As Notre Dame has navigated, or half-navigated, its way through the new world of the ACC, Mike Brey – born in the heart of the footprint, Maryland fan growing up, Duke assistant as an adult – has served as a sort of spirit guide for fans unfamiliar with the ways of the conference.
That includes football fans used to Notre Dame’s traditional opponents – Navy, Southern Cal, Michigan, Michigan State – who may only have a decent handle on the few ACC teams who used to show up regularly on Notre Dame’s schedule, like Boston College and Miami.
So Brey said Wednesday he has been particularly vocal about the risks the Irish face Saturday.
“It’s interesting to see our fans get educated quickly to the ACC,” the Notre Dame basketball coach said. “I was trying to tell some of our fans the other day, they have no idea that N.C. State’s way better than USC. Like, our fans, I’m trying to tell them, you need to come back to earth, because N.C. State’s really good.”
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Notre Dame fans shouldn’t need that lesson, since the Wolfpack won the first half of this home-and-home in Carter-Finley last season, but that was a terrible Irish team and a game played in equally terrible weather. Just as N.C. State has moved forward from last season, Notre Dame is back where its fans expect it to be.
All of which makes this a pivotal game in the scope of the national scene – and a no-lose game for the ACC.
If N.C. State wins, the ACC stands to profit in the short term. If Notre Dame wins, it further opens the door to huge wins for the ACC in the long term.
A Wolfpack win would not only give N.C. State another big win to go with wins over Florida State and Louisville that aren’t quite as shiny as they seemed at the time, bolstering its potential College Football Playoff profile while opening the door for next week’s N.C. State-Clemson winner to be a one-loss Atlantic Division champion.
That should ensure ACC representation in the CFP if the conference champion comes out of the Atlantic, assuming the Wolfpack and Tigers take care of business otherwise. But a win for N.C. State over Notre Dame would give the ACC three solid CFP contenders (still-undefeated Miami being the third) which is three more than the Pac-12 has.
N.C. State will have the most work to do to convince the committee of its bona fides because of the loss to South Carolina – look no further than how the committee looked at North Carolina two years ago – but a nonconference win in South Bend would go a long way toward doing that, especially with the wins over Clemson and Miami that N.C. State would also need to get that far.
An Irish win might turn out to be bad news for the ACC this season if N.C. State ends up winning the conference with a weak CFP profile, but it would move Notre Dame one step closer to the doomsday scenario where a one-loss Irish team is left out of the CFP because it isn’t a conference champion – the one circumstance out there that could push Notre Dame into the ACC when its television deal with NBC expires in 2025 (if not before, since everything and anything is negotiable).
Notre Dame could find itself stuck behind either Alabama or Georgia (or even both, since Georgia won in South Bend earlier this season), Clemson and undefeated teams from the Big Ten and Big 12. Depending on how heavily this CFP committee values conference titles, Notre Dame could be sitting at home for the semifinals while sitting on an 11-game winning streak.
Notre Dame still has to play Miami, so it could have a head-to-head win over the eventual ACC champion by the time everything sorts itself out, and there are many, many games yet to be played. Getting too granular about scenarios at this point is a waste of time. But among the long-term, big-picture scenarios of how Notre Dame might could somehow someday end up in the ACC for real and not just partway, a win over N.C. State could end up being one little step forward toward the most likely one.
Someone’s chances of being a part of the CFP are going to take a dent on Saturday, one way or another. This might as well be an elimination game to some degree for the teams. Not for the ACC. No matter who wins, the ACC can’t lose.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock