In the midst of the largest upheaval in college sports since, well, the invention of the forward pass, there’s one question looming large on everyone’s minds: what is Notre Dame going to do?
A program that, in many ways, defines itself with its independence and its ability to keep traditional rivalry series throughout the country and create its own schedule, is being held closer and closer to the flame as USC and UCLA say good-bye to the PAC-12. If, as many predict, two “superconferences” of the Big Ten and the SEC are the inevitable future of college sports, where does an independent power fall in that college football world order?
In non-football sports, the Irish are part of the ACC, and their football program has a deal with the ACC to play a certain number of “in-conference” games each year without actually competing for the standings or a conference championship. The COVID season in 2020 has been the sole exception to the rule, but as soon as things went back to normal in CFB, they backed out again. There was never any intention of staying long-term.
But what now? The ACC isn’t exactly poised to fall in the same way the PAC-12 appears to be at the moment, in large part because of their locked-in grant of rights through 2036 with participating schools that would be nearly impossible for an individual school to break.
The ACC’s participating members would essentially have to agree to dissolve the conference, which seems to be an unlikely conclusion — but then again, so did two California schools joining a Midwestern conference.
If there do end up being two superconferences (along with, perhaps, a little brother ACC tagging along until 2036), the path to the national championship may be cut off for the Irish unless they finally agree to pledge their allegiance somewhere. The forced-hand options in this scenario are the ACC and the Big Ten, and one feels a lot more stable and financially viable than the other right now.
Despite its decades-long refusal to join the Big Ten (in part because of feuds going back to the early 1900s), the conference is the best cultural and geographical fit for Notre Dame. The emphasis on academics, the Midwestern and East Coast-focused area, the existing rivalries with Michigan and Michigan State, the continuance of their USC rivalry series — there are plenty of reasons that ND could, hypothetically, join the Big Ten.
But they’re already in the ACC in all non-football sports, and they have a contract with the ACC which stipulates that if the Irish join a conference, it has to be the ACC. So there’s an interesting power play that’s possible here — let’s say Notre Dame joins the ACC full-time and Clemson and Miami don’t defect. It’s not going to have quite the same influence as the Big Ten or the SEC, but it would allow for a third viable conference for at least a few more years.
Notre Dame’s national appeal (both positive and negative, to be fair) would be a huge financial draw for any conference, and the conference TV money would, in return, be a major draw for them. If I know ND, though, and I do, they’re going to do anything and everything they can to preserve their independence. There are a few years before a lot of this realignment actually takes place, and I have a feeling that they’re going to wait and see how the chips fall before taking a stance one way or another.
And as long as they’re still able to schedule competitive matchups, rivalry games, and the Naval Academy, while keeping an open path to a possible college playoff berth, they will remain independent. Those are no longer guaranteed in this new world order, though, and despite their best efforts to remain outside the fray, they may have no choice but to be dragged in.