As Duke’s student managers posed for pictures in front of Touchdown Jesus through the open archways of Notre Dame Stadium, thousands of grumbling Notre Dame fans trudged past into the bright sunlight of what had become, for them, a very gloomy afternoon.
Last Saturday’s loss to Duke not only dropped the Irish to 1-3, a state of affairs which exponentially compounded whatever discontent there would have been over losing to Duke at home, but was yet another incremental nudge pushing Notre Dame football toward the ACC.
Notre Dame’s football independence remains sacrosanct, but even the Irish are not immune to the changing tides of college athletics, which is how they found themselves committed to five ACC games each season. Most observers assumed any scenario that drove them into the arms of the ACC would involve a good Notre Dame team, one that found itself the fifth wheel in the College Football Playoff because it didn’t have the opportunity to win a conference championship.
Maybe a bad Notre Dame team will be the catalyst for change.
There are eight games left in Notre Dame’s schedule, and with a national championship and CFP bowl off the table, the only incentive the Irish have left is keeping their coaches from getting fired. (And defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was already fired, after the Duke loss.) There’s no division championship to win, no conference title to chase, only the possibility of playing in one of the ACC’s lesser bowls.
If Notre Dame were in the ACC – and one provision of the ACC Network deal was that if the Irish join a conference in football, it can only be the ACC – a single Coastal Division loss wouldn’t be disqualifying, merely disheartening. The Irish would still have everything to play for, instead of nothing.
All of this remains a long way toward the hazy horizon, to be sure. First of all, Notre Dame’s deal with NBC runs through 2025, so there’s no incentive for the Irish to do anything until then, although NBC’s big bucks are somewhat dependent on the Irish remaining nationally relevant on an annual basis.
Still, eight years isn’t an eternity, especially now that Notre Dame is yoked to the ACC in perpetuity. The ACC has already shown a willingness to bend the rules on Notre Dame’s behalf – there’s still some grumbling from some old ACC quarters that the Irish were allowed to enter the current half-pregnant arrangement – so it isn’t inconceivable Notre Dame could preserve the NBC deal in some way as a full ACC member.
And there are issues that go beyond Notre Dame. Even if Notre Dame wanted to become the ACC’s 15th team, the ACC would need to add a 16th for balance. As the Big 12 can attest, the pool of expansion candidates is exceedingly shallow, and there are few that meet both the ACC’s academic and athletic standards. Barring a collapse of the Big 12 that makes Texas available, or Villanova jumping to FBS – the Wildcats are light years away from that, not to mention millions of dollars – only Navy makes sense.
It has the academic chops to fit in with the ACC, it would get the ACC back into the Washington market and it’s a traditional Notre Dame schedule partner, which allows the Irish to preserve an old rivalry. Would the ACC be willing to take Navy – solid in football and some non-revenue sports, but not anywhere close to ACC standards in basketball – if Notre Dame made it a package deal?
The Joyce Center, Notre Dame’s basketball arena, sits mere yards to the east of Notre Dame Stadium. Somewhere between the two facilities runs the theoretical (and disputed) border between the ACC and football independence.
That line keeps getting hazier with every season Notre Dame isn’t in the CFP. Someday, it might vanish entirely.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock