With news filtering out seemingly every second about Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, every FBS school in America is trying to determine their place in what will be a different-looking college football landscape. Of all the major programs, Notre Dame’s situation, due in large part to its long-standing tradition of independence, may be the most unique.
Just a few short weeks ago, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was part of a four-man committee that proposed a 12-team playoff. Also part of that group? Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and SEC chief Greg Sankey. Now, Bowlsby is trying to hold together a potentially dying league and Sankey is seemingly on the road to complete world domination. The question for Swarbrick is, what do you do next?
Here are some options.
The Notre Dame football program – and in turn the identity of the school – was established and developed when Knute Rockne took the Irish all over the country to play. To this day, Notre Dame plays from coast to coast and in the coming years, the Irish have games scheduled against several SEC heavyweights, Big Ten rivals, the agreed-upon ACC teams, and traditional foes. Much of that would go away if Notre Dame were to join a conference.
Assuming that Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC is the only major move followed by various Big 12 teams scattering to other leagues, Notre Dame can survive as an independent. But if this is the tip of the iceberg and other major powers consolidate to the SEC and perhaps the Big Ten, the Irish’s hand may be forced.
Go to the ACC in football
If Notre Dame decided it was time to join a league, the ACC would be the most obvious choice. The Irish are part of the ACC in most of their other sports and with that comes a grant of rights agreement that runs through the 2035-36 academic year. The parameters put in place make it very costly for a program – which includes Notre Dame – to leave the ACC before that time.
The relationship between Notre Dame and the ACC has been strong since the Irish halfway joined in September 2012 and since they are already playing five ACC teams a year – and had a test drive as an ACC football member last year – the transition would be seamless.
If you can’t beat them, join them
While the financial ramifications for leaving the ACC are severe, nothing is certain. And with this weekend’s tweet from Jack McGuire of Barstool Sports that the SEC may also go after Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State, and Michigan, the only known commodity going forward is the SEC.
So another Notre Dame option is to join the growing superpower. If Sankey is interested in Florida State and Michigan, he most certainly would welcome Notre Dame to his collection. The Swarbrick/Sankey tie from their time on the Playoff Working Group may help facilitate the move, though Bowlsby would probably disagree with this sentiment.
Hold your nose and call the Big Ten
Going back to the days of Rockne and Michigan coach Fielding Yost, Notre Dame and the Big Ten have not been on the best terms. Early on, the Irish wanted to join what was then called the Western Conference, but their overtures were rejected. This denial was what prompted Rockne to build Notre Dame as a national brand. In the late 1990s, the school contemplated applying for membership but decided against the process, irking some in the Big Ten.
But trying times can mend fences. The conference knows that the SEC would have no problem coming north and grabbing some marquee programs and getting Notre Dame in the fold could jump-start its own superconference ideas. For the Irish, it would provide stability and since the ND hockey team competes in the Big Ten, there is some connection.
This is the most unlikely of all the options considering the revenue football generates, but it cannot be totally dismissed. There are some that believe that the football perception overshadows the academic prestige of the University. Should the collegiate landscape continue to morph into a de facto minor league system for professional sports, the cries to de-emphasize athletics could become louder.
They say that patience is a virtue and that may be especially true when considering Notre Dame’s future plans. Swarbrick and University president Rev. John Jenkins have the task of guiding the Irish program to the best port and not immediately overreacting would be prudent.
Ideally, Swarbrick and Jenkins want Notre Dame to remain independent. This model has worked in the past and going forward, with everyone else joining mega-leagues, being a national, independent entity could differentiate the school even more and be an advantage. In my view, the Irish should remain on their own unless one of two things happen: they are officially blocked from championship contention or they can no longer put together a proper schedule. At this point, neither of those possibilities exists.
But it may be coming. The proposed 12-team playoff gives Notre Dame access to the title chase but denies the Irish the opportunity to claim a first-round bye, regardless of their regular-season success. So they can win a championship though it requires an extra step. The new superconferences will also likely increase the number of league games. This could make it a bit more challenging to put together a slate of games.
Still, it’s not the time for a panic move. Swarbrick is a major political entity in the world of college athletics. If he doesn’t have the pulse of what is on the horizon, he should. He also knows that the Notre Dame brand will always carry a ton of weight. At some point, Notre Dame may have to join a conference and it may happen sooner rather than later. But to make a rash decision to give up independence just because Texas and Oklahoma jumped to the SEC would be foolish.
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