Conference Realignment, and where Notre Dame stands

Everyone’s generally followed the crazy conference realignment news that took over the college football world. But to recap, USC and UCLA shocked the world by joining the Big 10. That brought the Pac-12 down to 10 teams, and the Big 10 up to 16. Once all the current dominoes fall, the Big 10 and the SEC will each have 16 teams. 

The ACC has thus far not made any moves, neither expanding nor losing teams to other conferences. They’ll have 14 teams, the Big 12 will actually have 12. There’s a lot still up in the air. Will the ACC and Pac-12 merge? Will the Big 12 look to get up towards the 16-team mark by adding from the Pac-12? Is the Big 10 done making moves or will they keep looking to expand their collection of programs from coast to coast? 

Notre Dame’s Decision To Make

So how does this affect Notre Dame? On the macro level, it’s pretty obvious; everybody wants the Irish in their conference. Notre Dame is one of the top football teams in the country on the gridiron, and they’re one of the most well-rounded athletic programs in the nation. Additionally, Notre Dame has the brand value to keep any conference relevant in this modern era. As conference realignment continues, Notre Dame is a crucial potential asset for any conference. Let’s look at various options for the Irish. 

Big 10

The Big 10 made one of the necessary moves in enticing USC to their conference. Notre Dame’s independence is important to them for a lot of reasons. But namely, they put a lot of value in playing coast-to-coast during the season, maintaining their national footprint and their bevy of rivalries. This coming season, for example, Notre Dame plays in Columbus, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. That represents four major cities on both coasts and in the Midwest. Now, the possibility of USC becoming a conference game allows Notre Dame to play out west and maintain their biggest rivalry. 

Speaking of rivalries, the Irish could also resurrect longstanding rivalries with Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State, and even Penn State. That’s certainly appealing for the Irish. Beyond football, Notre Dame is already in the Big 10 for hockey. And the conference boasts strong programs in soccer, lacrosse, fencing, volleyball, and other sports, providing the athletic versatility that Notre Dame would require if they join the parade of conference realignment. 

There are downsides. For one, the Big 10 plays a nine-game conference schedule. Although the Irish would get USC as a conference game, that leaves Notre Dame just three non-conference games. They’d likely want to maintain their series with Stanford, Navy, and Boston College. That would give Notre Dame 11 Power-5 games a season and a tricky Navy game, producing an absolute gauntlet of a schedule. 

In other sports, the Big 10 is a bit of a downgrade on the ACC. Baseball comes to mind, but name value in the Big 10 for other sports, particularly basketball, is less valuable. Notre Dame vs. Duke in basketball is more enticing to fans and viewers than Notre Dame vs. Illinois, or pretty much any Big 10 program. 

SEC

The SEC is not exactly a natural fit for Notre Dame. It does put Notre Dame in undoubtedly the strongest conference (currently) on the gridiron. However, outside of that, the Irish would almost certainly have to leave the Big 10 in hockey, and the ACC in other sports. The SEC doesn’t offer soccer, and they’re a downgrade to the ACC in most other sports outside baseball.

And then, there’s the lack of geographic fit, although that appears to be not much of a priority in this evolving conference landscape. However, the SEC, as strong as it is, doesn’t currently offer a truly national collection of programs, having only just expanded with Texas and Oklahoma. For the Irish to commit to the SEC gauntlet and maintain their rivalries, it’s almost an impossible task. The SEC has a lot of work to do before they’re really an attractive option for the Irish. 

The ACC

This seems less and less likely as the ACC hasn’t made any moves. However, the conference continues to offer as good an option for Notre Dame’s non-football sports as any. And with Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, and Miami, there are both historical and emerging rivals for the Irish. Add in a potential partnership with the Pac-12, which could bring Stanford into the fold, and the ACC becomes a more realistic option. 

How long does Notre Dame hold leverage in conference realignment discussion?

Right now, Notre Dame holds plenty of leverage. They’re arguably the biggest brand in college football and definitely the biggest unattached brand. In a world of conference realignment that will shape the future of the game, everyone wants the Irish. If they want to negotiate a deal on their terms, it’s probably best to move sooner than later. If the Big 10 negotiates a new media deal without adding Notre Dame, they will hold some leverage in the situation. 

And if the ACC continues to stand pat, not adding to their ranks, then Notre Dame will continue to lose leverage as they find themselves largely attached to a sinking conference. That holds even more true if the ACC loses schools to conference realignment. 

Make no mistake, the Big 10, or any conference, will gladly be at Notre Dame at any point. However, if the Irish are to give up their independence, they want to enter a conference on their terms. This timeline is more limited. 

When will Notre Dame make a decision?

Realistically, nobody really knows the answer to this. However, there are a few keys to when they might make a decision. Firstly, the USC move was a major domino, but there are more to fall. Notre Dame will want to see some other schools (read on below) join specific conferences before making any kind of decision. 

Additionally, the Irish will require some clarity on both conference and playoff structure. The current College Football Playoff contract expires in 2025. There has been no renewal at this point. If a new format includes an expanded playoff, there’s less reason for the Irish to join a conference. However, if it starts to hinge on conference membership, then the Irish begin to lose leverage quickly. It’s a delicate line to walk, as they want some clarity on the future of the sport, but they need to gain that clarity without giving up that leverage that could allow them to negotiate on their own terms. It’d be surprising for the Irish to make any moves in the next year or two. Their independence didn’t and doesn’t hinge on the status of USC. However, if other moves are made, this timeline could get accelerated. 

What other schools change the Irish’s independence calculus?

As the definition of a ‘conference’ continues to change, so could the Irish’s willingness to join one. 

So let’s look at other major programs that could sway Notre Dame’s decision.

Stanford

First is the Cardinal. Along with USC, this has become one of Notre Dame’s treasured yearly rivalries. The Irish want that rivalry to continue, and making it a conference game makes that easier. If the Big 10 pulls Stanford, the Irish could seek out a deal where they join the Big 10 conference realignment in a pod-like format with protected rivalry games against the Trojans and Cardinal. 

Miami

Maybe Miami doesn’t rank as high as second, but they could definitely sway Notre Dame. The Hurricanes are a former massive rival for the Irish. “Catholics vs. Convicts” still holds juice, and making this another yearly, or at least biennial, the clash could be enticing. “The U”, despite recent on-field struggles, remains one of the game’s premier brands. Plus, they have other vital programs, particularly on the baseball field. They also hold geographic significance, allowing the Irish to have a foothold in the southeast. 

Boston College

The “Holy War” is certainly a significant rivalry for Notre Dame. No matter how good or bad the Eagles are, Notre Dame continues to love a win over BC in virtually any sport. And BC is nationally relevant or better in several other sports. Their women’s lacrosse team has been to five consecutive national championships, and they’re one of the few ACC programs with a competitive fencing squad. The latter sounds less relevant, but the Irish boast a flourishing fencing program that’s won consecutive national championships. Continuing that tradition is certainly important. 

Duke, UNC, Syracuse, Virginia

These schools are merged into one category. This collection of programs really showcases what the ACC offers Notre Dame. All four schools offer high-brand value matchups in basketball. Duke and UNC are competitive in lacrosse and fencing. The Irish and Blue Devils clashed in the ACC Championship for soccer this past season. Virginia won the 2021 national championship in lacrosse, made the 2021 College World Series, and the 2020-2021 national championship in soccer. They’re an elite and well-rounded program. Bringing them into the fold maintains a budding ACC rivalry for the Irish in many sports. 

Clemson, Florida State

These are schools that are pretty solid in sports outside football (Clemson won the national championship in soccer this past season). Florida State is a historic rivalry for the Irish, and both schools could prove to be strong rivalries moving forward. Plus, for the same reason that Miami makes sense, keeping a foothold in the southeast, where the Irish love recruiting, makes a lot of sense for Notre Dame. 

TCU (or a similar Big 12-area school)

TCU is barely more than a name out of a hat in this situation. If Notre Dame joins the Big 10, and the conference adds some combination of the schools above, then there is a lot to like. The only real geographic area they wouldn’t have access to via conference play would be Texas/Big 12 territory. Technically, the Mountain West region also, but most of those programs don’t represent recruiting hotspots or have programs that share much history with the Irish. 

Texas, however, is definitely an advantageous area for the Irish. Adding TCU, which boasts a strong men’s and women’s soccer program, a generally competitive football squad, and a strong baseball program checks a lot of boxes and keeps Notre Dame relevant in the area. 

Final Notes/Thoughts on conference realignment

Other storylines we did not really touch upon in this article? Oregon is certainly one. Many reports indicate the Ducks want into the Big 10, but the conference is standing pat and awaiting word from Notre Dame. Oregon, however, just really isn’t a player in this for the Irish. They’re not a historical rival or blue blood. And they don’t offer any extreme brand value, nor an upgrade in too many sports off the gridiron, at least compared to the ACC. 

If the Big 12 successfully adds several Pac-12 programs, that does, however, change the landscape for the Irish. Right now, the conference is pretty regional and doesn’t offer much in the ways of historical rivalries for Notre Dame. Pulling a team like Stanford changes that, and immediately puts that conference at least in the conversation for the Irish. 

It’s a wild and extremely complicated time in college football – and college sports. The latter is important to remember. For Notre Dame, this is not just a football decision. If they join a conference, it’ll be as a full member. That means prioritizing their other sports, which was a major reason they took their original deal with the ACC. Football will lead the discussion, but if a conference is only focused on appeasing the Irish via the gridiron, that’s not likely to be enough for Notre Dame to join. Keep an eye on the fates of some of those programs listed above, as they represent major dominoes in this situation. But don’t expect an immediate move from the Irish. They’re happy to stand by and watch a giant chess match between the existing conferences and then – if it suits their needs and preferences – pick a partner as the dust settles.