Analysis: Perception matters more than ever if Notre Dame is going to have a playoff reality

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Once you get past that there’s no Navy game on the Notre Dame football schedule for the first time in 94 years …

And that there IS a Friday night road matchup, and a Dec. 5 home game with no students on campus, and a potential trap game against Boston College and former ND QB Phil Jurkovec on the road the week after a big home showdown with Clemson …

Reality sets in.

And Notre Dame’s reality in 2020, provided that the season leaps from its perpetual hypothetical phase to actual games on the field, comes down to perception.

More than ever.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Power 5 conferences’ stab at dancing with it, meaningful non-conference games are pretty much non-existent. Truth be told, non-conference games period among the Power 5 aren’t all that plentiful.

Only the ACC and Big 12, in their reshuffled schedules, are playing plus-1 games. The Pac-12, SEC and Big Ten are conference-only setups in 2020.

Comparing relative strengths between conferences becomes even more of an inexact science than usual, if not an outright guessing game. And that’s not a bragging-rights thing. It’s a playoff thing.

It’s conceivable the ACC, with Notre Dame as a full-time football member for 2020 only, could produce two playoff contenders. That likely would require a season split of Clemson’s regular-season meeting at Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 7 and a potential rematch in the ACC Championship Game, Dec. 12 or Dec. 19 at Charlotte, N.C.

Even if there’s only one playoff-worthy squad from the 15 ACC teams, there’s no guarantee the league champion will make the four-team playoff. What if all five Power 5 leagues each produce an unbeaten team?

The ACC doesn’t have recent history on which to lean.

In 2018, the ACC had only two ranked teams in the final AP Top 25 — national champ Clemson and No. 15 Syracuse. Independent Notre Dame finished fifth in that poll.

Last season only No. 2 Clemson from the ACC was ranked at season’s end.

In part because of Notre Dame’s inclusion and in part because of a talent infusion/maturation, the ACC could be surging in 2020.

In Pro Football Focus’ list of the top 50 players in college football for 2020, 34 percent (17) were from the ACC, including five of the top 12. Three of the 17 were from Clemson and one — offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg — was from ND.

The next-closest conference representation came from the Big Ten, with 12 players. The SEC had 11, followed by the Pac-12 with five, the Big 12 with four and FCS power North Dakota State with one.

In last season’s PFF preseason top 50, the ACC landed only seven players, and six of those were from Clemson.

North Carolina has been a trendy top 25 preseason pick, so it’s not just an influx of individual talent, but perhaps teams as well.

The Irish, incidentally, have one of their two bye weeks, prior to the Nov. 27 matchup with the Tar Heels. The other precedes the Oct. 10 home clash with Florida State.

Clemson, meanwhile, will top many preseason top 25s, including the coaches poll that was released today. If the Tigers are still No. 1 when they come to visit, it will be the 26th time in Notre Dame’s football history that it has faced the nation’s top-ranked team and first time since 2005 in the Bush Push Game (a 34-31 USC victory).

nd vs, no. 1

The Irish are 8-16-1 in those games, losing the last three and four of the past five.

Clemson also figures to be only the second top 10 team (at the time the game was played) to visit Notre Dame Stadium in the Brian Kelly Era.

Kelly’s 11th season kicks off with a home game against Duke on Sept. 12. Western Michigan ended up as ND’s plus-one game, and the Mid-American Conference team visits Notre Dame Stadium on its original date, Sept. 19.

Though details to keep Navy on the schedule couldn't be worked out — and the Mids replaced the Irish with a Sept. 7 opener with BYU — the two schools on Thursday announced an extension of the Irish-Navy series through 2032.

The Sept. 26 Wake Forest game also kept its date and venue, Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

Still to come, if and how many fans will be allowed to attend the game and how college football will respond to virus outbreaks. For now, it's more fun to dream about what's possible on the field. 

Last March, before 14 of the 15 spring practices were canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, Kelly admitted his 2020 squad had the potential to be his best.

The ACC handed them a schedule that will allow them to prove it.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (left) celebrates a bowl victory with athletic director Jack Swarbrick following ND’s rout of Iowa State, Dec. 28, 2019 at the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

(Home Games in CAPS)

Sept. 12: DUKE


Sept. 26: vs. Wake Forest at Charlotte, N.C.

Oct. 3: Open



Oct. 24: at Pittsburgh

Oct. 31: at Georgia Tech


Nov. 14: at Boston College

Nov. 21: Open

Nov. 27: at North Carolina


Dec. 12 or 19: ACC Championship Game at Charlotte, N.C.