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Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said Tuesday he was confident the Fighting Irish could put together a challenging, independent football schedule this fall should some of their opponents be forced to play truncated seasons with a focus on conference games.

But in a 30-minute Zoom call with reporters, Swarbrick acknowledged that other aspects of pulling off a representative college football season during the COVID-19 pandemic could be challenging from a national perspective, should some campuses and states lag behind others in lifting various restrictions related to both higher education and spectator sports.

“There’s a significant chance it may not be possible that you (can) produce a season where all members are participating in Division I football in the same way,” Swarbrick said. “We just have to take the time to figure that out as we go.

“The critical issue is learning more about that and figuring out a host of questions that come as a byproduct of that. How many games do you need to have a playoff? What would it do to a postseason and the bowl games? What about Heisman Trophies and records? Is a team whose school decides it (isn’t safe to play football) credited with a forfeit? I hope not.”

Though the five power conference commissioners and all Football Bowl Subdivision members generally have been in constant communication about contingency plans for an altered season that either starts later in the fall or in the spring semester, or might have to be broken up due to a re-emergence of the virus when the weather gets colder, the Fighting Irish is uniquely sensitive to any changes or regulatory issues because it plays such a national schedule. 

Notre Dame is slated to start this season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland — the game is still on for now, Swarbrick said — but is also supposed to play six teams from the ACC, two from the Pac 12, one from the Big Ten and one from the SEC.

Regardless of whether there’s a shortened season, Swarbrick said he would prefer his colleagues adopt a “conference games plus one” schedule model that would allow Notre Dame to play most, if not all, of those teams regardless.

“I don’t want to speak for the conference commissioners, but I think they’re considering every option, and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t any conference that wouldn’t look at a conference-only alternative,” he said. “If it goes that way we’ll be fine, we’ll be able to play a high-quality, full schedule the same number of games other teams would play.”

Swarbrick emphasized that whenever the season begins, Notre Dame’s priority is ensuring that students will be allowed to watch the games in person, even if overall attendance is reduced to ensure social distancing. Other aspects of the game-day experience are also being evaluated in light of the likelihood that COVID-19 will still be a threatening presence to some degree this fall.

“There are traditions we have about how we move on game day and what we do that we have to reconsider,” Swarbrick said. “We have a walk from the football office through the stadium; that’s a tradition people care a lot about. Can you do that under these circumstances? We’ll have to make all those decisions.

“How will we define capacity in the new normal? What will the entries into the stadium look like? How will we change the concession experience? We can control a lot of that, but tailgating creates a much more challenging dynamic to control to establish some recommendations around the safety environment.” 

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Similar to any business that is re-opening during the pandemic, Swarbrick acknowledged that legal liability if someone gets sick as a result of attending or participating in an athletic event at Notre Dame is a potential concern down the road but that it would not necessarily drive decisions. 

“All we can do is make sure we are complying with the best standard available to us and rely on the experience and expertise of scientific and medical communities, which colleges and universities tend to have a real advantage in access to those resources,” Swarbrick said.

“We can’t let the threat of that risk fundamentally change the experience of our students. That balancing act is tough, but we’re not alone, and we have to make the best choices we can.”

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