With Wisconsin Game Canceled And Others Likely To Follow, Where Does Notre Dame Football’s 2020 Schedule Go From Here?
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Notre Dame Schedule Casualties Have Arrived; Where Does It Go From Here?

In the four-month battle of coronavirus versus college athletics, the former remains a steamroller with a brick on the gas pedal, bowling over the latter as if it is the 2008 Detroit Lions.

Commissioners and athletics directors are in bail technique, and their latest concession is a shortened football season. The Big Ten announced Thursday it is moving to a conference-only schedule, therein wiping out 42 non-conference games, including Notre Dame’s meeting with Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, originally scheduled for Oct. 3. It was technically an Irish home game.

The Pac-12 is expected to do the same, according to multiple reports, which would cancel Notre Dame’s annual meetings with USC and Stanford.

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Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick (left) and football head coach Brian Kelly (right)
Notre Dame's partnership with the ACC should save it from a 2020 schedule bereft of competitive opponents if more conference-only decisions follow. (Bill Panzica)

The day of reckoning and reality hitting leaves Notre Dame with nine games on its schedule. The other three are canceled, not postponed. The Wisconsin series will not simply be moved back a year.

“We look forward to playing Wisconsin at Soldier Field in 2021 and [athletics director] Barry Alvarez and I are committed to scheduling a game at Lambeau Field in the future,” Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said in a statement.

Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule is full through 2025. Any potential rescheduled game wouldn’t come before then.

But sorting that out is for another pandemic-free time. Where does Notre Dame go now, and what might this adjusted season look like?

It’s first important to debunk a misguided trope: the entire schedule is unlikely to be a sunk cost because of Notre Dame’s independence. The Irish are saved from filling their schedule with home-and-homes against lowly independents like Connecticut and New Mexico State if the rest of the Power Five or the Football Bowl Subdivision follows the Big Ten’s lead. There is a savior, waiting with a limo door open.

ACC commissioner John Swofford has previously said a conference-only model would include Notre Dame. Multiple reports have said the ACC is heading toward a shortened schedule, though no decision has been made. The Irish already had six games against ACC teams scheduled in 2020 as part of the agreement between the two that runs through 2037.

The seemingly inevitable solution is to add more games against ACC teams. If the other three conferences on Notre Dame’s schedule — the Mid-American (MAC), American Athletic and Southeastern — adopt shortened seasons with only league opponents, the Irish could find themselves with a schedule comprised entirely of ACC opponents. Wake Forest, Pitt, Duke, Clemson, Louisville and Georgia Tech had previously scheduled games against Notre Dame.

If those other three conferences do not shrink play and the Irish still play a 12-game schedule, they would only need one or two more games against ACC teams. The season opener versus Navy is still on and both sides are preparing to host it. The greater threat with that game is its place on the schedule as the momentum for an on-time start dwindles.

Notre Dame may have the most control over its Sept. 19 home date with Western Michigan. No conference took a bigger kick in the gut than the MAC, which lost 15 games against Big Ten and ACC opponents as a result of Thursday’s decisions. Those are usually noncompetitive losses, but they reel in guarantees well more than $1 million that fund other areas of the athletics department budget. The incentive for the MAC to go conference-only is zero.

Western Michigan is slated to receive $1.175 million from Notre Dame. It’s the Broncos’ only guarantee football game of 2020. They’re not going to turn away seven figures when smaller school budgets are like a wet paper towel, ready to crumble with one pebble dropped on it.

“We count on it for our intercollegiate athletic budget,” Western Michigan athletics director Kathy Beauregard told BlueandGold.com in May. “That’s a tremendous amount of revenue that comes into the athletic department to manage the entire department. We take guarantees in football and men’s basketball to be able to function on a day-to-day basis. We need the game, want the game, hope that everything will be opened up. It’ll obviously be under their control.”

Swarbrick was a proponent of a “conference plus one” model in the spring where, if needed, teams play eight or nine conference games and one non-league game to protect marquee non-conference games and annual rivalries. It’s worth noting the ACC and SEC have four inter-conference regional rivalries.

Could a nine-game season with one non-league game make the most sense for the ACC and SEC? There’s merit to it. Rivalries that generate fan interest and only require a bus trip — the more important element — are an ideal mix. Both leagues already play one fewer conference game than the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, so an imbalance should not be a concern.

For the sake of fun speculation, here is a 10-game Notre Dame schedule with a delayed start and eight ACC games, while trying to keep intact as many original games as possible.

• Sept. 26 at Wake Forest (originally scheduled)

• Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas (moves the originally Sept. 12 game to here and replaces Charleston Southern on Arkansas’ schedule as the Razorbacks’ one non-conference game)

• Oct. 10 at Virginia (replaces Stanford)

• Oct. 17 at Pitt (originally scheduled)

• Oct. 24 vs. North Carolina State (both have this as a common off week)

• Oct. 31 vs. Duke (originally scheduled)

• Nov. 7 vs. Clemson (originally scheduled)

• Nov. 14 at Georgia Tech (originally scheduled)

• Nov. 21 vs. Louisville (originally scheduled)

• Nov. 28 at Navy (replaces USC and moves the Sept. 5 or 6 opener; Navy has a bye and needs a game)

That’s an oversimplification, but anything resembling it would support Swarbrick’s initial confidence in Notre Dame’s ability to play a competitive schedule if seasons were shortened.

The immovable opponent, though, is the same for all 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools. It’s COVID-19, a deluge with no guardrails. The disease and the spread of it will shape the decisions. College administrators cannot control the country's response to it, which over the last few weeks has amounted to a smug one-fingered wave.

The worst case has not arrived, as the Big Ten’s official release soberingly reminded everyone. But it sure is looming.

“As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate,” the release read.

Echoing it, Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith later told reporters he is “very concerned” about the ability to hold a season.

When those are the sentiments coming from some of college athletics’ most influential figures and entities, one wonders what the odds are all of this scheduling conjecture even mattering in a month.

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