Amid the biggest upheaval in college sports since, well, the invention of the forward stride, there’s one question on everyone’s mind: What’s Notre Dame going to do?
A program that defines itself in many ways with its independence and its ability to maintain traditional rivalry series across the country and create its own schedule is being kept closer to the flame as USC and UCLA bid farewell to the PAC-12. If, as many predict, two Big Ten and SEC “super conferences” are the inevitable future of college sports, where could a 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 2020 COVID season was the only exception to the rule, but once things returned to normal at CFB, they backed off. It was never meant to be long term.
But what now? The ACC isn’t exactly ready to fall in the same way the PAC-12 appears to be right now, in large part because of their locked-in granting rights until 2036 with participating schools that would be almost impossible for an individual school to break.
The participating members of the ACC would essentially have to agree to disband the conference, which seems like an unlikely conclusion — but then again, two California schools also participated in a conference in the Midwest.
If there are eventually two super conferences (along with maybe a little brother ACC that lasts until 2036), the road to the national championship could be cut off for the Irish unless they eventually 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 his Decades of refusal to join the Big Ten (in part because of feuds dating back to the early 1900s), the conference is the best cultural and geographic fit for Notre Dame. The emphasis on academics, the Midwestern and East Coast-focused area, the existing rivalries with Michigan and Michigan State, the continuation of their USC rivalry streak — there are plenty of reasons why 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 that says if the Irish participate in a conference, it has to be the ACC. So there’s an interesting power play here — let’s say Notre Dame joins the ACC full-time and doesn’t overrun Clemson and Miami. It won’t have the same influence as the Big Ten or the SEC, but it would allow for a third viable conference for at least a few years.
Notre Dame’s national appeal (both positive and negative, to be honest) would be a huge financial draw for any conference, and the conference TV money would be a huge draw for them in return. However, if I know ND, and I know them, they will do everything they can to maintain their independence. There are a few years before much of this realignment actually takes place, and I have a feeling they will wait and see how the chips fall before taking a stand somehow.
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’ll remain independent. However, those are no longer guaranteed in this new world order, and despite their best efforts to stay out of the fray, they may have no choice but to be swept into it.