Now that Notre Dame has 3 losses, the Irish are out of the Final Four mix of playoff bowls and all but eliminated from playing in any of the New Year's Six games.
Such circumstances always come as a surprise at Notre Dame, but one of the reasons why Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is so highly regarded is because of the deal he made three years ago foreseeing speed bumps which would knock the Irish off course.
Swarbrick knows that any Notre Dame team with 10 or more wins would be all but a lock for a New Year's Six bowl bid. But he took no chances, getting the Orange Bowl to agree to a clause which would take a Notre Dame team higher ranked than an SEC or Big Ten team for at least 2 years in a 12 year contract. That team would play a team from the ACC.
Swarbrick wanted more protection for the times when the Irish really stumbled, as they have done this season, in losing three of their first four games.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
There was a time, of course, when Notre Dame was against the entire concept of playing post season games, a posture the Irish took from the 1925 Rose Bowl until the 1970 Cotton Bowl, when Irish coach Ara Parseghian talked ND officials into meeting Texas. But that acceptance came with a clause, which said that ND would only accept bowl bids against teams ranked higher than the Irish.
The Irish turned down a bowl bid in 1996 following a regular season loss to USC and the resignation of coach Lou Holtz. In 2009, they turned down a bowl bid following the firing of Charlie Weis. The year before, the Irish took a 6-6 team to a bowl game in Hawaii.
Under Swarbrick, however, the general consensus is that there is no bowl game the Irish won't attend if invited. Although the number of bowl bids have increased steadily, almost all of them are tied to conference bids. As an independent, Notre Dame must depend on the kindness of relative bowl strangers for an invitation.
Swarbrick didn't like those odds. Three years ago he made a deal with the ACC, which had embraced the Irish in almost every other sport and has an open invitation to join the ACC as the conference's 15th team. Swarbrick signed a multi-year pact, committing ND to games against 5 ACC teams each season in exchange for a slot in the ACC bowl rotation in the years when the Irish do not receive a New Year's six bowl bid.
With Saturday's loss to Duke, the Irish became an ""ACC "" team for the remainder of the season, contending for slots in any of the 12 bowls which have arrangements to take ACC teams.
The only rule in place is that Notre Dame must be within one victory of any ACC team, competing for the same bowl bid.
Not surprisingly, this rule was not met with any kind of enthusiasm by middle of the pack ACC coaches who could normally use the 6 victory minimum win total as a guarantee they would play in a bowl game.
""It's an injustice to the schools in the ACC and it's an injustice to the student-athletes,'' said one former ACC coach. ""You're making a deal that gives ND a bowl slot when it plays only 5 ACC games. And what happens if in those five games, they win only two and get a bid over a team that wins 6 league games?
It's bad enough if a team gets bumped when it wins six games. What happens if ND is 6-6 and gets a bid over an ACC team which wins 7 games. That's totally unfair.''
Take a team such as Boston College, which is coming off a 3-9 season and has used the six win rule as one of its regular season goals.
The Eagles are 2-2 and face Buffalo at home on Saturday, which should be a win. But after that, the Eagles must still face Clemson, Louisville and Florida State, all of which would be regarded as major upsets. There is a scenario in which the Eagles could be 5-6 going into their regular season finale at Wake Forest.
A win against the Deacons would give them 6 wins and a bowl bid, right? But what if 7-5 Notre Dame is available. Or even a 6-6 Notre Dame. Who does the bowl take? It is a rhetorical question, of course.
Notre Dame could end the suspense and make the deal the ACC wants, joining the conference in football. Then this wouldn't be an issue.
But that time isn't coming any time soon. For now--and that means this week and for the rest of the season--the Irish will be living in ACC bowl housing as renters, not owners.
These are turbulent times in South Bend. Head coach Brian Kelly is under siege. After the loss to Duke, he fired his defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder. He also pointed at his team and said the players needed to step up and no one's job was safe.
With a schedule which continues its ACC portion on Saturday against Syracuse, Notre Dame's record in the ACC is 0-1.
And no one's job is secure. Unless there is a turnaround, that could also include the head coach.[/membership]