College football’s first major domino fell Thursday when the Big Ten announced it would move to a conference-only schedule for all fall sports in 2020. Reports have followed quickly that the ACC and Pac-12 will do the same. The other Power Five conferences, the Big 12 and SEC, will likely be right behind them.
This leads to the question: What happens to college football independents? That group includes Notre Dame, a program that checked in eighth on 247Sports’ preseason Top 25.
Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick was asked in May on a conference call what happens if the 10 FBS conferences moved to a conference-only schedule in 2020. Swarbrick was confident then that the Irish would find a soft-landing spot.
“We are very comfortable that if it goes that way, we’ll be fine,” Swarbrick said. “We’ll be able to play a high-quality, full schedule, the same number of games other teams will play.”
Based on conversations 247Sports has, had those games will take place in the ACC.
Notre Dame partnered with the ACC in 2012 for all of its varsity sports except football to compete in the conference. That deal has been extended all the way through 2037.
While Notre Dame remains an independent in football, its 2020 schedule already consists of six games with ACC opponents: at Wake Forest, at Pittsburgh, Duke, Clemson, at Georgia Tech, Louisville. It is unclear how long a conference-only schedule will be for each of the Power Five leagues – there’s been a lot of discussion about an eight-game slate – but it’s a very good bet Notre Dame’s schedule will be extended to include a few more ACC opponents in addition to the teams already on its docket.
This does, however, bring up a few questions that are much more in the air when it comes to a likely Notre Dame and ACC partnership. Let’s quickly explore a few of them below:
Does Notre Dame Participate in The ACC Title Race?
247Sports asked both the ACC and Notre Dame for comment on this subject and had not heard back prior to publication.
As for the question itself, I wouldn’t eliminate any possibility during what is the craziest offseason in college football history. It might seem unlikely given the Irish’s long history of maintaining independence. But this is an odd offseason. A chance at a conference title could also help Notre Dame’s path to the College Football Playoff. However, it would be interesting to see what occurs if Notre Dame does join the ACC title hunt for a season, especially in regard to the program’s future as an independent.
The 2020 season, at least in this regard, could have a major impact on the future of college football.
How will Notre Dame’s schedule be constructed?
As it sits now, the Irish’s ACC schedule is back-loaded with just Wake Forest (Sept. 26) and Pittsburgh (Oct. 17) ahead of Halloween. There is still little clarity across the Power Five leagues in terms of how the schedule will work and when it will start; some have proposed starting as quickly as possible to avoid a winter COVID-19 strike while others have floated pushing the season back to give the nation time to get its case count under control and improve its testing capacity. Either way, Notre Dame will likely be a part of that reworked ACC schedule.
As for who the Irish will add and how many games it will take on, those questions remain very much up in the air.
What happens to the contracts from these non-conference games?
Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field would’ve been among the biggest games of the 2020 season. That contest’s fate is now in question. It’s not going to happen this year with the Big Ten moving to a non-conference only look, but could the game live on in the future?
For some perspective, this series was announced in 2017. Years of work go into making these marquee non-conference games happen. The second leg of this matchup, which will take place at Soldier Field in Chicago, is likely to occur as scheduled in 2021. Could the first leg flip into 2022 or perhaps further in the future? That remains up the air. But I’m willing to be these teams will play in Green Bay eventually.
What happens to the other independents?
This isn’t a Notre Dame-specific question. But it’s an important one. Unlike the Irish, independents like BYU, Army, Liberty, New Mexico State, UConn and UMass have no conference backing to fall back on. Given that there are six teams in that group, perhaps they play in some sort of round-robin season. We’ve already seen teams play twice in one season as New Mexico State and Liberty did last year. It could work.