The tradition that has kept Notre Dame a major player in college football could create a serious problem for the Fighting Irish in what should be one of the school’s better seasons in recent memory.
After three straight 10-win seasons on the football field, there is a possibility that the Fighting Irish might not even be able to play 10 games this fall, let alone win that many because of the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on their independent schedule.
The Pac-12 is openly talking about a big change
When professional sports leagues discuss how to move forward in light of the coronavirus pandemic, they do so in a unified fashion. While owners of individual franchises may express different opinions, decisions ultimately are made by the commissioner’s office with input from all teams.
That’s not the case with major-college football. Campuses across the country shut down midway through the spring semester and are unlikely to re-open in a uniform fashion this fall.
That has the FBS coaches, athletic directors, and conference officials concerned. And with the SEC, Big Ten, and all the others negotiating their own television and bowl contracts, we could be entering the college football version of the Wild West.
Although commissioners say they have been staying in contact, some conferences may go off on their own in devising plans that assure at least a partial season. To that end, the Pac-12 Conference has discussed canceling non-league-games. Teams would push back the start dates by one to three weeks and play only against the other 11 conference members.
Notre Dame could be left with scheduling holes
Notre Dame has an instant problem if the Pac-12 schools drop non-league opponents. As the best-known independent, the Fighting Irish are playing their usual national schedule that includes traditional opponents Stanford and USC from the Pac-12.
Losing those two games would be bad for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and AD Jack Swarbrick, but it gets worse if other conferences do what the Pac-12 is discussing. The Aug. 29 opener in against Navy in Ireland is already at the mercy of whatever the international travel restrictions might be, and then the next game is against Arkansas of the SEC, another prime candidate to drop non-league opponents.
Add in the possibility of being dropped by Wisconsin from the Big Ten in the first week of October and Notre Dame’s schedule could be wrecked.
Last but not least, the Fighting Irish might not be able to rely upon the ACC. Notre Dame is an Atlantic Coast Conference member in all other sports except hockey, but the football arrangement is complicated. The Fighting Irish do not compete for the ACC championship but have agreed to play at least five member schools each fall.
This year’s schedule includes Wake Forest, Pitt, Duke, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Louisville. Should any of those games also get wiped out because the ACC has to shorten its own season due to the pandemic, then Notre Dame is in real trouble.
Notre Dame expects big things in 2020
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick says he is confident that Notre Dame will be OK even if conferences start revising schedules, but can he really be sure? Although the NCAA is the umbrella under which all teams compete, it is powerless to intervene in scheduling.
In a worst-case scenario, Notre Dame could be left scrambling two months from now to pick up games with the few other independents similarly affected. But playing Army, BYU, and New Mexico State is hardly the same as taking on USC, Stanford, and Wisconsin.
Notre Dame is 33-6 over the past three seasons and brings back exciting senior quarterback Ian Book playing behind an experienced offensive line. Even with some holes to fill, no game on the existing schedule looks like an automatic loss since Clemson must travel to South Bend and the Wisconsin game is at Lambeau Field.
The pieces are in place for a major bowl and potentially even the playoff semifinals, but it can all fall apart for reasons beyond Notre Dame’s control.