Notre Dame’s decision to join the ACC as a part-time member should serve as a convenient bridge for the Irish to someday come completely aboard in football.
In announcing a plan Wednesday to play five games annually against the ACC members, Notre Dame president John I. Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the school wants to maintain its long tradition of football independency.
But eventually, that might be impossible even for Notre Dame.
A byproduct of the still active conference expansion movement by the ACC and other leagues has been to limit Notre Dame’s football flexibility in scheduling. The Irish were caught in an increasingly uncomfortable squeeze.
As the mega-conferences move to more league games, non-conference game dates have decreased. So has the philosophy of scheduling those non-league games by many teams. The most powerful coaches and programs can insist on an easy non-league slate composed almost entirely of cupcake opponents.
By striking a deal to play five ACC games annually, Notre Dame increases its chances of lining up attractive, significant mid-season and late-season games.
But if the expansion wave is moving toward an end game of four 18-team leagues complete with a closed-door football tournament, Notre Dame will have no viable choice except to play football in one of those leagues. The school no longer has the clout to continue to operate as an independent if the football framework is four leagues and an eight-team postseason playoff.
As former Notre Dame athletic director and ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan said Wednesday of Notre Dame’s future, “things change.”
“If it reaches the point that the only way to have a chance to compete for a football championship is to be in one of these leagues, then I think that could very well be a quick tipping point for Notre Dame to get in the ACC all the way,” Corrigan said. “There’s no question the ACC is in a great situation in that respect.”
But both parties should gain something in this union regardless of where it eventually leads in football.
ACC basketball will benefit even if Notre Dame never wins a league title or reaches a Final Four simply because the Irish have millions of fans that watch television basketball games coast to coast.
Notre Dame football will become more visible in the talent-rich South. The days are gone when the Irish can compete for national titles merely by recruiting the Northeast and Midwest. The more games Notre Dame can play against teams from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, the more likely the school is to sign high school players from those regions.
And, of course, there’s the likelihood that Notre Dame will win more games against ACC football competition than probably would be the case against some other leagues.
“What Notre Dame has done is align itself with the best fit for the school in all sports, including football if that’s how it pans out,” Corrigan said. “I just think it was a great decision by the league and by Notre Dame.”