David Woods, IndyStar Published 7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 20, 2018 | Updated 9:10 a.m. ET Sept. 21, 2018
To contend for college football’s national championship, Notre Dame needs to play a tough schedule.
Its agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference has met that requirement. Now the question is: Is the ACC too tough for the Fighting Irish?
The No. 8 Irish (3-0) will play the first of five ACC games Saturday (noon, ABC) at Wake Forest (2-1). The Demon Deacons have never beaten a Top-10 opponent at home, and the fact they are seven-point underdogs suggests they have a chance to do so.
There was media speculation this week that Ian Book would replace Brandon Wimbush as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. Coach Brian Kelly responded by promising both would play, reiterating what he has said for weeks.
In the teams’ first meeting, won by Notre Dame 24-17 in 2011, a crowd of 36,307 turned out at 31,500-seat BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, N.C. It was the smallest venue to host Notre Dame since World War II.
Kelly told ESPN last year that the Irish have no “breather games” the week before playing rivals, as some peers do. Wake Forest does not qualify as a breather.
Indeed, if the Irish win, their College Football Playoff fate could be sealed in the following two weeks: home against No. 7 Stanford and at No. 10 Virginia Tech. Stanford is at No. 19 Oregon on Saturday (8 p.m., ABC).
Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly calling out plays in game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Vanderbilt Commodores at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeats Vanderbilt Commodores 22-17. (Photo: Marcus Snowden/for IndyStar)
No remaining Notre Dame opponent is in the Top 25, a consequence of Florida State and Southern California being down.
In ESPN Sports Analytics’ playoff predictor, Notre Dame is given the eighth-best chance of making the final four, at 14 percent. Top five: Alabama (78 percent), Georgia (58 percent), Ohio State (54 percent), Clemson (50 percent), Oklahoma (49 percent).
In four years of the CFP, no team has made final four with two losses. Given a schedule that does not look as strong as it did in preseason, Notre Dame could be omitted even with an 11-1 record.
Since 2014, when ACC affiliation began, the Irish are 13-7 against opponents from that conference. The Irish remain independent in football but agreed to play five ACC opponents each year.
Notre Dame was 2-2 in 2014, 5-1 in 2015, 2-3 in 2016 and 4-1 in 2017.
Quality of ACC opponents obviously influences strength of schedule. Clemson is not the same as, well, Wake Forest. But the ACC collectively has been strong. In Massey computer rankings, the ACC is third among conferences in 2018 after being first in 2017 and second in 2016.
It is futile to project strength of opponents too many years in advance. But Notre Dame will often meet Clemson in the near future: 2020, 2022, 2023.
And it’s not like the Irish are softening the schedule elsewhere. They are at Georgia and at Michigan in 2019, and they face Arkansas and Wisconsin (and Clemson) in 2020.
Traditional rivals like Stanford, USC and Navy remain. The Purdue series will be reinstated with games in 2021 and 2024-28. Farther ahead, Notre Dame has agreed to series with Ohio State (2022-23), Texas A&M (2024-25) and Alabama (2028-29).
“No one will ever accuse us of backing in with the schedules we’ve built for the future,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick told IndyStar in an interview last year.
That includes any game against the ACC.
Notre Dame could have avoided that issue by staying in a reconfigured Big East because the Big East does not play major college football. That would have given the Irish more flexibility but also caused them difficulty in scheduling 12 opponents.
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 317-444-6195. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.
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