Let’s pretend that it’s 2012 and instead of retaining its independence, Notre Dame football follows the other Irish athletic programs and leaves the Big East for full membership in the ACC.
Rather than inking a deal to play five ACC opponents each season, let’s imagine that Notre Dame – instead of Louisville – joins the ACC-Atlantic division in 2014.
In this scenario, the Irish would have to play the standard eight-game ACC slate and then would have four non-ACC opponents to schedule. This would allow them to retain their annual rivalry clashes with USC, Navy, and Stanford and would also make it possible to add a Michigan, Michigan State or other historical foe. Beyond preserving these longstanding series, such opponents would boost the strength of the new schedule, thereby softening the perception of playing a “weaker” ACC slate.
Within the conference, Notre Dame would play the other five members of the ACC-Atlantic and then two opponents from the Coastal – a rotating member plus Virginia. The Cavaliers are Louisville’s permanent cross-division rivals, so we’ll use them as the Irish’s for this example.
Here’s a look at the schedule Notre Dame played in 2019 vs. what it might have looked like as full ACC members.
Actual 2019 schedule: at Louisville, New Mexico, at (3) Georgia, (18) Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, at (19) Michigan, Virginia Tech, at Duke, (21) Navy, Boston College, at Stanford
2019 schedule as ACC members: at Miami Fla., Syracuse, at (3) Clemson, (18) Virginia, Wake Forest, USC, at (19) Michigan, Florida State, at NC State, (21) Navy, Boston College, at Stanford
Though hardly an exercise in equal trading, Notre Dame would trade Louisville for Miami Fla., New Mexico for Syracuse, Georgia for Clemson, Bowling Green for Wake Forest, Virginia Tech for Florida State and Duke for NC State.
The Hurricanes appear on the imaginary slate as the rotating opponent from the Coastal because that’s who Louisville drew in cross division play last season. The fourth non-ACC opponent went to Michigan as opposed to Georgia because of the history the two programs share.
If you’re thinking that replacing games with New Mexico and Bowling Green with Syracuse and Wake Forest aren’t an apples-to-apples exchange, you’re right. That said, these are all winnable games. The Irish are 4-0 against the Demon Deacons and 6-3 against the Orange (who they haven’t lost to since 2008). The bigger question might be, “Is it worth it to upgrade two opponents from ‘for sure win’ to ‘very probable win’ to clear the overall path to the CFP bracket?”
The argument would become even easier to digest by dropping a Michigan/Georgia tier opponent and reintroducing a New Mexico/Bowling Green level foe into the mix. This is plausible – and perhaps necessary – as it’s extremely rare for a Power 5 member to play more than two Power opponents in non-conference play. In 2019, only one Power program – Boston College – had three such foes scheduled (Kansas, Rutgers and Notre Dame).
Given that Michigan and Georgia were the only losses Notre Dame suffered in 2019, it’s logical (but admittedly over-simplified) to assert that the Irish, by following the above blueprint (including dropping the Wolverines for a Group of 5 opponent), would have had a better chance of running the tables as ACC members last season than it did as independents. The biggest hurdle, and most exciting opportunity for viewers, would have been Notre Dame grappling with top-ranked Clemson.
The other benefit of a full ACC membership, and something independence will never afford the Irish, is the boost of a conference title game, or a 13th win against a quality opponent. This would allow Notre Dame to compete – without any need for a “special pass” from the CFP committee – with the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 in schedule strength debates. In 2019, a 12-0 Irish team would have just had a second game vs. Virginia – the Coastal champion – standing between it and a playoff appearance.
Add in that the Irish are as attractive nationally (i.e. the most popular girl in junior high school) as Ohio State, Alabama and Oklahoma and it’s very easy to see them – even as one-loss ACC champions – being selected by the committee over a Washington, Michigan State, TCU or even Auburn.
While it’s impossible to definitively claim that “Notre Dame would win the national championship if it was an ACC member” it’s an intriguing discussion.
Think about it this way – how close could a quality Notre Dame team get if all they had to do was beat Clemson, USC, Stanford, Florida State, Navy, Virginia, the balance of the ACC-Atlantic and a rotating opponent from the Coastal?
Taking it a step further, what if the Irish dropped Stanford and USC as annual opponents and began mirroring the scheduling practices already in place in the ACC? What if they actually played Louisville’s schedule year in and year out?
How many championships would they have won then?
The other compelling angle of the conversation is the effect Notre Dame’s imaginary ACC membership would have had – and would still have – on Clemson’s skyrocketing trajectory.
The Tigers simply don’t play the same number of Top Ten ranked teams in the regular season than an Alabama, Oklahoma or even Ohio State. This makes the potential add of an annual game with the Irish an additional tall hurdle that they currently enjoy not having to contend with.
Clemson hasn’t played a Top Ten opponent in the regular season since Oct. 1, 2016 when it outlasted (3) Louisville 42-36 at home. That was three and a half seasons ago! As good as the Tigers really are, and as much as they’ve showed up in the postseason vs. the best of the best, they’ve got an easier, clearer path to the place where they hand out the trophies.
Consider LSU, which has played ten Top Ten regular-season opponents since Oct. 1, 2016. It amounts to ten times as many incredibly difficult tests to earn the opportunity to compete for a title.
Circling back, the comparison also adds credibility to the argument that Notre Dame might have a better shot at a national title as ACC members. The Irish have grappled with three Top Ten foes during the regular season since Oct. 1, 2016. While those aren’t SEC numbers – it still triples what the top member of the ACC-Atlantic played during the same time frame.
What if Notre Dame’s insistence to preserve its historical football independence isn’t – as some perceive it to be – an advantage in the CFP era of major college football? Indeed, what if, instead, remaining conference-free is a roadblock to the Irish winning national championships?