Notre Dame’s Opponents: South Florida aside, it’s ACC-or-bust

Trevor Lawrence
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Brian Kelly can downplay it by immediately putting it in the context of a national championship. Newly-named two-time captain and senior right tackle Robert Hainsey can quip, “I guess I’ll let you know in 12 weeks,” but one aspect of Notre Dame’s season will drive more of the on-field conversation than ever before.

And not just because the Irish have never had a chance at a conference championship before, but because contending for the ACC championship will put Notre Dame on the fast track to the College Football Playoff, particularly in a year when only 60 percent of the Power Five will compete.

“We’re able to talk in terms of a mission being to win a championship and now either an ACC championship and if you win that obviously you keep your mission alive for a national championship,” the Irish head coach said Monday. “So you have both of them in your eyes and in your vision for what you want to accomplish during the season.”

It is not that Notre Dame can now suddenly lose multiple games and yet breathe easy; it is that where the Irish stand in the national conversation will be a direct result of where they stand in the ACC, the latter far more tangibly tracked than the arbitrary polls. If the conference tears itself down, some team or two will still come out on top, both in the standings and in perception.

“It brings a bigger focus on the week-to-week, because you’re dealing with 10 ACC games, where we didn’t have that kind of focus in years past,” Kelly said.

The conversation around Notre Dame’s opponents these next 13 weeks will touch on all 11 foes, but South Florida inclusion aside, it will focus on the ACC standings, the path to the conference championship game on Dec. 12 or Dec. 19, and thus a possible Playoff appearance afterward.

Talk of a Playoff appearance should not be deemed rash, because the point is valid: The Irish were once slated to face three teams ranked No. 17 or above, including one on the road and one in a “neutral” site. Now, No. 10 (de facto No. 7) Notre Dame still hosts No. 1 Clemson, but its next stiffest challenge will be current-No. 18 North Carolina. Life got easier by joining the ACC, drastically so.

DUKE: That all begins Saturday against Duke (2:30 ET; NBC), with Notre Dame favored by 20 points as of late Tuesday night. A combined point total over/under of 54.5 suggests a 37-17 Irish victory, but given the starts and stops of practice the last couple months, maybe it is better to expect some offensive mistakes and a lower-scoring game.

SOUTH FLORIDA: The Bulls open against FCS-level The Citadel this weekend (7 ET; ESPN+). The game had been slated for the afternoon, but in a move to avoid some typical Tampa heat, it was bumped into the evening.

WAKE FOREST: The Demon Deacons host College GameDay and Clemson (8:30 ET; ABC), despite being 32.5-point underdogs. An over/under of 60.5 will at least keep things entertaining, though a 46-14 result would presumably include at least one garbage time Wake Forest tally.

FLORIDA STATE: Mike Norvell’s already-rocky tenure will finally reach a game with Georgia Tech visiting (3:30 ET; ABC). The Seminoles should not have much trouble with the Yellow Jackets, a conclusion reached more by a big picture view than the 12.5-point spread. Florida State is expected to win seven games when looking at season-long win totals, while Georgia Tech tops out at a whopping 2.5.

LOUISVILLE: The Cardinals host Western Kentucky (8 ET; ACCN), one of the riskier non-conference games of the year. Louisville is favored by only 11.5, but if the hype around Scott Satterfield’s second year is at all accurate, the Cardinals will do much better than a theoretical 35-23 victory.

PITTSBURGH: Little should be learned about the Panthers in a game against FCS-level Austin Peay (4 ET; ACCN).

GEORGIA TECH: How bad might the Yellow Jackets be this year? There is known and perhaps widespread discontent in Syracuse’s locker room, with the players striking from practice multiple times this preseason out of concerns the football program is not properly handling the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, the Orange are expected to win five games by win total markets and handily finished ahead of Georgia Tech in the preseason ACC media poll.

CLEMSON: Irish fans have every reason to worry about Clemson dashing their dreams this year, but they should not detract from star Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence for so much as a moment:

On that note, Wake Forest will be wearing helmet decals speaking out against racial injustices this weekend against Clemson. With that in mind, please consider this space’s official stance to echo Conor’s here:

BOSTON COLLEGE: Former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec has another week to prepare before the Eagles get into action. Regarding earlier thoughts of win totals, Boston College is projected to win only four games, with one of those presumably coming against Texas State. In other words, there are more flaws on Chestnut Hill than Jurkovec alone can fix.

NORTH CAROLINA: The Tar Heels open as 22.5-point favorites against Syracuse (12 ET; ACCN). The 65.5-point over/under calls for a 44-21 projection, making for an entertaining start to the year, if nothing else.

Of the 10 Irish foes not coming off a national championship game appearance, the most is expected of North Carolina, its win total of 7.5 putting it a triumph against Notre Dame away from pole position to reach the conference championship game.

SYRACUSE: Dino Babers could be in for a rough year, his second in a row and fourth in five years. Nonetheless, his job should be safe given few openings will surface this coming offseason given the economic realities bearing down on universities across the country.

A note to the purists out there bothered Notre Dame is a full member of a football conference: It is 2020, let’s be grateful Notre Dame is playing football at all.

As in, a game scheduled for this coming Saturday was postponed yesterday (Tuesday). Any football in 2020 should be welcomed, provided it is done smartly. And the malleability of the schedule is yet another reason to focus on conference standings more than the inherent opponent blow-by-blow.