Is Notre Dame’s schedule fair?

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, center, sacks Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard, left, during the Irish’s season opener on Sept. 5 in South Bend. Ind. Notre Dame faces Clemson Saturday and has upcoming matchups with Southern Cal and Stanford in its 12-game season.
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, center, sacks Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard, left, during the Irish’s season opener on Sept. 5 in South Bend. Ind. Notre Dame faces Clemson Saturday and has upcoming matchups with Southern Cal and Stanford in its 12-game season. AP

The ACC game of the week is Notre Dame at Clemson, and so it’s fitting that our roundtable discussion begins with Tigers coach Dabo Swinney opining on the Fighting Irish’s schedule. Does Swinney have a point? And will we see Notre Dame in the ACC one day?

You have questions, and our college beat reporters and columnist have the answers:

Q: Clemson and Notre Dame play Saturday night in a game that’s interesting for a variety of reasons, including Dabo Swinney’s comments earlier this week. Is the Clemson coach right? Is it unfair that Notre Dame can make the College Football Playoff despite having only played 12 games and avoiding a conference championship game? And will we eventually see Notre Dame in the ACC?

Andrew Carter (North Carolina beat reporter): Dabo is right and wrong. He’s right that Notre Dame faces a different scheduling reality than teams from “Power 5” leagues that would have to play a conference championship game to reach the College Football Playoff.

The implication, though, that Notre Dame’s schedule is somehow “easier” because of that is incorrect. Especially this season. Notre Dame opened the season against Texas (which is down, but it’s still Texas). It has its usual game left to play against Southern Cal and will end the season against Stanford.

If the Fighting Irish make it through that schedule a spot in the playoff will be deserved. That said, it’s probably only a matter of time before the ACC and Notre Dame figure out a way to make Notre Dame a full-time football member.

Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): The number of games a team plays says nothing about its quality. Compare the 13 games, including the ACC Championship, that, say, the Wolfpack could play this season to Notre Dame’s 12-game schedule. There is no comparison as to which, when taken as a whole, would be stronger.

And we will see the Irish in the ACC if it ever becomes advantageous for the Irish to be in a conference. Until that proves to be the case, it won’t happen. And who knows if that moment will come before the next major realignment of the college football world. It’s amusing when you see teams scheduling games as far out as 2022, with all the pending legislation threatening the current way of business, it seems highly unlikely to me that things will be more or less the same even five years from now.

Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): I don’t have a problem with Notre Dame playing 12 games because all 12 are against Division I-A opponents. Under Swinney’s logic, 13 is better because his team beat Division I-AA Wofford? This is a classic case of where more isn’t always better.

I never understood why the Big East enabled Notre Dame for all those years and I don’t fully grasp the ACC’s relationship with Notre Dame, although I get there is a financial benefit. But the first time Notre Dame is legitimately left out of the College Football Playoff, the Fighting Irish will round the current “five-eighths” agreement into a whole number and join the ACC.

Luke DeCock (columnist): It takes some guts for Dabo to criticize Notre Dame’s schedule when Clemson plays second-tier teams like Appalachian State, Wofford and South Carolina (ha!), essentially playing an 11-game schedule. Clemson has an easier path to the playoff than Notre Dame does, beating Florida State and taking care of business elsewhere – especially if a 7-5 team emerges from the Coastal amid the usual chaos. Notre Dame, meanwhile, plays six ACC teams along with Stanford, USC, Texas, Navy, Temple and UMass. I doubt Swinney would switch places.

Although I know I’m in the minority, perhaps even in this discussion, I do think Notre Dame ends up in the ACC eventually, especially the longer it stays a four-team playoff. When a really good Notre Dame team is left out of the semifinals in favor of four conference champions, and it’s not hard to imagine that happening after what happened to TCU and Baylor last year, a conference affiliation is going to look a lot more attractive than remaining independent. It may not happen, but if it does, the Irish will come running for the soft underbelly of ACC football. Even in an eight-team playoff, the Irish would have more margin for error in the ACC than as an independent. As cherished as independence is by Notre Dame and its fans, national championships mean even more.

Q: The ACC took a beating last weekend and the conference isn’t off to a good start against other Power 5 opponents. Is the early perception that the league is the weakest of the Power 5 this season a fair and accurate one?

AC: Probably not all that fair or accurate, but that’s life for the ACC until it has long-term, consistent sustained football success – especially at the top. And while Clemson and Florida State – especially Florida State – have had a lot of success on a national level in recent years, it’s simply going to take time to change the perception that the ACC is a football lightweight.

In the middle and bottom of the league, the ACC is probably no worse than any other conference. The difference is the conference doesn’t appear – at least not this season – to have a collection of teams you’d expect to see compete for the national title.

That hurts the conference, as does its relatively recent history.

LK: Who knows. That’s a hypothetical question with no answer based in reality. Other conferences have had disappointing teams (Arizona State and Oregon jump to mind in the Pac-12 and Arkansas and Auburn in the SEC), but the ACC doesn’t, right now, have the corresponding pleasant surprise team like Utah, LSU and Ole Miss, to some extent. It hurts that there isn’t a rallying point to get excited around as Georgia Tech (especially), Clemson and Florida State haven’t looked elite.

JG: The ACC can’t really make an argument with the other Power 5 leagues when it has three losses to the American Athletic Conference (Houston over Louisville, East Carolina over Virginia Tech, Cincinnati over Miami).

The league’s best result right now would be … thinking … Googling … Syracuse’s 34-24 home loss to No. 9 LSU. That’s quite a sobering thought. And if Clemson loses to Notre Dame on Saturday, the countdown to basketball season and the Final Four is officially on.

LD: It’s understandable, given the ACC’s results in nonconference play – 3-10 against the Power 5, with all three wins against the Big Ten – but it’s not accurate, not yet anyway. The ACC’s best teams, Florida State and Clemson, have yet to play anyone of note, although Clemson plays Notre Dame (2-0 in the ACC but not really!) on Saturday. Virginia Tech’s losses to Ohio State and East Carolina will only be surprising to anyone who actually thought the Hokies were ever better than average. And Syracuse losing to LSU isn’t exactly news. The ACC may in fact be the weakest of the Power 5, and it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see the ACC left out of the CFP. But it’s too early to make those assessments based on who the ACC’s best have played.

Q: Here we are already one-third of the way through the season. What has been the biggest surprise about the Triangle teams to this point?

AC: At UNC, I never expected that the Tar Heels would have a quarterback controversy four games into the season. But despite what coach Larry Fedora says, and despite what any player says, UNC does indeed have one right now between Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky.

Williams can quash that controversy on Saturday with a strong performance against Georgia Tech. But if he struggles early, and if Trubisky is given another chance and plays well, again, then what happens?

Do you make a change in starting quarterbacks and bench a player in Williams who was second in the ACC in total offense last season? It’s a dilemma that I can’t imagine Fedora thought he’d face less than halfway through the season.

LK: I’ll say Duke’s defensive front. The Blue Devils’ defensive line is vastly improved from last year. That’s the hardest position to recruit—just takes a special blend of power, size and speed to play the line. Add in the necessary academic standard, and Duke appears to have collected a mix of developed veterans and young talent to make it work.

The four new guys rotating in the two linebacker spots (sophomore Zavier Carmichael, senior Dwayne Norman, redshirt freshman Tinashe Bere and true freshman Ben Humphreys) have been pleasant surprises as well. The defense has been stout against two legit opponents (Georgia Tech and Northwestern), so this appears to be a for-real thing and not just a mirage propped up by inferior opponents.

JG: Where in the world did North Carolina’s kicking game come from? Nick Weiler has already made seven field goals, including all four of his attempts from 40-plus yards. That UNC has even attempted eight field goals in eight games is unusual for coach Larry Fedora.

Weiler, who was the team’s primary kicker last year, only attempted eight field goals all of last season and missed his only attempt from 40-plus yards. For a team that has had some problems in close games, that could be an unexpected bonus in ACC play for the Tar Heels this season.

LD: The fact that Shadrach Thornton made it through only two games before getting dismissed from N.C. State’s team should be surprising, but sadly is not. The good news for the Wolfpack is how good Matt Dayes has been. He looked like Barry Sanders against Old Dominion and South Alabama, even if those jukes may get him killed against Florida State. Duke’s defense has been surprisingly physical, and not just Jeremy Cash. And given that Larry Fedora insisted Marquise Williams was his starter even though it “gives him pleasure” to obfuscate the media about his quarterback situation, it was a bit surprising to see Williams get such a quick hook last weekend.