A New Way Notre Dame, The ACC, Big 12, SEC and AAC Can Build A Shortened Fall 2020 College Football Season
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A New Way Notre Dame, The ACC, Big 12, SEC and AAC Can Build A Fall Season

Brian Kelly’s national TV media tour the last week revealed he is confident in two things.

He thinks the season will start this fall, he said Tuesday on The Dan Patrick Show. And he’s not the least bit concerned about filling out a schedule if more conference-only decisions follow.

“That’s probably the least of our concerns right now,” Kelly said on ESPN’s “Get Up” last week. “There are plenty of games to play. We’d just like to play some.”

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Notre Dame versus Clemson in December 2018
Notre Dame and Clemson can keep their scheduled game in this proposal, but the date would move. (BGI/Bill Panzica)

If we’re taking both statements as true, Notre Dame will set schedule for the fall, if nothing else. The Irish are at nine games, with more conferences expected to make decisions on shortened seasons by the end of July.

The idea of anyone playing 12 games has become far-fetched. A nine- or 10-game schedule, though, can take on a few different formats. Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick told ESPN on Tuesday he wants to see an eight- to 10-game season with a delayed start.

The most likely outcomes for Notre Dame remain an increased load of ACC games, or inclusion into the ACC’s conference-only or “conference plus one” slate, depending on the route it chooses. ACC commissioner John Swofford is on record saying he will assist Notre Dame as needed.

In the weeks since the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they were shifting to league-only schedules, the message from the ACC, SEC and Big 12 has been patience. They’re not going to concede all non-conference games so quickly.

“We’ve seen the news around COVID-19 alter itself in different ways over a number of weeks,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said on “The Paul Finebaum Show” earlier in July. “What we’ve identified is an opportunity in late July for an important check-in to see our public health reality.

“We were told from the beginning to take as much time as possible to make a better decision.”

Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek told reporters one goal in taking more time is to preserve some non-conference games.

“The SEC, the Big 12 and the ACC are on the same page as far as our collective desire to be patient before making any decisions," Yurachek said. “You look at some of the in-state rivalries that exist, especially between the SEC and the ACC, it makes sense that Clemson should play South Carolina, Georgia should play Georgia Tech and Florida should play Florida State.

“Just eliminating those games because you want to play a conference-only schedule, at least at this point, does not make a great deal of sense.”

A season with nine conference games plus one non-league game is doable and logical for a few reasons. With the Power Five adopting universal testing and safety rules, the risks of playing a team that hasn’t adhered to the same protocols are lessened.

Every Power Five player must be tested within 72 hours of a game. If infections spread in a game, it won’t be because a school played a team that didn’t test with the same frequency or in the same quantity.

It’s also more appealing to fans to watch an annual rivalry game or a ballyhooed non-league game than a mundane non-conference game. For example, there’s more excitement around the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry than there would be if Clemson added Duke and South Carolina added Arkansas.

Taking Yurachek and American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco at their word about wanting to keep non-conference games, here are BlueandGold.com’s suggestions for structuring a shortened season. Swarbrick’s preferences are also reflected.

• A 10-game schedule, in a nine-plus-one model: The ACC (with Notre Dame), Big 12 and SEC play nine conference games and one game against another Power Five or AAC team. The four ACC versus SEC rivalries continue, and so do existing non-conference games, such as West Virginia versus Florida State, Tennessee versus Oklahoma and Auburn versus North Carolina.

Notre Dame can also continue its series with Navy. It’s worth noting the AAC’s testing requirements are nearly identical to the Power Five’s. AAC players must be tested within 72 hours of a game. The similarity in protocol makes an AAC versus Power Five game no different than a Power Five versus Power Five in terms of on-field transmission risk.

• The AAC adopts an eight-plus-two-model. Aresco recently stated this as his preference. Notre Dame can choose AAC member Navy as its 10th game, while Navy can also play Army. BYU, whose schedule has been ravaged with canceled Big Ten and Pac-12 games, could be a frequent non-conference opponent for AAC teams.

• Scrap all dates of existing conference and non-conference games, but keep matchups and locations. This way, everyone can start at the same time and add flexibility into their schedules for canceled games. Notre Dame would keep the six ACC games already on its schedule, but the dates can move as needed.

• Everyone starts on Sept. 19, delaying the season by two weeks. The ACC, SEC, Big 12 and AAC play one game for seven straight weeks and has a collective open date on Nov. 7 as a flex window. Games resume for two more weeks before Dec. 5 is open for another flex window. Conference title games are moved back one week.

• Non-conference games for those four leagues are integrated throughout the season, but are a lower priority to make up if there are multiple postponed games with only one flex date available. Playing them all Sept. 19 and/or Nov. 28 would be ideal, but the ACC’s odd number of teams with Notre Dame means one of them must play a non-conference game each week to create uniform open dates.

• If the ACC decides to make Notre Dame eligible for the league title, it scraps divisions and takes the two best teams regardless of record. If not, divisions remain intact and the champions meet in the title game. In either circumstance, the Irish count as league game for their ACC opponents.

• The College Football Playoff expands to eight teams for the year. It’s an easy way to scrap together extra revenue and make the selection committee’s job easier. The five conference winners get an automatic bid, and so does the top Group of Five team. The other two spots are at-large bids. Kelly said he would be surprised if anyone pushed back against the idea of an expanded playoff.

• If Sept. 19 is not a feasible start, one of the flex dates can disappear. If a season cannot start until mid-October and would have eight or fewer games, everyone goes conference-only.

Taking everything into account, here is an example of what Notre Dame’s schedule could look like.

Sept. 19 at Navy

Sept. 26 vs. Miami

Oct. 3 at Wake Forest

Oct. 10 vs. North Carolina

Oct. 17 at Pitt

Oct. 24 vs. Duke

Oct. 31 vs. Clemson

Nov. 7 FLEX DATE

Nov. 14 at Georgia Tech

Nov. 21 vs. Louisville

Nov. 28 at Boston College

Dec. 5 FLEX DATE

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