Let’s pretend for a second that Notre Dame’s football contract with the ACC, which obligates them to play five ACC schools per season and prohibits them from joining any other conference besides the ACC through the 2036 season, was about to expire after the 2022 season. Now imagine that the Big Ten came to Notre Dame and offered the Irish the same contract for the five games per year deal that the ACC currently has in place. In this hypothetical scenario, the only impacted program would be the football team. Would you rather Notre Dame re-up with the ACC or jump ship and sign a new agreement with the Big Ten?
The above scenario is an extremely interesting dilemma that forces one to consider several factors. With fourteen teams in the Big Ten, it would be fair to assume the Irish would play each team once every three seasons. The obvious item that jumps off the page initially would be the prospect of Notre Dame being able to consistently face a few of its longstanding rivals in Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue. As it stands currently, Notre Dame has not faced the Spartans since 2017 and will not do so again until 2026. The Wolverines and Irish last played in 2019 and will not square off until 2033. Purdue, who is the third most-played opponent in Irish history behind USC and Navy, traveled to South Bend this past season for a game. Luckily, these two programs were able to work out a deal in which they will see each other in six of the upcoming eight seasons, including the 2021 matchup. As someone who was born in 1994, I grew up expecting to see these three teams each year on Notre Dame’s schedule, and I would imagine many fans would welcome the return of this trio to the schedule on a consistent basis.
Beyond the obvious three teams Notre Dame would be able to resume playing, the deal would have other implications. This agreement would finally force Notre Dame and Iowa to face off for the first time since 1968, a curious scheduling oddity between two well-known brands in the Midwest. Northwestern and Penn State also each have their own unique place in the history of the Notre Dame program and would be welcome additions to the schedule. Due to the proximity of Notre Dame to the majority of the Big Ten, it is quite plausible that Notre Dame would be able to easily sell out the two to three home Big Ten contests per year. For a program that has found itself struggling to generate buzz around many of the teams coming to South Bend, this would be an added bonus for the university. The return to a capacity crowd on a routine basis, coupled with Notre Dame’s recent on-field success, would make an already pronounced home-field advantage even greater. There would also figure to be a large contingent of opposing fans traveling to South Bend for these matchups, further enhancing the gameday atmosphere.
While a Big Ten agreement would generate greater buzz around the schedule, the argument could be made that the quality of the opponent would not noticeably differ. Clemson has been on par with Ohio State over the past several years in terms of talent and success. Outside of Ohio State, the most successful programs over the past decade in the Big Ten have been Wisconsin and Michigan State. While both programs have been consistent winners, neither possesses an annual College Football Playoff contender. When considering the ACC, Florida State was a true national power during the Jimbo Fisher years. During Fisher’s eight-year run in Tallahassee, the Seminoles won double-digit games in six of the eight seasons (with an additional season coming in at nine wins), capturing a national championship in 2013. Unfortunately for the ACC, Miami isn’t quite the program it used to be during the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. However, if both Florida State and Miami can return anywhere close to their former glory, they will greatly enhance the ACC’s national profile. For Notre Dame fans, a game against a nationally relevant Seminole or Hurricane program will move the needle far more than a game against Wisconsin or Michigan State. Throw in routine games against Pittsburgh and Boston College and suddenly playing about a third of the ACC programs have meaning to Notre Dame. At the end of the day, most conferences have one or two consistent powers, several mid-tier programs, and the dregs of the conference. The difference in this scenario is Notre Dame fans are far more familiar with the teams in one of the conferences as opposed to the other. Yet, this doesn’t change the fact that both conferences stack up fairly equally top to bottom in terms of program relevance.
Besides comparing the schedule, another factor that has to come into play is exposure to recruits. When taking this into consideration, the ACC deal would blow the Big Ten deal out of the water. Florida and Georgia are among the nation’s elite, with the others being Texas and California, when it comes to producing top-tier college football talent. North Carolina and Virginia are also becoming hotbeds for talent. On the flip side, while Ohio still produces a bevy of talented college players, the majority of the conference is located in areas that are devoid of top-end talent. Although Pennsylvania is still a state the Irish need to consistently be in, it pales in comparison to what Florida or Georgia can offer. While Marcus Freeman’s recruiting strategy may differ from Brian Kelly’s, at the end of the day the Irish are going to have to recruit on a national level no matter who the head coach is. With Lincoln Riley moving to USC, the pool of players Notre Dame has to choose from in California is most likely going to shrink. Thus, continuing to create a stronghold in Georgia, while attempting to become more of a presence in Florida again could be a fruitful route for Freeman to take. The chances of cherry-picking players from North Carolina and Virginia should continue to rise as kids in the state are accustomed to not only seeing the Irish in the state but routinely defeating the states’ flagship programs.
Lastly, would the Irish really want to join the Big Ten, the same conference that rejected Notre Dame’s bid to join the league on three separate occasions in 1895, 1908, and 1926? Each rejection came with a different reason as to why Notre Dame was unfit to be accepted into the league. Furthermore, Michigan actively sought to destroy the Irish Football program when Fielding Yost, Michigan’s coach from 1901-1923 and 1925-1926, refused to play Notre Dame following a loss to the Irish in 1909. He then went a step further by seeking to prevent other Big Ten schools from scheduling the Irish in future years. Ultimately, the Big Ten helped to create one of the most recognizable brands in college football by forcing the Irish to barnstorm across the country as an independent. I always get a kick out of Big Ten fans acting as if Notre Dame would be lucky to be invited to their esteemed conference, yet secretly desiring nothing more than to add the Irish to the conference. The fans love to puff their chest out and talk about how Notre Dame would be unable to handle the physical toll of playing in the supposed rough and tumble conference on a weekly basis. Call me a skeptic, but Notre Dame has proven they can run with the likes of Georgia and Clemson. I doubt they would be overly concerned with facing Illinois, Indiana, and Nebraska. In the Big Ten’s eyes, Notre Dame is the “one that got away.” The Irish would lose some respect by crawling back to the same conference that told them they weren’t good enough early in their program’s history.
While always a fun hypothetical to consider, Notre Dame obviously doesn’t have the choice to seek an agreement with another conference even if it wanted to. The familiarity of the Big Ten is no doubt a strong pull for the majority of Irish fans. However, I’m not sure that the Big Ten would present a clear-cut, better alternative to the ACC, especially if Florida State, Miami, and Clemson can all figure out how to be elite programs at the same time. At the end of the day, the name of the game in college football is recruiting, and the ACC provides a decisive advantage when it comes to putting the Irish in front of the highest number of talented high school players. Personally, I wish Notre Dame would pick either Michigan or Michigan State to play annually, while rotating the other program, along with Purdue, onto the schedule on a consistent basis. I understand the scheduling headaches this would create. However, I believe the scheduling problems could be ironed out by dropping Stanford and Navy as annual opponents.
Which conference should ND have the 5 game deal with?
This poll is closed