Notre Dame Football Joining ACC For Shortened, Conference-Focused Season, Is Eligible For League Title And Orange Bowl
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Notre Dame Joining ACC For 2020 Season, Is Eligible For Conference Title

Notre Dame’s football history starts in 1887 with a one-game season that began and ended on Nov. 23 — an 8-0 loss to Michigan in some long-ago version of football. The Fighting Irish’s conference-independent tradition began then and endured for another 133 years, though decades of realignment and growth of the sport.

Until now, amid a global pandemic that has created a bizarro world of a sports hiatus, games without fans and the need for rethinking schedules. Independence is on pause — for a year. What once seemed as impossible to comprehend as an Amish electrician is reality.

Notre Dame football is in a conference and eligible for the league title after the ACC formally announced Wednesday its plan for a shortened 2020 season that includes the Fighting Irish.

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Notre Dame Stadium
Notre Dame is part of the ACC's 10-game schedule plan for 2020 and is eligible to play for a conference title for the first time. (Photo by Corey Bodden)

The news is not a surprise given the partnership with the ACC Notre Dame struck in 2014 and commissioner John Swofford’s previous indications the Irish would be welcomed into the plan. It’s a one-year marriage of convenience that will allow Notre Dame to slide right back to independence, but a historical one nonetheless that has mutual benefits. Notre Dame gets a full schedule, relatively speaking. The ACC gets full-time benefits of a powerful college football brand.

The ACC is holding an 11-game season with 10 conference games and one non-league contest of each member school’s choice. The scheduled start is the week of Sept. 7-12, and the conference title game will be either Dec. 12 or 19. That gives every team 13 weeks to play 11 games. The standard Atlantic and Coastal divisions are out; the teams with the two best conference win percentages will earn spots in the championship game.

If Notre Dame wins the conference title, it would be eligible for the ACC’s Orange Bowl bid if not selected for the College Football Playoff (CFP). If a non-Notre Dame ACC champion reaches the CFP, the Irish would go to the Orange Bowl if they are the next-highest ACC team in the CFP top 25.

Week-to-week dates will be announced later, but Notre Dame knows its 10 conference opponents. The Irish will host Clemson, Florida State, Duke, Syracuse and Louisville. The road games are against Boston College, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. It is not yet known if the games against Georgia Tech and Wake Forest will take place in NFL stadiums, as originally scheduled.

All told, Notre Dame loses Wisconsin, USC and Stanford off its original 2020 schedule and adds Florida State, Syracuse, Boston College and North Carolina. At least two of Western Michigan, Arkansas and Navy must be nixed as well.

Navy makes the most sense to be Notre Dame’s one non-conference game so the two can play for the 94th straight year. There will, though, need to be adjustments if the series is to continue. The current Navy-Notre Dame date of Sept. 5 or 6 must move back to align with the ACC’s start date. It has already moved once, from its original date of Aug. 29.

The location must also change if it will be played. The ACC is requiring all non-conference games “be played in the home state of the ACC institution,” per its announcement. The game is currently set for Annapolis, Md., after it was moved from Dublin. Maryland is not home to an ACC school. Navy’s conference, the American, has not announced its schedule plans.

The SEC has yet to reveal anything, though Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger reported Wednesday afternoon it is moving toward a 10-game, conference-only schedule. That would remove Arkansas (originally Sept. 12 in South Bend) from consideration to be Notre Dame’s 11th game. The Mid-American Conference has also not stated any plans, leaving Western Michigan (originally Sept. 19 at Notre Dame) as a possibility for now.

There is one catch for Notre Dame receiving the ACC’s assistance. All 15 ACC institutions will split television revenue equally, including Notre Dame’s payouts from its contract with NBC that pays it around $15 million per year. At the same time, there's also the benefit of receiving an increased share of the ACC’s revenue from its deal with ESPN.

The entire plan, of course, is subject to change or even outright cancelation. COVID-19 is an unpredictable steamroller. There is also the matter of how well teams and universities can prevent outbreaks when students return to campus in August. College campuses are not a bubble where students’ every moves are tracked. There are no rigid rules preventing off-campus gatherings or activity. Many students live off-campus.

“Essentially, we leave the bubble and start the season, unlike some of the professional teams like the NHL or NBA, they move into a bubble and start their season,” head coach Brian Kelly said earlier in July on The Dan Patrick Show. “We’ll get to the starting line. We’ll see what happens after that.”

Swofford’s Wednesday statement was constructed with cautious optimism and an understanding nothing about his league’s plan is guaranteed.

“Today’s decision was made after months of thoughtful planning by numerous individuals throughout the conference,” Swofford said in the conference’s announcement. “The Board’s decision presents a path, if public health guidance allows, to move forward with competition.

“Our institutions are committed to taking the necessary measures to facilitate the return in a safe and responsible manner. We recognize that we may need to be nimble and make adjustments in the future. We will be as prepared as possible should that need arise.”

With a plan in place, all everyone within Notre Dame football can do now is hope this new chapter of history is not a one-game season, too.

This story has been updated.

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