A couple of days ago, JimmyG bucked a usual trend on this site and said that Notre Dame’s full membership in the ACC was a conversation worth having. When Jimmy approached me about going for this, I thought about turning it into another DEBATE THIS back and forth. For anyone that’s followed my work here on HLS or anyone that heard me give a rather passionate history lesson about the Irish’s independence, you know exactly where I stand.
Notre Dame should absolutely remain independent until it no longer makes sense. That is, until the college football playoff decides conference membership and/or a conference title is a requirement.
But to be fair to Jimmy, talking about full ACC membership is indeed a conversation worth having. Let’s face it, every offseason this dead horse has its carcass drug out by some reporter or blogger and continues the annual assault with rumors that this time ND is super-serious about conference membership or with some hot-take about how Notre Dame is in their ivory tower with their independence. Quite frankly, the debate itself is tiring, but completely ignoring the possibility doesn’t seem wise either.
Look, we all know the history behind ND’s independence by now and the alternate timeline that has Notre Dame as a part of what is now the Big Ten leaves a lot to be desired. That, however, isn’t the landscape that the Irish see before them today. As Jimmy pointed out, the Big Ten ship fully set sail in 1999. Further, the Big Ten as it existed then and as it exists now is a completely different animal, as are the rest of the Power Five (a term that didn’t even exist until a few years ago) conferences in college football. I’m only a decade removed from my college days and, back then, the Big East still played football. We actually have a college football playoff now, something unthinkable due to the money tied and contracts that allowed the BCS to keep a choke-hold on this sport.
College football is a completely different beast now. We mainly have money to thank for that. The TV, bowl, and even playoff contracts are absolutely ridiculous these days, but have been a driving force in the conference realignment pictures. Jim Delany didn’t plop Rutgers into the Big Ten because they were the birthplace of college football, but because he saw dollar signs and the New York market for the Big Ten Network (logic of this: highly questionable, but still a thing).
Jimmy rightly points out that money is really no factor here for Notre Dame. A successful ND season leads to quite a boon for ND’s bottom line; however, Jimmy missed one crucial factor in this discussion: cord cutting. The money train looks to be on a collision course with this financial bubble and cord cutting is the extra coal being thrown into the firebox (I’ve been watching a lot of Thomas the Tank Engine with my toddler–forgive me for this metaphor). Look no further than ESPN laying off loads of incredible talent and citing cord cutting as the main reason for it.
Why focus on the cord cutters in a discussion of conference membership? Because the contract for the College Football Playoff expires after the 2025 season, a mere 8 years away. As we edge closer to the contract expiration, we will see likely see some serious shuffling much like we did near the end of the BCS era, especially because many of the Power Five’s TV contracts will be expiring around that time. Fox Sports sees this period not as a time of super-conference expansion, but as a contraction and consolidation of power into a single 24-team conference, which includes Notre Dame. As crazy as it sounds, it actually makes quite a bit of sense as the only teams that will truly be able to maintain this current level of cash flow will be those that have the star power to pull it off.
Simply put, aligning yourself to a conference right now doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you might have to jump off the Titanic barreling toward the iceberg in under two recruiting cycles.
And that brings us another potential boat anchor: conference championships. Jimmy actually has some sound logic here. Sure, as Notre Dame fans, caring about a conference title seems ridiculous to us, but then again, we’re used to it. High school kids live and breath district and division titles as the games that matter in their seasons. Conferences as an extension of that is more of a natural fit than you might think, especially when it appears that the Playoff Committee puts a ridiculously high value on said titles.
And that’s really the true rub in this “title or nothing” situation. It’s not just Notre Dame’s recent struggles of “Returning to Glory” that have been the issue, but now teams in the driver’s seat of their conferences can point out their path to the playoff is much easier than ND’s. While we can all take some solace in Ohio State making this past playoff without said conference title (and conference talking heads pulling a full 180 on the issue), let’s not forget the exact dominoes that had to fall into place for Penn State to benefit from a hilarious conference head-to-head tie-breaker: Ohio State had a game-winning, chip-shot field goal blocked, Jim Harbaugh can’t win a game outside of the state of Michigan. In fact, as soon as the Irish have dropped a game these past few seasons, we already are looking ahead for the potential chaos needed to push the Irish into the top four.
But while that road isn’t easy, trying to figure out the logic of the Playoff Committee is even harder. Remember every talking point from 2014? Gone in 2015 and those new talking points are gone in 2016. I can’t wait to hear the mental gymnastics floated out in 2017 (I’m lying about this–never watch that stupid reveal show for anything but the rankings reveal). And what’s the committee going to do when a “clear” top four team drops the conference title game everyone expected them to win? Simply put, we never have any real idea of what they will do year in and year out, much less every week they trot someone out in front of ESPN cameras with their circular logic spin.
To be quite frank, I’m not sure if Notre Dame is truly in the best position in the world as an independent when it comes to the whims of the Playoff Committee. What I am sure of is that Jack Swarbrick has placed Notre Dame in the best possible position for the foreseeable future as ND is free to move in any direction they see fit should the previously sound foundation of the ACC crumble around them. This is a game of chess, not checkers. We can’t be lured by the siren song of conference titles and supposed easier paths to the playoffs when the whole thing can be up-ended soon after Notre Dame’s current recruiting target are schedule to graduate college.
We can keep having this conversation, but we, and the ACC, must recognize that there is no reason for either party to move at this point.