Aer Lingus College Football Classic: Notre Dame v Navy (Saturday, Aviva Stadium, 7.30pm, live on Sky Sports Action)
You know things are serious when the phrase “in peace time” pops up in a press release.
And so it was when Saturday's college football clash between the University of Notre Dame and the US Naval Academy in Dublin was declared a sell-out in May.
Of the 50-odd-thousand in the Aviva Stadium nearly 40,000 – 39,176 to be precise – are coming directly from the United States, “the largest movement of Americans into Europe in peace time” according to Padraic O’Kane, the co-founder and director of the Aer Lingus College Football Classic, with projections of nearly €150m being pumped into the Irish economy thanks to the influx of visitors.
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So it’s obvious why Dublin has manoeuvred itself into the self-proclaimed but undisputed position of “The European Home of College Football”.
Saturday night's game will be the seventh regular season match-up in Ireland since Boston College and Army played at the old Lansdowne Road stadium as part of Dublin’s millennium celebrations in 1988.
Here we go!! Both @ndfootball and @navyfb have arrived in Dublin, Ireland ahead of the 2023 Aer Lingus College Football Classic this Saturday, August 26th.☘️#MuchMoreThanAGame | #TouchdownIreland pic.twitter.com/f5dL9Wv9Oq — Aer Lingus College Football Classic (@cfbireland) August 24, 2023
Last year most of the nearly 43,000 crowd were locals, with around 15,000 coming from the States to watch Northwestern beat Nebraska This time around, general ticket sales were limited to a lottery, such was the demand from across the Atlantic.
That’s partly explained by the fact it was originally scheduled for 2020 but pushed back due to the pandemic, but mainly by the fact it’s Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish football team are the most prominent representation of the most Gaelic of venerable American institutions.
This is their third trip to Ireland to face Navy, the team they’ve played more than any other in their history, after beating them at Croke Park in 1996 and the Aviva in 2012, though the first time they’re doing it as the designated ‘home’ team.
The huge influx of visitors are being treated to a week of events to fit around looking for their ancestors and posting pictures of pints of Guinness on Instagram with, among other things, an open-air Mass in the grounds of Dublin Castle this morning.
first look at @AVIVAStadium for @MrFearless00 #GoNavy | #RollGoats pic.twitter.com/TS4alT0Xa7 — Navy Football (@NavyFB) August 25, 2023
Notre Dame has always considered itself a little different, not just due to its Irishness but its long-standing refusal to join a conference and its general air of independence in the sport. Above the fray if you’re a fan, clinging to an ivory tower if you’re not. Few teams in American sport stir the passions, both positive and negative, the Fighting Irish do.
“Notre Dame is one of the most polarising programs in the sport, in part because it has favoured its independence over joining a more traditional football conference,” said Ty Hildenbrandt, a lifelong Notre Dame fan who, with Dan Rubinstein created and hosts The Solid Verbal college football podcast.
“Also, its partnership with NBC essentially created a Notre Dame TV network on Saturdays that rankled fans of other teams. And, yes, Notre Dame’s role as a prominent Catholic institution has added an extra layer as well.
“It’s definitely helped that the team has been more competitive on the national stage over the last decade. Haters have eased up a bit as the Irish have acquitted themselves well against the sport’s best teams, albeit mostly in defeat.”
This college football season begins with the sport in a state of flux unlike anything it’s faced in its history.
Not only are players now being allowed to transfer more freely between schools – Notre Dame will benefit this year with the arrival of quarterback Sam Hartman – they can also reap financial rewards from endorsements that were previously outlawed.
On top of that, the face of the sport itself is changing. Conferences are engaged in a shopping spree for teams, which themselves are chasing bigger pots of television money or simply trying to survive. The landscape that once suffered the odd tremor every few decades is rapidly and spectacularly crumbling away, while a storm batters it into the bargain.
Welcome home to the Fighting Irish The fellas received a quick crash course in Gaelic Games#GoIrish☘️ pic.twitter.com/4HTZ65Neop — Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 25, 2023
Amid all this Notre Dame still stands resolutely independent but the biggest prize for conferences looking to expand, and only time will tell how unaffected it can be.
“The so-called ‘storm’ will continue to rage for many years to come,” said Hildenbrandt.
“To this point, Notre Dame has resisted the calls to join a conference such as the ACC or Big Ten. The programme deeply values not being part of a conference and being able to play a schedule entirely of its own creation.
“I don’t believe this stance has changed; however, as college football continues to reshape itself, there will eventually be a point when Notre Dame must join a conference to be financially competitive. I’m watching closely to see what happens with teams like Florida State and Clemson in the ACC.”
The last time Notre Dame played Navy to start the season in Dublin, they went on a surprise run to the National Championship game. A return, in their second season under head coach Marcus Freeman, would be another unlikely result, with a dozen or so teams ahead of them in the betting to reach the last-four play-off, but it’s not out of the question.
“I think it’s fair to label Notre Dame as a dark horse play-off contender in 2023,” said Hildenbrandt.
“There are a handful of teams that I believe are definitively better at this moment in late August, but the tides can change quickly in college football. My official prediction is a 9-3 season with a win over Ohio State, USC or Clemson.”