Notre Dame Football Nov 2, 2019; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly runs onto the field with his players before the game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It most likely will not happen, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are now officially eligible to win its first conference championship in the history of the storied football program. Sure, they’ll probably have to deal with the four-ton albatross that is the Clemson dynasty, but hey, Notre Dame has a chance.

The ACC previously announced it would share details on the adjustments to the conference’s football schedule for the 2020 season by the end of July. On Wednesday, the conference made good on that promise.

The ACC unveiled a full 11-game schedule model that includes 10 conference games and removes itself from the formality of a two-division format. Notre Dame, which is an ACC member in sports outside of football while remaining a football independent, is a part of the scheduling model and will play 10 games against ACC opponents. The ACC has confirmed Notre Dame will be eligible to play in the ACC Championship Game, which is now scheduled for either Dec. 12 or Dec. 19 in Charlotte. The ACC schedule will begin the week of Sept. 7-12.

Here’s a look at the full ACC schedule, with what games are being played where, but plenty of details still listed as “TBA.”

The Quick Details

The ACC schedule will consist of 10 conference games, and each school is allowed to play one additional non-conference game. However, that non-conference game must be played in the same state as the ACC school (for example: Miami could play UCF, but the Hurricanes could not play West Virginia).

That is notable because that would seemingly eliminate games like Notre Dame-Navy, as long as the Irish have to follow the same rules as everybody else competing for the ACC title this season. And that would really hamper Notre Dame’s non-conference scheduling possibilities; Indiana and Purdue are each locked into conference-only scheduling in the Big Ten (but hey, Ball State is available). All non-conference opponents must adhere to the ACC’s medical protocol requirements, and every non-conference game must be played in a state that includes an ACC team (we’ll get back to that concern in a bit).

Every team will have two open dates. The bowl structure will largely remain the same as it was, with the notable amendment that Notre Dame can now represent the ACC in the Orange Bowl as its champion or automatic bid. Typically, the ACC gets one spot and Notre Dame could qualify to fill the second spot. Now it’s ACC championship or auto-bid or bust for the Irish and the Orange Bowl.

The ACC Championship Game is instantly better now

The ACC’s championship game will now be a matchup of the two teams with the best overall winning percentage in conference games, as opposed to two division champions, which saves us from Clemson drubbing an eight-win pick-a-name-out-of-a-hat ACC Coastal Division champion in December in a game that may not even matter in the College Football Playoff picture.

There are a lot of things to like about how the ACC addressed its schedule, and it would not be a shocking development to see some of this model be used in a post-pandemic-stricken world of college football. Much like I have come to love the ability to pay over the phone for take-out, the stripping of divisions in a college football conference is one development from the pandemic that absolutely should stick around for good.

Pitting the conference’s top two teams in its showcase championship game without being tied down to two division champions is a no-brainer decision. Doing so makes the conference championship game more attractive as a product, and thus makes it more desirable for television revenue opportunities. And for a conference like the ACC, where the ACC Championship Game has more or less been one last exhibition for the ACC champion on its way to bigger and better things, a little more potential intrigue certainly will not hurt the ACC. And who knows. Perhaps we get a little more playoff drama as a result.

This is a decision that should be copied by the Big Ten and Pac-12. The sooner, the better.

Luck of the Irish?

But let’s get back to what this means for Notre Dame. The ACC is not exactly throwing their partial conference member a life vest this season. They are sending out the whole search convoy. It was never likely there ACC would go strictly conference-only in a way that would totally exclude the Irish. Not only would that make for some awkwardness with a key ACC member in other sports, but the financial incentive of keeping the Irish on the ACC schedule is too valuable to pass up for the conference.

Notre Dame makes out great in this deal too. They will continue to get their games aired on NBC, which becomes a sort of ACC Network by extension this fall. More importantly for Notre Dame, they will still get to keep their football independence when things, hopefully, return to a more normal state.

Notre Dame is a big winner in all of this. They are the ultimate wild card factor in the ACC picture this season, and the scenario in which they win the ACC championship and leave for independence next season is one worth following. It could be college football’s equivalent to Bret Hart trying to take the WWF championship belt with him to WCW. And wrestling fans know that story all too well. If you live for drama, the ACC could be where to find it.

But what Notre Dame does now with that additional non-conference game remains to be seen.

It’s probably best to not trick yourself into believing this is the first step toward Notre Dame joining a conference as a full-member. This is just a special set of circumstances everyone is trying to get by with right now. If 2021 proves to be a return to normalcy in every walk of life, then Notre Dame will be quick to take pride in the school’s football independence.

So what about that one extra game?

The ACC’s model was designed in a way that will allow all members to schedule one non-conference game. That idea was important for schools that have traditional in-state rivalries with schools from the SEC, like Georgia Tech-Georgia. and Florida State-Florida, for example. Schools without such traditional rivalries outside of the ACC, like Syracuse and Pitt, could still manage to schedule or keep a non-conference matchup on the books.

That would be excellent news, except there’s a possibility the SEC may stick to a conference-only schedule that would leave some ACC teams hanging. Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated reported the SEC is moving closer to a possible 10-game schedule entirely of conference play. This was reported not too long after the ACC rolled out its schedule model.

The decisions by the ACC, Big 12, and SEC to hold off on making any schedule decisions after the Big Ten and Pac-12 jumped the gun on their decisions suggested to some, myself included, that there would be some communication between the three to find some possible alternatives each could collaborate with. But the ACC rolling out an 11-game model while the SEC could potentially be going strictly conference-only and 10 games, suggests the idea of open communication was a figment of our imagination, or talks broke down along the way. The SEC could still do something similar to the ACC and keep some of those rivalry games on the books, or the ACC could be left hanging and having to fill its scheduling vacancies some other way.

For now, we continue to wait and see what the decisions from the Big 12 and SEC will be, and a formal schedule model from the Big Ten is still waiting to be seen too. We’ll also wait to see just what this college football season has lined up for us. In the meantime, Notre Dame fans can continue to dream about winning a conference championship. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Previously contributed to Host of the Locked On Nittany Lions Podcast. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.