Travis Etienne, Trevor Lawrence and Sam Howell were the headliners, Phil Jurkovec, D’Eriq King and Khalil Herbert among the intriguing transfers. Add acclaimed freshmen and the temporary-yet-historic inclusion of Notre Dame, and the ACC had all the trappings for a landmark football season in 2020.
All of the above, and many more, have delivered on that promise to date. The games have been largely entertaining and competitive, the results occasionally improbable.
But please, let’s not use an October Associated Press poll as a barometer of a pandemic season.
Yes, No. 1 Clemson, No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 5 North Carolina give the ACC three top-five teams this week for the first time in the conference’s history. And yes, this is encouraging for a league that finished last season with only one team, second-ranked Clemson, among the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1987.
But any hyping of the ACC’s poll status — last week the conference had four among the top 10 for the first time — conveniently ignores the following: Notre Dame is a one-year rental, two of the Power Five conferences have yet to play a down, and polls have never been more irrelevant and impossible than in 2020.
First, Notre Dame. Blending the Fighting Irish, full-time ACC members in other sports, into the reconfigured 2020 league football schedule was mutually beneficial. But the program remains fiercely independent, case in point its future opponents.
Notre Dame’s 2021 schedule includes dates with Wisconsin, Purdue, Navy, Southern California, Stanford and Cincinnati. The 2022 docket has Ohio State, USC, Stanford, Navy, Cal and Nevada-Las Vegas.
Game contracts are made to be broken, but the Fighting Irish hardly appear poised to forgo more than a century of independence. That said, their full-time addition to ACC football would be fascinating and lucrative for all concerned, and John Swofford will pitch the idea to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick until the day he retires as ACC commissioner next summer.
But barring an epic 180 by the Fighting Irish, considering them an ACC football program, even in 2020, is a reach.
Notre Dame is 3-0 entering Saturday’s home game against Louisville. Meanwhile, several teams it was originally set to play this season — Wisconsin, Stanford and USC most prominently — have yet to play a down.
That’s because two of the Power Five conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12, don’t start their seasons until Oct. 23 and Nov. 7, respectively. Once folks such as Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Oregon have played multiple games, a clearer national landscape will emerge.
Clearer being a relative term, because with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC playing league-only schedules in 2020, evaluating teams and conferences is more difficult than quantum physics.
For example, there were 27 nonconference games during the 2019 regular season that matched programs from the Power Five leagues. Notre Dame’s nine Power Five opponents bumped the total to 36, invaluable data points for the College Football Playoff selection committee.
This regular season, there are none. The ACC’s most notable nonconference opponent in 2020 is the American Athletic’s Central Florida, and the Knights rolled Georgia Tech 49-21.
So feel free to mail a sympathy card to your favorite pollster and/or CFP selection committee member. Their tasks this year are more thankless than usual.
But at least, thus far, there is a season, COVID-19 hiccups notwithstanding.
Prominent coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban, Kansas’ Les Miles, Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin and Florida State’s Mike Norvell have contracted the virus, and dozens of games have been postponed or canceled. Still, the season has endured, and Saturday, for the only time in 2020, all 15 ACC teams are scheduled to play.
Lack of on-site fans aside, embrace it from your couch.
Watch Clemson’s Lawrence and Etienne, among the best quarterback-running back tandems in college football history, against Georgia Tech and impressive freshman quarterback Jeff Sims. Check out North Carolina and Howell versus Florida State and Asante Samuel Jr., whose five takeaways (three interceptions and two recovered fumbles) are more than dozens of teams, including Notre Dame, UNC and Virginia Tech.
Start early at noon with Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones, the national sacks leader, pursuing Miami’s King. Stay late for the 8 p.m., kick showcasing the ACC’s leading rusher (Tech’s Herbert) and passer (Boston College’s Jurkovec). Sneak a glance at Notre Dame playing a home conference game versus Louisville — freshman Chris Tyree (Thomas Dale High School) has forged a role as a kickoff returner and No. 2 running back for the Irish.
Compelling as the season has been, the next two-plus months could be even better — virus permitting.