Did Notre Dame’s Schedule Just Get Easier?

The ACC announced their plans for an eleven game season this week that includes ten conference games, one non-conference game, and Notre Dame as a member for 2020 only. There will also be no ACC divisions for this season. All of the conference’s decisions are of course subject to change as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, so it’s uncertain whether any of these decisions will ultimately play out. However, if the season does go forward, I’m interested in how Notre Dame’s schedule strength, and chances of a playoff appearance, change with this conference setup.

Staturdays has been hard at work during the offseason putting together our Elo ratings for college football. Elo ratings are a system to evaluate teams and forecast game results. We will have a full post detailing how the ratings work and what they think about 2020 soon, but for now all we need to know is that the average Elo rating across all teams is around 1500, and the difference between two teams’ Elo ratings tells us how likely each team is to win the game. Using team Elo ratings, we can compare Notre Dame’s strength of schedule before and after “joining” the ACC.

Notre Dame already had six of its twelve games scheduled against ACC opponents, so joining the ACC for the 2020 season doesn’t completely change their schedule. For the purpose of this analysis, I am going to assume home field advantage isn’t a factor because it is likely that most teams will be playing with no fans or severely reduced fans this upcoming season. There are probably small home field advantages still present without fans (travel benefits for the home team, for example), but they can be safely ignored for now.

Here are Notre Dame’s two schedules side by side along with the Elo ratings of all of their opponents and their projected win probability for each game. Opponents that were on both Notre Dame’s original schedule and their revised schedule are highlighted. For reference, Notre Dame’s current Elo rating is 2,028.

The biggest game on Notre Dame’s schedule remains Clemson who have an Elo rating of 2,251 heading into the season. Notre Dame is the heavy underdog in that one with around a 22% chance of winning. We know how lopsided the ACC has been in recent years, and it shows in that Notre Dame’s second toughest opponent right now is Louisville at 1,730. Notre Dame suffers two big losses in schedule strength with Wisconsin and USC, who both have Elo ratings above 1,800, off of the calendar.

Despite those two high profile losses, Notre Dame’s average opponent Elo rating in their new schedule is actually higher than their average opponent rating in their original schedule right now. One reason for this is that games against Arkansas (Elo rating of 1,324) and Western Michigan (1,491) are now off the schedule. The ACC isn’t the most competitive of conferences, but their average team is still better than the MAC conference. Even though the average Elo rating of Notre Dame’s opponents went up, that will not be the final average for their new schedule. They have yet to schedule their one non-conference game, and you can be sure they are not going to want to challenge themselves with a top opponent now that they are in the ACC. They don’t have to prove as much to the CFP committee through scheduling because they will be in a defined Power-5 conference. In fact, if the Elo rating of their non-conference opponent is 1,465 or less, they will actually have a lower average opponent Elo rating than their original schedule. In other words, if they find someone like Arkansas again to play, they will have on average an easier schedule than before.

In Notre Dame’s original schedule they were projected to win 9.8 games on average out of 12 for a season win percentage of 81.6%. With their new schedule, before adding in the non-conference game that is still to be decided, Notre Dame has a win expectancy of 8.2 wins for a season win percentage of 81.7%, a tenth of a percentage point higher. Assuming Notre Dame schedules a weaker non-conference opponent as expected, they will likely have a win expectancy of around 9.1 wins this season for a win percentage of about 82-83%.

Because of the number of weaker teams in the ACC, I think Notre Dame drastically increases their chances of making the CFP this season by playing a full ACC schedule. They don’t have to play two solid teams in Wisconsin and USC, and they were already going to play Clemson anyway. Anything less than an undefeated season as an Independent leaves Notre Dame out of the playoff, but by being in the ACC, they give themselves a chance to lose a game and still win the ACC title. Strength of schedule becomes a lot less important when you are playing in an established Power-5 conference. They will likely end up with an easier schedule than before after scheduling their non-conference game, but that won’t punish them because of the literal “power” of being in a Power-5 conference. If Notre Dame wins the ACC, even with one loss, they will be in the CFP with a very high degree of certainty. If they lose one game as an Independent, they are a long shot to make the playoff.

Given that most conferences as of writing have committed to a conference-only schedule for this season, it will be interesting to see how the strength of schedule conversation changes when it comes time for the CFP rankings and selection. Teams can’t boost their resumes with strong out of conference opponents, so they are at the complete mercy of the schedule-makers and public perception shaping how strong their conference is. If we see all five Power-5 conference champions go undefeated or have lots of conference champions with one loss, the perception of how strong each conference is will be a big factor in shaping the playoff.

People have been shouting for a long time “PUT NOTRE DAME IN A CONFERENCE!” and the coronavirus has assisted in that, at least for this year. Luckily for Notre Dame, they got placed into a conference with only one heavy-hitter and a better chance of making the playoff than if they stayed Independent.

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