Notre Dame may soon face the pressing need to join a conference in football. Their rightful home geographically, culturally and monetarily is the Big Ten, though cases are being made for other conferences. Less than a year ago, Andy Staples argued Notre Dame should join the Big East. Dan Wetzel makes a similar case for the ACC this year. I don’t understand it.
The Big Ten seems to be declining. However, we have short memories and we credit structure far too greatly over agency. Popular perceptions stem from how the top programs fare. The first argument for SEC ascendance? Five BCS titles. The first argument for Big Ten decline? No BCS titles in that span. The reason the pendulum swung in the SEC’s favor at the top is coaching.
Alabama and Florida maximized their potential in recent years. Two of the SEC’s top programs, they made A+ coaching hires (Meyer and Saban), maximized their potential and won BCS titles. Michigan and Penn State, in contrast, have woefully underperformed. Michigan had a decline under Lloyd Carr followed by an apocalypse. Penn State has been in a state of stasis for the better part of a decade waiting for Paterno to retire. Michigan and Penn State recover. Florida and Alabama decline and suddenly the Big Ten is the it conference.
Notre Dame is not necessarily limiting its recruiting base joining the Big Ten. Wetzel argues the ACC would offer greater access to the South for recruiting. I think that point is overstated. First, because Big Ten teams play in the “fertile recruiting grounds.” In the ACC, Notre Dame might play one or two conference road games in the coveted South Carolina, Georgia, Florida area. Look at the bowl games, however. The Big Ten offers two BCS bids almost every year (one guaranteed in Los Angeles) and three New Years Day games in Florida. During a truly incompetent season, Notre Dame might have to slum it a week in one of the two Teas bowls. That’s a week, not jetting in on a Friday during midseason.
Notre Dame is a national program. Part of the reason is playing games nationally, but a greater part is the school’s traditional fan base is primarily ethnic and religious, not regional. Catholic immigrants who became fans procreated and spread their fans throughout the country. Notre Dame won’t lose those fan pockets playing in the Big Ten. Another huge reason is Notre Dame was always on television and radio. It was pivotal then and it’s even more essential now.
The Big Ten can match and even expand Notre Dame’s television appeal. The ACC needs Notre Dame to get itself on national television. The Big Ten has a far bigger audience. Notre Dame would play rivalry games with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. It would play spectacle games with Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Add in USC and perhaps a neutral site every year. That’s a better television lineup than it has as an independent. Being on a kid’s social media radar and being thrown into ESPN’s promotion machine will be more important than playing a game in their geographic region.
Recruiting is changing. The sport is becoming increasingly national rather than regional. Money is pouring into it. Boundaries are being broken down. The Midwest population is declining. That doesn’t mean Big Ten schools won’t adjust. You have a school like Oregon with no local base stealing recruits out of USC’s backyard in California and making raids in Florida and Texas. Stanford (yes, Stanford) is pulling kids from Georgia. What happens when Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State start doing that with their resources? Demographics makes things more difficult, but it’s no death sentence.
Notre Dame shouldn’t join the ACC, because it’s bigger than the ACC. The ACC has had its present lineup since 2004. How many college football fans can name the divisions and slot the 12 teams into the right ones without googling it? What would an ACC team do if the Big Ten expressed interest? Schedule a meeting. What would a Big Ten team do if the ACC expressed interest? Laugh.
The Big Ten is higher-profile, more exclusive, more stable, more lucrative and a more natural fit. It would let Notre Dame keep virtually all of its key rivalry games. It has a business model built for independent, longterm success without Notre Dame, which is exactly why they would choose it.
[Photo via Getty]