ORLANDO, Fla. — Eleven years, 10 months and four days.
That’s the length of time between Nov. 5, 2005, and Sept. 9, 2017.
Between then, Notre Dame’s football team never played a Southeastern Conference school during the regular season.
When talking about the conference, Notre Dame players hyped the usual traits: speed, athleticism, strength. The SEC’s reputation is not lost on the Irish.
“To go and put that on display and prove who the most physical and toughest team in the country is will be a great opportunity for us,” junior linebacker Te’von Coney said.
With the Citrus Bowl just a day away — and No. 14 Notre Dame (9-3) facing one of the SEC’s top programs, No. 16 LSU (9-3) — it’s worth noting the Irish’s lack of history against the conference, and the philosophical shift that could lead to LSU and Notre Dame playing again soon.
Starting this year, Notre Dame is making a point to play at least one SEC team per season. The Irish have Vanderbilt scheduled next season, Georgia in 2019 and Arkansas in 2020, with goals for more to follow in the next decade.
Because of its independent status, Notre Dame does not have the luxury of touting a conference championship on its playoff résumé. The Irish are Atlantic Coast Conference members in all sports but football, and the school and conference have an agreement where Notre Dame plays an average of five ACC opponents each season. That agreement will continue through 2037.
Notre Dame always schedules Navy, Stanford, USC and one of Michigan or Michigan State. The Irish must make the most of their remaining three games.
“Your schedule has to match up with the very best each year,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “(With our mixture of teams), we can say, ‘Look, this is a schedule that should stand up to anyone in the country when it comes to deciding the top four teams.’ ”
In 2005, the Fighting Irish routed Tennessee in a regular-season matchup. Less than four months ago, Notre Dame lost a 20-19 nail-biter to Georgia.
In between, nothing.
That’s not to say the school hadn’t played the SEC at all in that time. Notre Dame played LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, which the Irish won 31-28. There also was the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, which Notre Dame lost 42-14 to Alabama. This year’s game against LSU is the third SEC opponent in the past five bowl games for Notre Dame. And 2017 is one of the rare seasons when the Irish play two SEC schools.
“LSU’s defense is really good,” Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush said. “They’re fast, one of the fastest defenses we’ve seen since Georgia.”
Still, in Kelly’s mind, the SEC is similar to all the other conferences. As the coach of a team that plays schools in all corners of the country, he would have the largest sample size.
“Alabama has separated themselves,” he explained, “but I don’t think you can make the case anyone else has. Even if you take Alabama out of the equation, the SEC is an outstanding conference top to bottom.
“But to make the case that it has separated itself from everyone else, I wouldn’t make that case other than Alabama.”