Despite its status as an independent, Notre Dame — like many conference-affiliated programs — has eight games locked in per season.
Beginning in 2016, those will be five ACC games and annual rivalry contests against Navy, Stanford and USC. Due to prior contract constraints, Notre Dame will play four ACC opponents in 2014 and six in 2015 for an average of five per season.
Couple the ACC agreement with those three rivalry games and a few deals with other programs, and Notre Dame doesn't have much scheduling flexibility in the near future. A four-game series with Texas will be played in 2015 and 2016, then again in 2019 and 2020. Games against Purdue will be played in 2020, 2021 and then in 2024-2026. Notre Dame has a deal with BYU that requires four more games, two in South Bend and two in Provo, though athletic director Jack Swarbrick said there could be a modification to that deal to fit the school's needs.
Obligations to Arizona State, Michigan State and Temple still have to be fulfilled in the coming years, too. Notre Dame wants to play smaller schools in one-off games in South Bend, and will aim to use those games as a chance to bring former coaches back to South Bend (i.e. Charley Molnar and UMass in 2015, Brian Polian and Nevada in 2016). Expect to see games scheduled against Miami of Ohio (Chuck Martin) and UConn (Bob Diaco) in the future, if both ex-Irish coordinators last long enough at their posts.
Swarbrick doesn't anticipate discussing any future home-and-home series for any season before 2022, so until then the burden of scheduling flexibility may fall on the Shamrock Series.
Notre Dame's next three Shamrock Series opponents — Purdue, Boston College and Army — are uninspiring from a football standpoint, but made sense to fit the schedule and accomplish some of the other goals of the annual neutral-site game. But Swarbrick is cognizant of the importance of strength of schedule with a committee selecting four teams for a playoff beginning next year, and hinted that playing an SEC team will be a priority in Shamrock Series games after 2016.
The goal for Swarbrick is to give the selection committee a "marker" to gauge Notre Dame against other top conferences. That's accomplished with the ACC agreement, the Texas series and annual games against USC and Stanford. But when 2016 rolls around it'll have been 11 years since Notre Dame's last regular season game against an SEC team (2005 vs. Tennessee). Additionally, Notre Dame won't play a Big Ten opponent in 2015, the first time that's happened in 101 years.
"With the limited away game inventory for us, we're going to focus on these to pick up some of those rivals we can't play on a regular basis, to hopefully get ourselves with SEC opponents, to do the various scheduling things that we need to achieve as part of that," Swarbrick said.
Not only did Swarbrick open the door for a Notre Dame-SEC neutral site game (a suggestion, based on nothing but it being a good fit: Notre Dame vs. Georgia in Atlanta), but he allowed for the possibility of a game against Michigan in the future. It'd be an easy Shamrock Series fit, too — perhaps played at Ford Field in Detroit or Soldier Field in Chicago, if Notre Dame is inclined to return to the latter location after playing Miami there in 2012.
Plenty of bitterness still lingers from Notre Dame opting out of its series with Michigan — for example, after the Wolverines beat the Irish in September, the Michigan Stadium PA played the "chicken dance" song, a callback to comments made by coach Brady Hoke in the offseason. But perhaps had Notre Dame put its series with Purdue on hiatus before axing the Michigan game, the reaction wouldn't have been as vitriolic.
"We got a lot of attention in the Michigan situation about Michigan being the first school we addressed in it," Swarbrick said. "... Once we made the ACC commitment, we knew we had to stop the roll‑over while we figured out what we were doing. That was a pretty easy decision, the first one to make."
Beyond aiming to face top-quality opponents in Shamrock Series games, Notre Dame may have to get out of its Saturday comfort zone as it relates to ACC road games. Swarbrick allowed for the possibility of a Thursday night road game against an ACC opponent as well playing on Labor Day, again on the road against an ACC team.
A change that'll come sooner than a non-Saturday game is the addition of an extra prime-time game in South Bend. NBC's contract with Notre Dame calls for five prime-time games over a rolling two-year period, which includes two Shamrock Series games. That means, on average, Notre Dame will play two night home night games every other year as opposed to the single night game played at Notre Dame Stadium annually since 2011.
While Swarbrick wouldn't characterize putting the 2014-2016 schedules together as a headache, he acknowledged the difficulties of the process. It's a process that'll be ongoing, though, as Notre Dame turns its attention to figuring out its 2017 schedule and beyond.
"This was not easy to accomplish," Swarbrick said. "But I'd suggest to you that at least from our perspective, those in charge with administering the program, it was also a really unique opportunity. You don't get this chance very often."