Analysis: Fog isn't ready to lift yet on Notre Dame's football season or for its opponents

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s initial stab Monday at dressing for success — and safety — in his first face-to-face walk-throughs of the summer with his football team consisted of a face shield.

For all of about five minutes.

“I couldn’t see through it,” he told a group of roughly 20 media members Tuesday in a Zoom conference call. “It had all fogged up.”

Which is pretty much the view the rest of us have on college football in general, roughly a month before the first handful of games are to be played.

Navy’s opening opponent — Notre Dame, at least for the moment — had its world get a little more muddled on Tuesday.

As recently as Monday, it was believed that a meeting of Atlantic Coast Conference athletic directors and Irish AD Jack Swarbrick on Tuesday, followed by an ACC presidents confab on Wednesday, would at the very least spew some details, even if the certainty of a fall season was still lacking.

Details such as what Notre Dame’s revised schedule would look like, restocked with ACC games, and just how many games would constitute a season, and whether the Irish could actually compete for a league title in the COVID-19 pandemic-inspired reshuffling.

But Tuesday afternoon, Brett McMurphy of the Stadium Network reported that a final decision on the ACC’s scheduling format might get pushed into next week.

A 10 conference-game slate with one non-conference game was the leading candidate to be put into play, but plus-one configurations with fewer overall games were also being considered.

It is believed Notre Dame will function as an ACC member in 2020, and in 2020 only. And the momentum for its non-conference game — given a choice of home games versus Arkansas or Western Michigan, or a road game at Navy — continues to be Navy.

The two teams, which have met every season without interruption since 1927, originally were scheduled for Aug. 29 in Dublin, Ireland. The schedule now reads Sept. 5 or 6 at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md.

In pencil.

Swarbrick has advocated recently for a delayed start to the season. The Mids do have a vacated date Sept. 12 if it comes to that.

“I feel pretty confident it’s going to be played,” Niumatalolo said of the 94th rendition of Notre Dame-Navy. “I read what’s going on with Notre Dame.

“Obviously they have all the resources to make sure they’re testing and doing all they can. I know they have access to all the best doctors and all the best scientists and medical advice.

“I definitely know that they’re doing everything. They have a great plan. Having played against coach (Brian) Kelly all these years, I mean the guy is as detailed a coach as there is out there in the profession.”

And Navy AD Chet Gladchuk has been a stickler for details as he concocts gameday protocols for the first of the 94 meetings between ND and Navy to be staged on the Naval Academy’s campus.

“Mr. Gladchuk has been doing everything in his power to make sure that the game’s safe, that we can play,” Niumatalolo said. “A lot of that depends on where we’re at at that time, as we get closer, where the (virus) numbers are at.

“It’s crazy we talk about that as a society, but it’s unfortunately the way we talk. The final decision will come from government officials, the governor of Maryland and the mayor of Annapolis. That would be the final piece.”

There seems to be little uniformity, even among the Power 5 conferences, in how best to approach saving a fall season. Some are moving games up to Aug. 29. Some are pushing openers back into mid-to-late September. Compounding the confusion is the weird dynamic of sports media and epidemiologists often misunderstanding the context of each other’s worlds and yet sometimes clumsily presenting it as fact and with improper perspective anyway.

Notre Dame continues to push forward in its season preparations. Because the Irish have had just two positive COVID-19 tests in the 356 administered to players and athletic staff since the return to campus in mid-June, the Irish have moved into Phase 3 of their re-entry plan.

That means full team workouts after initially limiting them to 10 players max in Phase 1, and groups of 30 or 40 in Phase 2.

ND head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have begun working directly with the players in person for the first time since the first and only spring practice was held on March 5. Until training camp opens, presumably on Aug. 6 if the starting date for ND’s season stays intact, the workouts will consist of weight training/conditioning, film study and walk-throughs.

Once his face shield failed Monday, Niumatalolo dipped into his reserve of four masks, including a gator mask that could be pulled up and down. He at one point wore an amplifier box hanging from his neck to help project his voice, but gave up on that in short order as well.

“It’s different,” Niumatalolo said of staging workouts during a pandemic, “but I just told our guys this is the way the world is right now. We’re going to have to do the best we can with whatever rules are given to us. I’m grateful our players feel safe.

“Nobody has a game plan on this. I don’t care how long you’ve been coaching, nobody has a blueprint on how to get ready for this. So we’re all kind of learning on the run.

“In the coaching profession, we’re all kind of copycats anyway, but especially in this case. Any good ideas that can help keep your people safe, we’re all implementing them.”

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo greets Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly following ND’s 52-20 victory on Nov. 16, 2019, at Notre Dame Stadium.