With Move To ACC, Notre Dame’s Goals And Playoff Path Become Clearer
Notre Dame joined a conference and its schedule got … easier?
Take that, old trope.
Yes, it will spend this season as a member of the ACC, which ranked below one of the American Athletic Conference’s divisions in the final 2019 Sagarin ratings. It’s not like Notre Dame joined the mid-2010s SEC. Still, it assuredly evokes a grin or an “I told you so” among many Fighting Irish fans who are worn out from hearing the Twitter keyboard warriors’ regurgitated line about not playing anyone.
The total preseason projected SP+ of the 12 teams on Notre Dame’s original schedule was 69 (higher is better). Now, with a new 10-game ACC schedule, it’s 55. That ranks 10th among ACC teams in the new schedule format. The one allowed non-conference game has not been determined, though Navy (projected SP+ of 1.9) and Western Michigan (-7.3) are the two most logical candidates.
The one-year sojourn as a full ACC member gives a Notre Dame team that began the year with College Football Playoff expectations and the potential to be head coach Brian Kelly’s best a clearer, traversable path to getting there. It’s ACC title game or bust, unless COVID-19 busts up the whole season. Play Clemson twice, or this season wasn’t nice. Notre Dame now has the second-highest ACC title odds (+700), per William Hill Sportsbook, behind only Clemson.
The second meeting, of course, would be in the ACC title game after the previously scheduled first in South Bend. It’s difficult to imagine two teams out of this iteration of the ACC end up with better conference win percentages than the Tigers. They have lost one ACC game in three years, a hydroplane zipping past rowboats with little damage. The gap between them and the rest of the league in recent years is the size of the Grand Canyon.
The divide between Notre Dame and the ACC outside of Clemson is sizeable, too, though. The Irish are 14-1 with an average of 36 points per game against ACC teams other than the Tigers since 2017. They failed to reach 33 points in only three games and have become a deft upset-avoider.
Notre Dame, a top-15 team at worst entering the year, can reasonably expect to be favored in every regular-season game except for the meeting with Clemson, though popular preseason darlings Pitt and North Carolina may end up challenging that.
Might a split in two meetings against Clemson be enough to reach the College Football Playoff, especially if it’s expanded to eight teams? It seems plausible. A one-loss conference champion Notre Dame (an actually real sentence) would be difficult to exclude if its defeat is to Clemson but also owns a win over Clemson.
At worst, if Notre Dame loses the conference title game to Clemson or goes 0-2 against the Tigers with wins over everyone else, it should be in the pole position to earn the ACC’s Orange Bowl bid.
Even if the ACC rebounds to its respectable 2017 levels in the Sagarin rankings (the Atlantic Division was second, and the Coastal seventh), it’d be asking a lot for another team to ascend into top-10 status. Those games have been Notre Dame’s well-documented poison. And two of the three best candidates to be a top-10 team — Wisconsin and USC — are off the schedule.
North Carolina is the new potential tripwire Notre Dame must give particular attention to, though. The Tar Heels have the ACC’s easiest schedule, going off projected SP+. They’re also 17th in the preseason SP+ rankings. They host Notre Dame and do not play Clemson, Pitt or Louisville. An Irish loss in that game would require North Carolina to lose at least two other games against its weak schedule.
Same time, a game at North Carolina is one Notre Dame should expect to win and has won in recent years. Four of the 15 regular-season ACC opponents Notre Dame played finished in the final CFP top 25. The Miami team that thumped Notre Dame in 2017 was the only one to finish in the top 10. The other three — 2017 North Carolina State, 2018 Syracuse and 2019 Virginia — lost to the Irish by a combined 69 points.
A similar trend in 2020 should put Notre Dame in a position to pilfer an ACC title as a one-year guest of honor before nine full-time ACC members. What a spicy chapter of school history that would be.
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