On Friday, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick finally announced the Irish's next three football schedules. And if anybody thought Brian Kelly's team would use their commitment to five ACC conference games as an excuse to soften their schedule as the College Football Playoff era arrives, think again.
On the same day that reviews of Jim Delany's Big Ten scheduling landed with a thud, Swarbrick laid out the considerable gauntlet Notre Dame will need to navigate the next three seasons. If the Irish are going to make their way back to playing for a national championship, they'll need to do it playing one of the country's hardest schedules.
If it feels like this is late to announce a schedule that will begin in nine months, it is. In past years, Notre Dame has had schedules basically locked seasons in advance. But when the university joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports except football, Swarbrick agreed to play five ACC opponents a season, essentially blowing up scheduling agreements that had been in place for years.
"We had years where we had as many as 16 games under contract once we took the ACC commitment," Swarbrick explained in his press conference. "So you had to step back and ask yourself, 'How are we going to make decisions here? What do we want to achieve?'"
Swarbrick laid out those goals as he revealed three schedules that looked more than ambitious on Friday. While they might make things difficult for the Irish, they're a clear indicator that the university realizes that continuing to go it alone on the football field means playing an elite schedule.
"If you're going to be independent, embrace independence," Swarbrick told UND.com. "The freedom it represents with you to build rivalries and pick opponents."
Rebuilding from scratch didn't come without a price, however. Long-standing games with teams like Michigan will happen less often, with the Wolverines currently not on the schedule after next season's night game in South Bend. And for the first time in 100 years, no Big Ten opponents will be featured on Notre Dame's schedule in 2015.
Swarbrick laid out the bullet points of the university's scheduling goals, all serving to keep Notre Dame one of the few national brands in collegiate athletics.
- Maintain a 6-5-1 model
- Satisfy ACC commitment
- Continue the Shamrock Series
- Control the calendar
- Preserve important rivalries
- Maximize geographic reach
- Play in special places
- Maintain strength of schedule
- Play like institutions
A snapshot of the next three seasons gives you a clear look at the unique nature of Notre Dame scheduling. Over a four-year period, the Irish will play in nine of the 12 largest cities in America (Two that they'll miss, Miami and Chicago, they visited last season). They'll also compete on football's biggest stages, playing seven games in stadiums that have hosted a Super Bowl.
|Notre Dame's Upcoming Schedules|
|MICHIGAN (night)||at Virginia||NEVADA|
|Purdue* (Lucas Oil)||GEORGIA TECH||MICHIGAN STATE|
|at Syracuse (Met Life)||at Clemson||at Syracuse (Met Life)|
|STANFORD||NAVY||at North Carolina State|
|at Florida State||Bye||Bye|
|Bye||at Temple (Lincoln Financial Field)||at Navy (TBD)|
|Navy (FedEx Field)||at Pittsburgh||ARMY* (San Antonio)|
|at Arizona State||WAKE FOREST||VIRGINIA TECH|
|LOUISVILLE||BOSTON COLLEGE* (Fenway Park)||at USC|
|at USC||at Stanford|
|Notre Dame Sports Information|
"We are getting around the country like no other school can or does," Swarbrick said.
Of course, there's little benefit to tackling difficult schedules if the team competing can't beat the competition. While some programs over the past few years have thrived on cupcake non-conference games, both athletic director and head coach fully believe that strength of schedule will have a large determination on who gets the four coveted slots in the College Football Playoff.
"Our strength of schedule has held up very well in recent years," Swarbrick said. "We want to continue that. We, like everyone else, believe that is of special importance going forward in the new college playoff model. It will be a factor of significance to the Selection Committee."
When asked about the schedule he'll face moving forward, Kelly talked about the ever-present challenge that comes with coaching at Notre Dame.
"I knew coming in we were going to have a challenging schedule, especially as an independent," Kelly said after practice on Saturday. "We can’t be left with questions about our schedule as an independent. We’re going to have to play a notch above a conference-scheduling team."
That challenge begins early. The 2014 slate looks especially difficult, with three of the Top Five from the final regular-season BCS standings (and six of the top 25) taking on the Irish. A season opener against Rice that once looked like a cupcake now brings a 10-win team to South Bend. A visit to Tallahassee to play No. 1 Florida State starts the Irish's ACC obligation with a bang. When the ugliest game on the schedule is a September Shamrock Series game against Purdue, one of three Big Ten opponents (along with Michigan and Northwestern), you know the Irish have their work cut out.
But don't expect things to get easier. While Swarbrick touted the balance of the Irish schedules—15 games against the ACC, 10 against the Pac-12, nine against the Big Ten and three against the Big 12— he acknowledged the scheduling void that exists with the SEC.
It's his next agenda item.
"We have as a scheduling priority beyond this period of time finding a way to work SEC opponents into our schedule," Swarbrick admitted.
It's worth noting that Swarbrick played a key role in the formation of the College Football Playoff, taking the lead on the legislation drafted by the conference commissioners that settled on a four-game playoff and the process that will determine the teams. That he's taken the lead on putting together a bulletproof schedule leads you to believe that the committee will follow the lead of other NCAA sports when determining the tournament participants, not the misguided system that relies crudely on number of losses, pollster votes or flawed computer formulas.
For a program that's found itself stuck in the past too often in the name of tradition, Notre Dame enters a new era of college football perfectly aligned.
Now all it has to do is win.