Let’s start with the preface that when talking about Notre Dame football independence, one currently discusses the level of independence and not absolute independence. Genuine, complete independence is a thing of the past, as 42% of Notre Dame’s football games are already being scheduled by the ACC with little to no say from Our Lady in the matter. However, suppose the Big 10 and SEC are successful in making themselves the Big 2 with all other conferences being largely irrelevant. In that case, Notre Dame will have little ability to simultaneously maintain both its football independence and relevance. I posit that Notre Dame is the only entity left with any power to stop the seemingly inevitable trek toward two mega-conference systems. But what will it decide?
As Notre Dame is currently a member of the ACC for Olympic sports and a partial member for football in that it plays five games in the ACC, the ACC is clearly the conference with which it is more closely aligned and the conference Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick thought preferable over the Big Ten or the SEC. The SEC is not a cultural or academic fit for Notre Dame, and the Big Ten just feels wrong on many levels.
The ACC, in terms of academics, culture, and feel, is a much better fit for the Fighting Irish. Additionally, the ACC provides a much more fertile recruiting ground for football as the ACC territory from Virginia through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida is very important and talent-rich. So, while the Big Ten is certainly the conference seen as the most likely landing spot for Notre Dame given the recent changes, there is an argument to be made for the benefits and viability of making the ACC its home.
Building up the ACC into a heavyweight conference would be considerably easier than doing likewise in the Big 12 or Pac 12. The ACC has won three of the last nine football National Championships. By comparison, the Big 10 has won only one National Championship during that time. The ACC has a true power program in Clemson and others that are certainly very capable of becoming so, including Miami and Florida State. When performing at or near potential, a top four teams of Miami, under Cristobal, a resurgent Florida State, Clemson, and Notre Dame is nothing to sneeze at, and a conference that simply could not be ignored as the Big 12 or Pac 12 may be. But how might Notre Dame prevent a two mega-conference system while preserving as much independence and self-determination as possible?
First, I start with the suspicion that Jack Swarbrick might not mind the Fighting Irish entering the ACC as full members. He started them on this path as members for the Olympic sports, with five of the twelve football games scheduled by the ACC. He included in that deal (or agreed to include) that Notre Dame would have to join the ACC if it entered a conference before 2036, seemingly tilting the playing field in the direction of the ACC. The ACC has recently decided to go to a 3-5-5 scheduling system for football. As ACC commissioner Jim Phillips’s #1 priority is to get Notre Dame into the ACC, it is tough to believe that the switch to a 3-5-5 scheduling system was not at least run past Jack Swarbrick for his thoughts.
Let’s look at what this scheduling system might mean to the Fighting Irish should they eventually join the ACC. The 3-5-5 system means that each team plays the same three opponents yearly and five rotating opponents. There are no divisions. And herein lies the opportunity for Notre Dame and the ACC should one agree that joining a conference is now inevitable and that maintaining three major power conferences is preferable and would preserve more independence for Notre Dame than in a two mega-conference world: Notre Dame could influence the teams that enter with it.
One potential scenario might include Notre Dame agreeing to enter the ACC fully on the condition that both Navy and Stanford also join. Navy is far more marketable and profitable than many people give them credit for being. That they currently have their own TV deal with CBS sports speaks to that. They have an established brand and are a fit in terms of academics and geography. They would provide a school in Maryland, a state in which the ACC currently does not have a school. Stanford has a recent history of football success, outstanding academics, massive resources, and an established identity and brand that is highly respected. Stanford also provides access to a west coast media market that would only enhance the ACC’s media deal. With the loss of USC and UCLA from the PAC-12, Stanford must be looking for an opportunity.
While Notre Dame would be entering the ACC fully and responsible for eight ACC football games per year, they would presumably have Navy and Stanford as two of their three-yearly opponents. So, while they would be adding three ACC games to their current five, two of them would be against opponents they would have been playing outside of the ACC had the three not joined together. Therefore, two of Notre Dame’s yearly non-conference opponents would become two of their annual conference opponents. Pittsburgh, Boston College, Miami, Florida State, and Georgia Tech are current ACC schools with which Notre Dame has had extensive rivalries or histories with that would serve as the third yearly opponent for Notre Dame. Notre Dame would continue their Navy and Stanford yearly contests perpetually and maintain four other non-ACC games to schedule whomever they’d prefer.
Along with these three schools joining the ACC, a fourth would probably be added from the west coast. Oregon would be the biggest prize, followed by Washington and others. This would bring the ACC to 18 members and with the type of power, money, and clout to remain a permanent survivor along with the SEC and Big Ten in the Game of Thrones saga currently playing out in college sports. This would prevent the Big Ten and SEC from monopolizing all college football money and relevance, would preserve as much independence as possible for Notre Dame, help Notre Dame athletics financially and provide a guaranteed path to the playoffs long-term.
So, while the Big Ten might be the odds-on favorite to land Notre Dame eventually, the ACC option is one worthy of Jack Swarbrick’s exploring. What is ultimately decided will soon be seen. While the fate of the ACC is still up in the air, too much has transpired to think the Pac-12 or Big-12 will remain as viable, competitive alternatives to the Big Ten and SEC. The schools remaining in those conferences with aspirations of big-time athletics will need to make a move to one of the new power conferences, and time is certainly of the essence. Whether their choices will consist of three power conferences or be limited to two power conferences remains to be seen. However, it appears that the University of Notre Dame might be the single entity possessing the power to make that determination.