Through three weeks, Notre Dame is the best team in the ACC, depending on your definition of the words “best” and “in.” And that’s the inherent problem with this tenuous relationship the league has with the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame has overcome myriad injuries to start 3-0, including an impressive win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, earning a No. 6 ranking in the latest AP poll. All that would be cause for celebration for the ACC if the Irish were truly a league member. Of course, they’re not. They’ll play six games against the ACC, perhaps upending the playoff hopes of Georgia Tech and Clemson along the way, then either dance into a New Year’s Six game or swipe a bowl bid from one of those ACC foes they vanquished along the way.
And for all the platitudes that Notre Dame is deservedly relishing today after such an impressive win against the previously dominant Yellow Jackets, there are still so many questions about the future prospects for the Irish. Gone is quarterback Malik Zaire, tailback Tarean Folston and now safety Drue Tranquill -- victims of season-ending injuries, one new addition to the list per game for Notre Dame so far. The Irish keep winning in the short term, but for Georgia Tech to still have a strong playoff case if it wins out through December, Notre Dame can’t afford to fall off the cliff as the injuries keep mounting.
Everything about the ACC’s relationship with Notre Dame is a tenuous dance. It needs the Irish to win in order to get high-profile matchups and build the league’s strength of schedule. It needs the Irish to lose when they play key games against the ACC’s supposed elite. It needs Notre Dame’s audience to care about ACC football, but it needs to ensure the success of its own brand, too, because the bottom line for the foreseeable future is that the ACC needs Notre Dame a lot more than Notre Dame needs the ACC.
Look back just one year to Notre Dame’s trip to Tallahassee, Florida. An undefeated Irish team appeared to have ended Florida State’s run of wins with a late touchdown throw, and for a few seconds this new agreement with Notre Dame effectively ended the ACC’s hopes of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. Of course, that touchdown was called back by a penalty flag, and Florida State lived to fight another day. Notre Dame collapsed after that, losing four of its next five. By year’s end, the Seminoles were left apologizing for a close win over a five-loss team rather than lauding a hard-fought victory over a top-10 rival, and Notre Dame limped into the Music City Bowl and beat LSU. It might’ve been worth it if the ACC could’ve claimed another win over the mighty SEC West during bowl season, but while the bowl tie-in belonged to the ACC, the win was strictly the purview of the Fighting Irish.
This is life under the ACC’s agreement with Notre Dame. The Irish have full membership in all sports except football, but remain in more of a “friends with benefits” relationship in the sport that matters most. If Notre Dame excels on the football field, the Irish enjoy the fruits of their own victories -- wins that will come, almost certainly, at the expense of an ACC contender. And if Notre Dame struggles, any wins for Clemson or Florida State or others down the road will do little to amplify the résumés for those programs.
And it’s not that this relationship is without benefits for the ACC. There is revenue to be earned and a future to secure. One day, perhaps, the Irish really will relinquish their independence, and the ACC figures to be there waiting with open arms. Perhaps that day comes when the next contracts are signed for the College Football Playoff. Perhaps it comes in some distant future when we’re playing football on the moon and an ACC television network is almost a reality.
In the meantime, the balancing act continues. Notre Dame heads to Clemson in less than two weeks, and if the Irish magic continues just a little longer, it might all but assure the ACC’s absence from this year’s playoff. If it doesn’t, the Tigers will have a marquee win for now, and they’ll need to root for Notre Dame for the next two months in hopes they can keep it.
Or perhaps, if we're writing potential scripts for the future, Clemson beats the Irish, then both win out. And then maybe Georgia Tech finds its way to the ACC title game, where it beats Clemson. And then at year's end, it comes down to this: Notre Dame or Georgia Tech for the final playoff bid. If that happens, rest assured, Notre Dame is definitely in the playoff and not the ACC.