Death, Taxes, and Notre Dame Football remaining independent. They used to be the certainties of life, but 2020 can no longer get any weirder. There had been lots of speculation regarding the fate of Notre Dame football this coming season, as after the Pac-12 and the Big 10 moved their schedules to conference-only, three Irish games were cancelled. As easily the highest-profile independent program – and a CFP hopeful in 2020 – rumors regarding Notre Dame football have been common headlines. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said he wanted a delayed start to the year with an 8-10 game season, but just one day later, it’s become apparent that, for the first time in their storied history, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be joining a conference.
This is nothing short of groundbreaking news, both simply within the Notre Dame program, and in the college football world. Let’s break down exactly what this is going to look like.
The Terms of the Deal
Notre Dame will be temporarily joining the ACC in football for one season. As of now, there is no further commitment between the two sides in this deal, although their previously structured agreement granting Notre Dame ACC membership in all sports but football and hockey will continue to be in effect through 2037. Joining the conference long-term has never been a real interest for either the Irish or the ACC, so there’s no reason to believe this is anything but a short-term solution to what will be avery unique season.
What about conference championships and bowl games?
As of now, this appears to be a gray area. Notre Dame’s current deal with the ACC grants them access to all of the ACC’s bowl tie-ins, minus their New Year’s 6 commitment to the Orange Bowl. If Notre Dame plays in the conference for 2020, it seems logical they would – at minimum – get access to that bowl bid.
How Notre Dame’s games will count in the ACC standings also seems ambiguous at best. Initial reports said that Irish games would count in the conference rankings, but that whether Notre Dame would compete for a conference championship was still up in the air. If the Irish are blocked, or choose not to play for a title, would their ‘conference’ games only count in the standings for the opponent. It’s a strange concept, but not much stranger than imagining Notre Dame lifting the ACC Championship trophy after 132 years of their cherished independence. So to answer this in short form: we don’t know yet.
What’s the financial terms of the contract?
Some of the answer to both this and other such related queries depend on whether Notre Dame is a full member competing for the ACC’s bowl bids. The ACC receives 6 million for each team placed in the semifinals and 4 million for each team placed in a New Year’s Six bowl game, but they don’t currently receive that money if Notre Dame qualifies. The Irish receive 3.19 million dollars from the CFP, regardless of whether they qualify. If Notre Dame is indoctrinated as a full conference member for 2020, expect that 3.19 million dollars to be retracted; rather, Notre Dame will receive a share of the 66 million received by the ACC – from the CFP – to divy up among its members. If the Irish do not have full ACC membership, then the financial terms of their contract should hold up as previously structured.
How about the NBC contract?
One of the financial pluses that comes with Notre Dame’s independence is their TV contract with NBC. Since 1991, the television network has been the exclusive provider of Irish home games, a right that no other team in the country has. Given the temporary status of Notre Dame’s quasi-membership in the ACC, it seems unlikely that the NBC contract is a problem. Frankly, the ACC is bolstered by the Irish joining the conference and receive more money, so they shouldn’t want to raise any problems over their TV contract. The ACC has never received any money from the NBC contract, but Notre Dame’s road clashes against ACC opponents draw higher ratings and often national networks. In an effort to make this wild transition work seamlessly, it seems unlikely that any change to the television contract will be made.
So what’s the schedule?
The ACC hopes to release a newly minted schedule by the end of the week. Their current hopes rest in a slightly ambitious “Ten plus One” plan, which would see their conference members play ten conference games and one non-conference game. Obviously that one non-conference game is contingent on other conferences allowing out-of-conference play, but it would allow for four ACC teams (Louisville, Clemson, Florida State, and Georgia Tech) to play their final-weekend rivalry games against SEC opponents. The SEC has remained open to that possibility, and it would leave the Irish with an open date on their schedule. As of now, Notre Dame has an SEC game scheduled against Arkansas, so that game could potentially be flexed to the end of the season to fill out their slate for the year. Alternatively, they could try to make their visit to the Naval Academy work, keeping that annual tradition alive. The Western Michigan game – the other non-ACC game yet to be cancelled on Notre Dame’s schedule – appears to be the odd team out here, and it seems likely that game will not be played at this point.
Notre Dame is currently scheduled for games against Wake Forest, Pitt, Duke, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Louisville. Miami and Virginia Tech also lost non-conference games due to the Big 10 and Pac-12 announcements, so those two teams would likely be added to the schedule, leaving two more open conference dates to be filled. A Holy War clash with Boston College would be an enticing game to add, although adding games like UVA and UNC might make more sense from a geographical perspective. There’s still plenty to figure out, but with this recent news, the seemingly limitless possibilities have narrowed considerably.
How does this affect college football outside the ACC?
This news has massive implications around the football world, and the most obvious is that, if Notre Dame is competing for an ACC title, Clemson’s road to a sixth consecutive conference championship just got a lot more difficult. While Clemson is undoubtedly the better team, they had very little to worry about regarding their ACC opponents. UNC – a promising up and coming team – and a rebounding Louisville team were among their top threats. However, now Notre Dame may stand in the way of a breezy undefeated conference slate. The Tigers and Irish were already scheduled to meet, but that game will now count, at least for Clemson, in the ACC standings, endangering their chances at a third straight year with an unblemished conference record. If Notre Dame slots into the Coastal division, they could also find themselves clashing with Clemson on championship Saturday. While Clemson certainly remains the favorite in their regular season match-up and a potential postseason battle, there’s no doubt this adds complications towards Clemson’s march towards a conference title and sixth consecutive CFP. On the flip side, however, Clemson may also have some wiggle room now. If they lose a regular season game but bounce back with a conference championship victory over what figures to be a highly ranked Notre Dame team. This announcement definitely shakes things up and gives the floundering ACC some much needed firepower. Time, and results, will tell how this ultimately changes the football scene, but finally, after 132 seasons, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be affiliated with a conference.
I’m starting to wonder if even death or taxes are certain anymore.