Notre Dame is 1-2 and out of the College Football Playoff picture barring some sort of nationwide meltdown affecting dozens of other teams that have come out of the gates better than the Irish. Brian Kelly’s team appears to be deeply flawed on defense and must find answers soon to salvage a 10-2 — or even 9-3 — season.
The push for Notre Dame to renounce its independent status and join a conference has never fully pierced the resolve of the powers-that-be in South Bend. The desire to remain a unicorn persists. Every one of the Power Fives would gladly embrace a golden crown jewel into the fold. Suitor after suitor has been rebuffed.
It’s time for the Irish to at least reconsider accepting a rose, to transition from its freewheeling bachelor life and find security with a supportive partner.
Being single has its merits. No one is telling you what to do or spend your NBC money. No one is hamstringing trips out to the West Coast to play USC and Stanford. No one is scheduling a couples retreat that conflicts with the Shamrock Series. No one is suggesting you stop seeking publicity in lieu of spending time with your in-conference family.
But marriage provides a support system, a safety net there to catch you when you fall. In the playoff era, a conference’s biggest selling point is the ability provide teams with opportunity to clean up its self-inflicted messes.
Like the best people, even elite teams screw up. What Notre Dame does not currently have is the ability to make it better. They can’t buy flowers by winning a conference title. They can’t prove they’ve changed with a 13th data point a championship game offers.
Notre Dame travels a more treacherous road to the final four than Power Five teams. They must go undefeated. If that fails, they must trust the selection committee to value their body of work at the expense of a Power Five winner. Admitting this reality is the first step.
No one should be holding their breath on the Irish going against tradition and become like everyone else. They have their reasons and they’re good ones. They may outweigh the desire to win national championships in football. If they don’t, strong consideration should be given to calling an audible.
The timing is right for Notre Dame to finally do what many college football fans have wanted them to do.
Notre Dame already competes in the ACC and and the talent-rich states the conference covers. They are contractually obligated until 2025. The ACC offers a title game with fewer traditional powers standing in the way every year. But the ACC is not the ideal landing place for Notre Dame.
South Bend is right in the heart of the Big Ten footprint. Three of the Irish’s traditional rivals are within driving distance. The conference is in the midst of a resurgence thanks to Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh. Some of the joking slights have lost their zing as the gulf between the top of the Big Ten and SEC has seemingly shrunk (at least at the top).
It’s easy to see the football reasons for such a move. In addition to gaining the ability to add a conference crown to their resume, Notre Dame would get yearly matchups with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. A static crossover game against Purdue would ensure the continuation of three rivalry games and provide flexibility for the nonconference schedule. Louisville could be added to even up the divisions.
Playing in the Big Ten East means a reliably strong strength of schedule, especially if Penn State finds a way to return to its former glory. Whomever emerges from this division will be playing for a surefire invite to the playoff in the conference championship every year. Escaping the gauntlet undefeated by afford the victor a spot in the final four even if they lose the title game to the Big Ten West representative.
All of this, though, a pipe dream. Adding a fourth power to the Big Ten East would put pressure to balance with a similar addition to the West. Luring Texas up north is a tall, perhaps impossible order. Playing in the Big Ten would also erode and dull the unicorn’s horn. If for some reason Notre Dame was unable to compete for the conference crown for a prolonged period, it would be crushing to its public perception.
Notre Dame bleeds tradition. This would seem to be a solution that addresses a need while speaking to tradition. The university should ask itself if they’d gain more by this arrangement than they’d lose.
The Irish are in a unique situation. Part of that includes entering every season with a national title or bust mindset.
It won’t be an easy decision. This is simply a compromise that would be mutually beneficial and an exciting wrinkle in the college football landscape.