Like many other fans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, I am approaching the seemingly imminent Irish move to full-time conference membership with a kind of resigned acceptance. Notre Dame held out as long as they could - longer than any other school could - and put themselves into a hell of a negotiating position by doing so, but now it appears the Irish will have to cash in soon or else be shut out of the future of the sport. Losing independence will be a loss, but it is one I can handle if necessary.
If the Irish do indeed make that jump, it appears likely that the aggressively expanding Big Ten would be their home. It is the best option on the table: with the USC Trojans now in the fold it contains all of Notre Dame’s major traditional rivals, it is still the best regional fit (an increasingly irrelevant proposition in this brave new world, but less travel distance is always a good thing), and it is aligned with Notre Dame’s academic ambitions. More importantly, as Greg Flammang noted on a recent OFD pod, this new Big Ten the Irish would be joining is a fundamentally different entity from the one the Irish spurned for so many years, so there is little point in rejecting simply out of our well-earned spite for its history.
With that in mind, let’s lay the groundwork for the ideal version of an Irish schedule within the...friendly(?) confines of the Big Integer. We’ll finish with a mock-up, but first let’s lay out some general principles that Notre Dame should insist on if they are to join.
Return of the September Gauntlet
Probably the biggest downside of the ACC-affiliated era of Irish football was the loss of the September Michiana tour. Those yearly clashes with the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and Purdue Boilermakers constituted a beloved early-season ritual, and the schedule has always felt a bit off without them.
If the Irish were to get those matchups back on the schedule through Big Ten membership, in a strange way it would actually represent a return to the natural order of things and would likely help ease Irish fans into the new world of conference membership. Notre Dame should thus push for some combination of regional pod arrangements and protected-rival status to ensure the regularity of these games.
Get USC to South Bend in November
One obvious must-get from any negotiations with the Big Ten would be protected status for Notre Dame’s rivalry with USC, who have already sought such protections without the Irish in the fold. Its new affiliation will have USC traveling out the Midwest in November with regularity, so the Irish should press here to get the Trojans out for Senior-Day matchups in South Bend.
The Trojans have long resisted such a matchup due to weather concerns; they will now have nowhere to hide, and the Irish should take advantage.
Regular Matchups We Should Anticipate
Based on likely regional pod groupings/historical associations, we can probably expect to see a lot of the following teams as part of a Big Ten schedule:
As much as we would all want see more of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, etc., we know how this goes from our ACC experience and we probably wouldn’t want them every year anyway. We will not get the Big Ten’s best every year, and that’s fine.
With these parameters in mind, let’s take a look at what a typical Irish schedule might look like in the Big Ten:
Week 0/1 (depending on continental location): Navy Midshipmen
Week 2: Michigan Wolverines
Week 3: Michigan State Spartans
Week 4: Purdue Boilermakers
Week 5: MAC tune-up/recovery matchup
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: Illinois Fighting Illini
Week 8: Major non-conference (SEC/ACC) matchup
Week 9: Indiana Hoosiers
Week 10: Wisconsin Badgers
Week 11: Maryland Terrapins
Week 12: Northwestern Wildcats
Week 13: USC Trojans
Obviously there will be some variations here. You would see big matchups (both conference and non-conference) in week one from time to time, which would also move the September gauntlet around. You might still see USC in October. You will probably see other teams join the Big Ten, sending the Irish further afield. But based on what we know now, this is a fairly representative expectation. Is it terribly exciting? No, but it does have plenty of positive aspects, and I think it’s a world most Irish fans can live with if it means keeping them in the national conversation.
I of course welcome any thoughts on this entirely speculative matter - let me know what you think!