For centuries we have debated perhaps the greatest mystery in the known universe: what would happen if (gasping for breath!) Notre Dame ever attended a conference?
We finally have our answer.
College football has remained on its axis when the country’s best-known independent football program attended a conference for the first time in school history, an agreement for the 2020 season made required by the pandemic. If anything, the year-long soccer partnership between the Fighting Irish and the ACC couldn’t have been more perfect for both sides.
Notre Dame went undefeated in the regular season; is number 2 and well positioned to play in the college football playoffs. had the highest ratings for NBC in 15 years; and is preparing to play for the first conference championship in school history.
The ACC has Notre Dame # 2 and Clemson # 3 in the ACC championship game on Saturday (4:00 p.m. ET, ABC) – the first with two top 5 teams – and could very well have two teams in the playoffs for the first time . Check out the other matchups this weekend, and the ACC has the best and most compelling conference championship game in college football, another premiere.
“It was a win-win situation,” said ACC Commissioner John Swofford in a telephone interview this week.
So why not make it a permanent union?
While Notre Dame sporting director Jack Swarbrick has repeatedly denied any suggestion, the Irish are soon leaving their independence behind – including last week’s statement: “The reasons we value independence and [why] It remains a priority for us not to be influenced by the positive experience of being fully in the ACC this year. “- We now have evidence that a partnership could benefit both.
Although there is a lot of money at stake for Notre Dame Football as an independent company, Notre Dame and ACC members shared their television money from their NBC and ESPN deals this year, and it has paid off in the reviews.
Notre Dame’s season opener against Duke on NBC had 4.4 million viewers, making it the most watched home opener in the afternoon on the network for 14 years. The two-hour overtime win over Clemson in November drew 10.2 million viewers, the second most-watched Notre Dame game on NBC. It also opened new territories in Greenville-Spartanburg, USA and Birmingham, Alabama, which ended up being the top two markets for Notre Dame on NBC that season.
Much of this could be related to the fact that participation is severely restricted due to the pandemic, which is leading to more people tune in from home. The Clemson game would definitely have had great reviews, but it’s certainly illuminating that the NBC schedule, which featured five ACC opponents, was rated so well – especially in two southern markets.
If the NBC ratings on ACC opponents were higher than they were on Notre Dame’s standard independent plan, it could potentially create some leverage to negotiate down the line at some point if The Irish should consider attending the conference. This would potentially make it easier to get an NBC / ESPN television package up and running and could increase television revenue for everyone.
The other benefit of attending a conference is better playoff chances. As an independent, the general view is that Notre Dame has to go undefeated to secure a place in the top four as there is no conference championship game that offers wiggle room.
It seems like now as a conference member there is a margin for error. If Notre Dame loses to Clemson on Saturday, there’s still a good chance the Irish will make it to the playoffs.
Of course, Notre Dame entered the playoffs 10-0 this year and would have made it into the playoffs as an undefeated independent. But if the Irish lost to Clemson in the regular season, they could lag behind Texas A&M at a loss in the current conversation. A conference champion who has lost has a better chance of finishing in the top four. Clemson has done it in the past as the one-loss conference champion and could do it again with a win on Saturday. Notre Dame could make it as a one-loss champion without a conference, which would also be a first for the Irish.
Two juggernauts at a conference, especially when playing against each other, have also helped negate the typical “weak” or “soft” schedule arguments that break out over undefeated Clemson and can usually be run over the Irish, depending on who is independent Slate. There was little contention with the ACC schedule Notre Dame played this year, and the ACC simply never had two teams in elite status talk in the playoff era.
“We have a matchup with the team that camped with Clemson in the playoffs. So if you look at your schedule and you know that Clemson is there and you now have the opportunity to join the ACC, you are obviously convinced.” in a pretty good position, “said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.” Then you start thinking, ‘OK, this could work just fine here.’ “
In non-pandemic seasons, Notre Dame plays an ACC schedule for five or six games as part of its agreement with the league and is part of the bowl roster. There will be five ACC games again in the 2021 season, provided things have returned to normal. But when the ACC allowed Notre Dame to join for this season, several league coaches grumbled about the arrangement because the Irish had already received special considerations as an are-you-in-or-out member.
“They almost want to boycott them,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi last month. “But if you want to play in the ACC, come and play in the ACC. … and if you don’t want to play, let’s not give them five games.”
Regardless, this season has been a valuable experience that Notre Dame provided a template as it continues to evaluate which model could best serve the program over the long term.
“You can talk about anything you want to attend a conference. But if you aren’t, you really can’t talk about it firsthand,” said Kelly. “We can now, so it gives us a different perspective, no doubt about that.”
The coach added that this year’s arrangement brought positive (competition for the ACC championship) and negative (lack of traditional rivalries) that are still to be weighed up.
“Those are the questions Jack Swarbrick entertains on a higher level,” he continued. “If you come and ask my opinion, I would say the ACC has been a great relationship for Notre Dame, but independence was something that is in our DNA.”
Swofford is also not holding his breath for a permanent Notre Dame-ACC marriage, although he did point out that if the university decides to attend a conference between now and 2036, the contract says they will move to the ACC would. And it doesn’t hurt that both teams have benefited from it this season.
“I know Notre Dame has always maintained and still values its independence in football,” said Swofford. “I think Notre Dame would say and we would say that their first year in a conference in football was a very positive experience. I don’t know that this will necessarily translate into the street or for the future. But it certainly was the right thing for 2020. “