Notre Dame playing an FCS opponent in the 2020s was probably inevitable. The coming expansion of the College Football Playoff will lengthen most Irish seasons, as well as alter scheduling dynamics across the country. Adding a competitive breather will be a symptom of that.
Notre Dame playing an FCS opponent in 2023 became needed when the Irish moved their date with Navy to Dublin. Either Notre Dame would have to burn one of two idle weeks in the literal first week of the broad season, or it would need to find an opponent to face on a short week with relatively short notice. Just as an example of that short notice: The Irish have played nine different non-MAC Group of Five opponents in the last 12 seasons. All of them already have games scheduled for Sept. 2, 2023, including trips to Texas (Rice), Auburn (UMass), USC (Nevada) and Texas A&M (New Mexico).
Considering Notre Dame plays Central Michigan in mid-September of 2023, director of athletics Jack Swarbrick was never likely to consider an additional MAC opponent on that schedule. The Irish have not double-dipped into a midmajor conference during Swarbrick’s time making the calendar.
That left the FCS.
It was inevitable.
By adding another acronym to FCS, Swarbrick and Notre Dame at least made that week one date intriguing. While playing Tennessee State brings about as much competitive legitimacy as playing UMass or Bowling Green would, inviting a historically Black university (HBCU) led by a possible Hall of Famer in Eddie George to South Bend will make the weekend an event. That was Swarbrick’s intention, and anyone who has attended an HBCU game this century knows the Tigers community will deliver.
“We have an opportunity to really expose our brand,” Tennessee State director of athletics Dr. Mikki Allen said Wednesday. “It’s an iconic brand. It’s filled with a lot of history. We have a lot of passionate fans. We have a dynamic band. There’s a huge entertainment value when you talk about Tennessee State University.”
If anyone did not need to schedule this game, it was actually Allen and the Tigers. Notre Dame needed someone to come to South Bend to open September in 2023, or lessen its competitive advantage throughout the season by wasting an idle week. George spends his offseason studying Jackson State and Deion Sanders. He is trying to catch Ohio Valley Conference champion Tennessee-Martin. Prepping for the Irish will make George’s summer of 2023 only harder.
“I have to figure out how to beat Deion,” he said. “I’m not trying to think about Notre Dame, who has played in the Playoff and (has) a ton of great athletes, been on a historic run. But when it became real, I began to think about the benefits of how it could help our program, great storyline of two storied programs, iconic brands of college football. It became more appealing and digestible at that point in time.”
Putting Notre Dame and Tennessee State on the same level because they have combined for 23 national titles in their respective pursuits is intentionally disingenuous . No one looks at this 2023 matchup as a chance for David to slay Goliath, Jacksonville State upsetting Florida State this past season aside. George will insist, as he did Wednesday at Jerome Bettis’ prompting, that the Tigers can win, but he also knows they need to improve drastically in the next 17 months to believe that.
“Hopefully we’ll look a lot different as a team, be in a different place and come in with a great deal of confidence,” he said.
That all could be said of Ball State and New Mexico, as well. Swapping out the dredges of the FBS for an HBCU does not change Notre Dame’s schedule in any practical way. Those claiming the Irish have condemned their 2023 strength of schedule are drastically inflating the competence of Connecticut and Rice. It is the nicest thing anyone has said about such football programs in decades.
Notre Dame’s claim of “12 data points” compared to SEC teams who played FCS teams in the calendar was always a convenient one, if also one espoused loudest by Swarbrick. Only two data points have ever mattered in the Playoff conversation: How many games did you lose? How many top-tier teams did you beat? Nothing else has ever determined the postseason field.
The Irish did not lose in 2018, so they made the Playoff, just like Cincinnati pulled off in 2021. In 2023, Notre Dame will not only have the obvious chance to finish unbeaten, it will also face three teams who could be top-10 contenders in Ohio State, Clemson and USC. The two data points that matter will be met, no matter who the Irish face as their 12th opponent.
Be it South Florida, Nevada or Tennessee State, Notre Dame’s 12th opponent does not impact its Playoff chances. If a talking head on ESPN insists otherwise, realize your aggravation is their entire motivation.
If the on-field results do not change, elevating an HBCU into a moment to shine is an excellent use of the awkward scheduling to open 2023.
Swarbrick pointed directly toward Tennessee State’s investment in its athletic department — also jokingly, or perhaps not so jokingly, saying Allen negotiated for a larger guaranteed check than Swarbrick anticipated — as part of why he liked this partnership. If Notre Dame can play a small role in an HBCU doing better by its student-athletes, then both universities have done something positive.
That is more than what comes from facing most FCS teams. Playing McNeese State or Tarleton State would be a waste of a guarantee game. Instead, Swarbrick met the inevitable with initiative, something George appreciated.
“When I really looked at the opportunity for our kids to come to this University and have an opportunity to play on the national stage, to really show the nation what Tennessee State is all about holistically, the colleges, the pageantry, our tradition, our rich history,” George said, “not just in football, but as a university, was a wonderful opportunity.”
And for all the on-field concerns that do no matter in this instance, the on-field halftime show may be the best part of Notre Dame’s 2023 home opener.