of Notre Dame remaining unwaveringly independent, this move might have also been the extra boost it needed to get back to the College Football Playoff.
The instances of perhaps college football’s most prestigious program resisting temptations to join a conference are far too many to name here. In the early 1900s, Notre Dame was shut out of the original Big Ten (then the Western Conference), reportedly because of anti-Catholic sentiment from Michigan coach Fielding Yost. Ever since then, Notre Dame has turned down overtures to join a conference in football, making statements like this from school president Edward Malloy in 1999: “Notre Dame has a core identity, and at that core are these characteristics: Catholic, private, independent. As a Catholic university with a national constituency, we believe independence continues to be our best way forward.” In 2012, Notre Dame agreed to join the ACC in every sport but football and hockey, and though it started playing five football games each year against ACC teams, it maintained its football independence. The pandemic forced the school’s hand like nothing else could.
Traditionalists in South Bend might have resented many aspects of their new reality, including the canceled rivalry games against Southern California, Stanford and Navy, the need to share TV revenue with ACC foes and the path to the playoff through a potential conference championship game. But for the first time in years, playing in the ACC was unquestionably Notre Dame’s best option.
Notre Dame has played a national schedule since the early 20th century. The school has played 91 times against Navy, 89 against USC and 70 against Pittsburgh, in addition to on-and-off rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. While this approach has its perks,2 it almost always results in one of the toughest schedules in the country. By joining a Power Five league and scheduling only ACC teams for a year, Notre Dame actually made its schedule easier.
By their own doing, in 14 of the past 16 seasons, the Fighting Irish have played at least one team that finished in the top 10 of the AP poll. They’re 2-17 in 19 opportunities against those top 10 teams, and they’ve played for a national championship only once. Ambitious scheduling has derailed a few Irish teams that might otherwise have had an opportunity. The 2019 team lost only at No. 3 Georgia and at No. 19 Michigan; the 2017 team slipped up against No. 15 Georgia, No. 7 Miami and No. 20 Stanford; and the 2015 team fell short on the road at No. 12 Clemson and No. 13 Stanford by 2 points each. With a softer schedule in place, any of those seasons could have ended on bigger stages.
The only year Notre Dame made the College Football Playoff (2018) was also the only year since that playoff began that the Irish didn’t play a regular-season opponent that finished in the top 10. And in 2012, when they made the BCS national championship game, they played only one, a home game against Stanford that Notre Dame won in overtime. For the moment, Notre Dame’s 2020 schedule ranks 53rd among FBS schools — its easiest since 2008, when it finished the season also ranked 53rd according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Notre Dame had an elite opponent on its schedule again with a home game against Clemson, currently set for Nov. 7. But outside of the Tigers, the ACC’s struggles are well-documented. Notre Dame isn’t scheduled to play another team ranked in the top 15 of Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings, and only North Carolina (No. 17) and Florida State (No. 26) are in the top 40. The average SP+ ranking in the ACC is 5.9,3 just ahead of the Pac-12 (5.3), the worst of the Power Five conferences. While a previous Irish team could have stumbled into a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl with two losses, this one had championship potential.
The pandemic may now put an end to the tradition-busting experiment it had forced on Notre Dame. But maybe the idea of an easier path to the playoff will be enough to entice the Irish to end its independence and join a conference for good. If that conference is the ACC, all of the pieces could fall into place for Notre Dame’s return to national championship contention.