Explaining why the deal Notre Dame football has with the ACC will keep them from being forced into a conference, for the next fifteen years.
Notre Dame football isn’t going to join a conference any time soon. It’s a fun topic to debate, whether or not the Irish should join a conference. At this point, it’s a decades-old debate, and a fun one for the average college football fan to argue.
There was some thought that a year in the ACC, due to the pandemic, where Notre Dame got a taste of making the College Football Playoff with a loss would make them reconsider. They didn’t, and then there was a recommendation to expand the College Football Playoff to 12 teams, which effectively meant the Irish would never need to be in a conference to make the postseason.
From there, the talk died down a bit. Until, that is, the story about Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. Now, realignment talk is in full effect and that is always going to include the discussion around the Irish.
Is the game changing so much that Notre Dame needs to join a conference? What will it take?
Notre Dame football will not be joining a conference
The answer is simple, actually. No, Notre Dame football still has no interest in joining a conference, even if this realignment blows up CFP expansion for the time being. As far as what it will take to get Notre Dame football to join a conference, it would take the conferences getting sick enough of their independence to force them into a conference.
This would be reformatting the postseason to exclude teams not in a conference, meaning the Irish couldn’t win a national championship unless they joined a conference.
So, why wouldn’t that happen? Why wouldn’t the conferences try to squeeze the Irish into a conference, as Notre Dame is one of the few programs that can actually raise the value of a conference?
It all goes back to the ACC deal that Notre Dame has. The deal states that Notre Dame competes in the ACC for most of their sports, like basketball and baseball, while football gets to remain independent. The caveat is that they have to play five ACC teams annually in football. This deal goes through 2036, and during that time period, the only conference Notre Dame can join is the ACC.
This means that while the ACC desperately wants Notre Dame to join, they don’t currently have the leverage to force them to. They’re not going to get it anytime soon, either, because the reality is that Notre Dame joining the ACC is bad for the other major conferences.
Think about it like this-if Notre Dame joins the ACC they’ll only have three out of conference games to work with. That’s going to keep them from playing at least two PAC-12 teams annually, which is something the PAC-12 desperately needs.
Just like a program like Duke or Wake Forest benefits from the extra eyes of a Notre Dame game, so does that conference. For the SEC and B1G 10, they currently sit at the top of the college football power structure. Why would they want to make a structure that raises the ACC to their level? From there, conferences are just trying to assemble themselves and position themselves for the future. A power play against the Irish isn’t on the menu.
Put aside the fact that the Irish don’t need to join a conference, it’s better for most other teams that Notre Dame stays independent because if you’re not the one who benefits from that relationship with the Irish, then your position in the game is hurt by it.
Now, if the SEC swells into a 30 or 40 team conference, you may have to reconsider if you’re the Irish. If, in 2037, the conference commissioners think they can all make a play at Notre Dame and want to gamble on it, they may change the CFP structure to force it. Until then, though, Notre Dame is protected by its deal with the ACC from ever being forced into joining a conference.