Notre Dame staying one step ahead of the ACC as the SEC shakes up college football

·4 min read

Everyone’s wondering what the ACC will do in response to the SEC adding Oklahoma and Texas, imminently, but the question shouldn’t be what the ACC should do but whether it should do anything at all.

It seems a little crazy to stand still and do nothing as expansion panic sweeps the land, yet again, but the ACC’s best move is just that. Nothing.

On the one hand, there aren’t any good options out there, no schools to poach who would be a net gain in terms of revenue or interest. On the other, the only move that does make sense for the ACC — adding Notre Dame as a full member — doesn’t make any sense for Notre Dame.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick have played this perfectly. Amid leadership turnover in the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, they used their positions on the CFP expansion committee to push a 12-team playoff format that served both of their interests, helping preserve Notre Dame’s football independence while removing one important reason why Texas and Oklahoma would stay in the Big 12 at a time negotiations with the SEC were secretly ongoing.

It’s hard to believe the other conferences would block the 12-team expansion out of spite when it’s going to be lucrative for all of them as well.

There are only two reasons Notre Dame would ever give up on football independence to join the ACC: Championship access and scheduling. The 12-team playoff takes care of the first because even without one of the byes that goes to conference champions, the Irish would rather their extra game be Coastal Carolina or Boise State at home than Clemson in Charlotte. (That elides the fact that losing to Clemson wouldn’t end Notre Dame’s season while an upset in the first round would, but if that’s the cost of independence, it’s a price Notre Dame is willing to pay.)

As for scheduling, the ACC accidentally dug its own hole on that one. Notre Dame is guaranteed five ACC games and in a pinch could play all three service academies. The Irish can cobble a respectable schedule together at that point no matter what else happens elsewhere.

Which makes what happened a year ago, when the ACC had all the leverage, such a missed opportunity.

Amid Texas and Oklahoma’s likely move to SEC, what are the ACC’s options?

COVID pushed the Irish to the scheduling brink, shut out of so many of its usual options. The way events have unfolded, that might have been the ACC’s last chance to squeeze the Irish intot he fold. The ACC presidents did Notre Dame a favor when they should have looked after themselves.

Adding Notre Dame is likely the only thing that’s going to prise more money out of ESPN before 2035. West Virginia isn’t going to move the needle. Nor is Cincinnati or Kansas or anyone else. Not compared to the super-sized SEC.

All that said, is it the worst thing in the world?

There is already a revenue gap with the SEC and Big Ten, and that gap may grow. But it hasn’t stopped Clemson from winning national titles. It hasn’t stopped Mack Brown from turning North Carolina around on a dime. It’s not why Virginia Tech has withered since Frank Beamer retired or why Florida State is residing in the where-are-they-now file. And so on. The ACC’s football problems aren’t financial, not at heart.

As the money piles up in the SEC, and it will, it’s going to morph into a minor-league football circuit that also offers other sports. When Dabo Swinney complains about the professionalization of college sports, this is it, not players getting a piece of the action.

The football-obsessed SEC fan will probably still buy into that, but is there a breaking point elsewhere in college athletics as the traditional bonds that brought like-minded schools together in athletic competition are replaced by TV networks and numbers on a balance sheet? Local rivalries — within states, across borders — have always been the plasma of college sports. Their increasing deprioritization is a risk, even if no one has yet paid a real price for it.

The ACC has never fully incorporated the former Big East schools into the fold — and sometimes even still misses Maryland, even if no one wants to admit it. There’s no reason to further dilute the spirit and character of the ACC by adding another school that doesn’t fit with what made the ACC great in the first place just for the sake of adding.

Better to sit tight, focus on what the ACC can control, take a longer view and start planning ahead for 2030 or so, when it starts to become more financially viable for, say, Clemson to jump to the SEC. As long as Notre Dame holds all the cards, the ACC’s best move is not to move at all.