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Notre Dame Football: The Clear Conference Realignment Answer for the Irish

With all the chaos happening as the Big Ten and SEC consolidate power and become super-conferences, Pat Rick has the undeniable answer for ND’s inevitable move away from independence

Syndication: Notre Dame Insider Robert Franklin / USA TODAY NETWORK

Unless you’ve been living like I plan to later this week/weekend when my fiancée is gone on a bachelorette party for 4 days — no contact with the outside world, fully immersed in Netflix/Hulu/Max/AppleTV, only opening my apartment door to grab the husband meals I’m ordering during this time of freedom — then you’re very aware of all the conference realignment craziness that’s completely flipped the college football world upside down of late.

The Trojans, Bruins, Huskies, and Ducks are members of the Big Ten; the Buffaloes, Sun Devils, Wildcats, and Utes are all heading to the Big 12. Apparently Cal and Stanford are considering a move to the ACC, which will certainly make up for FSU and Clemson inevitably joining the SEC. And some programs look lost and unsure of their next moves.

NCAA Football: Oregon State Spring Game Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a crazy, illogical, and kinda bleak time to be a college football fan, and even weirder as Notre Dame Fighting Irish football fans, considering the program’s steadfast grip on independence that has no clear end in sight, but also seems like it could be relinquished at a moment’s notice so as to join the fray of reshaping the sport in the name of TV money. The smart money is that the Irish will eventually join up with the Big Ten with its midwest base and solid match academically and heaps of TV money, but what if that wasn’t the best and most fun option for the Irish program?

And, what if — stay with me here, because I’m afraid I’m going to lose you with this — what if independence ALSO isn’t the best and most fun option for Notre Dame as the NCAA football tectonic plates go through this seismic shift?

Yeah, you heard me right — I think there’s a DIFFERENT answer here when it comes to the questions:

  1. Should Notre Dame retain its independence?
  2. Or should it join a conference?
  3. And if so, which one?

My emphatic, brilliant answers are as follows:

  1. “No.”
  2. “Yes.”

Let’s get out of the way right now that I, along with most/all Irish fans, would prefer Notre Dame remain independent. It’s an awesome tradition and helps the program wield fantastic power without being beholden to a bunch of other schools and a bunch of idiot conference administrators, and of course it’s fun to think about how the Big Ten black-balling ND, at the guidance of Michigan, led to Knute Rockne’s teams traveling all over the country to play anyone and everyone and build themselves into the best college football program in America, leading to the Irish declining the Big Ten’s numerous offers over the years to join once ND was a dynasty.

Congressmen With Their Football Coach Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

But, if we assume that eventually the “super-conferences” are going to drive the future of the sport, including the postseason, and thus we assume that at some point, Notre Dame might have to, or at least feel compelled to, play ball — then I firmly believe the Irish should return to their barnstorming, play-anyone roots, but just adapted for this new normal in 2024 and beyond: join one new conference every year, cycling through them all in order to once again show how powerful and awesome and hilariously cool this program can be.

We all remember 2020, when the Irish joined the ACC for one season as a full member during COVID. How fun was that, for ND to waltz into that conference, go undefeated in the regular season, and make their conference title game, then waltz right back on out afterward to return to being an independent national power?

The ACC teams had to have HATED that, and so I think we can revisit the idea of Notre Dame embracing the mantra of being the heel or the villain of a different conference every season, stepping in to have some fun, beat down on most teams, and get some cool matchups against squads they might not normally play in the process.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There are only a handful of programs across the country whose fans are justified in thinking the Irish are “overrated” or “wouldn’t hold up against teams like us,” and yet I would argue a lot of the other programs’ fans would make claims like that about Notre Dame too — especially the second-rate SEC schools who think they’re just going 6-6, 7-5, etc. every year because they play in the SEC, and that other schools would do the same in their position. It would be an absolute blast to see the Irish go conference-by-conference over the course of a decade to prove all those types of fans wrong, and maybe even occasionally upset some of the behemoths of the sport, too.

The Irish have gotten basically everything they could get out of their current ACC joint partnership (not to even mention that the ACC could collapse like the Pac-12 any day now). ND is 41-9 overall in ACC games since the deal began in 2014, including 41-7 in the regular season. Plus, as most of you know, more recently it’s been even more dominant — the Irish have gone 28-0 against the ACC in the regular season since that fateful shellacking they took at the hands of Miami in 2017, and 28-2 if you want to count the two postseason games played against Trevor Lawrence, etc. in 2018 and 2020.

So, let’s start mixing it up, to keep it fresh. As kids playing pickup football, we used to occasionally have someone be “all-time QB” if we were short on people or just only had one person who could throw the ball worth a damn. I see the Irish, in this scenario, as the “all-time conference enhancer.”

One season, they’re winning the Big 12 title, and the next they’re squaring off with Ohio State in Indianapolis for the BIG conference title. Another season, they’re laying waste to teams like Texas A&M and Ole Miss and getting to take on Brian Kelly in Death Valley — or forcing him to make a return trip to ND Stadium in November in front of a crowd that I’d imagine would bring the most vitriol that Stadium has seen since Remember the Six. And hell, another season could be a fun “Gonzaga in the WCC” year, with ND steamrolling their way to a Sun Belt or MAC title against a bunch of really fun and different small-conference teams, with us Irish fans getting the privilege to go to games at some awesome and fun new locales like Appalachian State and James Madison and Coastal Carolina and Louisiana Lafayette, which are spots we’d never get to see the Irish play at otherwise.

Act like that wouldn’t be an absolute blast — I’d argue that regionality and uniqueness of campuses and stadiums and playing styles is what makes college football great, so let’s have the Irish be tourists in all of it and really soak it up. Plus, with the CFP expanding to 12+ teams next year (or more, considering all the latest realignment), ND could still easily make the Playoff even in their Sun Belt or Mountain West or Conference USA or MACtion seasons. ND would get to keep a type of independence, and all the existing conferences would get periodic single-year boosts in TV $ from the Irish brand on their networks and in their stadiums.

Plus, assuming some teams will still plan to play non-conference games in this new super-conference future, the Irish would be able to maintain a couple annual games against the likes of USC and whomever else they want to keep on the schedule as annual rivals. I personally wouldn’t keep either Navy or Stanford, but if ND felt so inclined to keep those going, they could. Or, they could keep 1-2 of those annual rivals and then add 1-2 rotating non-conference games to still occasionally add some fun opponents outside whatever conference they’re currently a member of.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The one thing this might not work super well for are all the non-football sports at Notre Dame, but the super-conferences are already driving us to a hellscape of mid-week, cross-country flights for non-revenue sports anyway, so we might as well keep it fresh for those folks and use whatever additional money the networks provide each season for this setup in order to fund that additional travel, pay for tutors to travel with them, etc.

Look, is this an idea that the super-conferences would actually go for, or that Notre Dame themselves would entertain? Of course not. But that’s because all these old rich men who run conferences and athletic departments and TV networks are lame as hell and don’t care about making a better product for fans and for the student-athletes.

But they SHOULD consider this, because the Irish as a conference-hopping, instant-drama-and-hatred-and-excitement-and-TV-ratings villain for one lucky conference every season would be an absolute blast. In my opinion, it’s the only real, good option.

Your move, Jack Swarbrick/Pete Bevacqua!


Syndication: Notre Dame Insider Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN / USA TODAY NETWORK