Should Notre Dame Join the Big Ten?
Given the rapidly evolving landscape of college football, it may finally be time for Notre Dame to forgo its longstanding independence and join the conference.
- By recruiting new members, the Big Ten and the SEC are primed to dominate college football.
- Notre Dame football remains independent but competes in the ACC in other sports.
- The Big Ten has invited Notre Dame to join, but the university declined.
- Without a conference affiliation, Notre Dame risks becoming marginalized and losing millions in media revenue.
College football is playing its own peculiar version of musical chairs these days, reshuffling conferences and relocating major programs in an ever-escalating battle for ratings and money.
But each time the music stops, there's a chair reserved for the belle of the ball, one with a history of playing hard to get: the University of Notre Dame.
Is it finally time for Notre Dame football to join a conference? And is the Big Ten the best option?
What's Happening in College Football?
If you're having trouble keeping up with the latest changes to the college football landscape, you're not alone. It can be downright confusing.
Conference memberships, for one, often defy logic. The Big Ten features 14 schools — for now. The Big 12 has 10. At least the Pac-12 can count.
Names are essentially meaningless. The Mid-American Conference includes a school in New York, which isn't exactly mid anything. But five colleges in the Midwest are in the Big East. The Atlantic Coast Conference has two schools nowhere near the Atlantic Coast. Conference USA, however, has everything covered.
Eight years ago, the NCAA adopted a new world order within major college football by creating the "Power 5" collection of conferences. The Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, the ACC, and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) would have the autonomy to create their own set of rules and, effectively, keep all the other conferences on the sidelines in the race for national supremacy.
Colleges in the remaining conferences would be left pressing their noses against the glass.
More recently, the Power 5 has become the Power 3 and appears headed toward a Power 2. The SEC dominates college football, leaving the Big Ten and the ACC a few table scraps in its wake. Of the last 16 college football championships, the SEC has won 12. Clemson University, from the ACC, won two; Florida State University, another ACC school, won one; and THE Ohio State University, from the Big Ten, also won one.
Now the SEC stands poised to become even more dominant. Beginning in 2025, traditional Big-12 football juggernauts the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma will be new members, joining perennial powers such as the University of Alabama, Auburn University, and the University of Georgia, the reigning champs.
As a counterpunch, the Big Ten recently announced the addition of the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) — two stalwart programs in the Pac-12.
This realignment distances the SEC and the Big Ten from the other Power 5 conferences. Given the defections within their ranks, the Pac-12 and Big 12 are eyeing a potential merger. Fans of the ACC are reeling from rumors that the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, Florida State, and Clemson might leave the ACC for the SEC. The University of Miami may be in tow.
If those schools do join the SEC, it could be game over for the rest of college football. What possible ace in the hole could the Big Ten play?
Notre Dame's Unique Position in College Football
Notre Dame's gridiron lore reaches almost mythic proportions. The Four Horsemen. Win one for the Gipper. Touchdown Jesus. Gold helmets with real gold. Rudy. Eight national championships. Seven Heisman Trophy winners. Think of the history of college football and you think Notre Dame.
The university also boasts a strong academic tradition to complement its athletic prowess. Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated calls Notre Dame a "one-of-a-kind football-academic-marketing powerhouse." He notes it's the only school in the country ranked among the top 20 in both the U.S. News & World Report rankings and football attendance.
Among major football programs, Notre Dame is something of a unicorn, the only school without a conference affiliation. Since 1892, it has operated as an "independent" entity. Unencumbered by a conference schedule, Notre Dame is free to play a roster of schools coast to coast, appealing to its national fan base.
The university also has its own broadcasting contract for football. Since 1991, NBC has aired every Notre Dame home game. Its current contract with the network, which runs through 2025, pays the university $15 million per year.
That may seem like a sizable chunk of change, but it pales in comparison to what some other universities are raking in. Big Ten schools earn about $31.4 million annually from the conference's TV deal with Fox and ESPN. The league earns $440 million per year from its TV contracts, which are due to expire next year. Some estimates suggest a new deal for the Big Ten could be worth as much as $1.1 billion annually.
As new members of the Big Ten, UCLA and USC could earn up to $100 million per year, more than twice what they're making in the Pac-12.
Why Would Notre Dame Join a Conference?
Amid all the conference gerrymandering, Notre Dame clings fiercely to its independence. What might make the university seek a conference home for its football program?
As long as Notre Dame has a route to the national football championship, it has no competitive reason to join a conference. Under the current College Football Playoff structure, instituted 10 years ago, four teams selected by the playoff committee compete for the national championship.
The current structure is set to expire after the 2025 season. It's anyone's guess as to what the next iteration will entail.
In this Wild West atmosphere of college football, anything is possible. We're in an age of unprecedented fluidity. Longstanding conferences are morphing and merging. Athletes are jettisoning among institutions through the transfer portal in search of bigger and better name, image, and likeness deals.
Who's to say that when the conference-realignment dust settles, at least for now, the Big Ten and SEC don't stage their own title game to determine college football's putative champion? That would render independent Notre Dame irrelevant and leave them jonesing for a conference invite.
The second factor is money. Notre Dame stands to make far more as a conference member than as an independent, at least judging by current contracts.
"There is no financial advantage to Notre Dame being independent," Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick told The Athletic. "It costs us money."
With Notre Dame already under contract with NBC, might the network make a play for the Big Ten's media rights when the deal with ESPN and Fox expires next year? One source told Front Office Sports that NBC views the Notre Dame-Big Ten combination as a "perfect one-two punch."
What Are Notre Dame's Options?
Should Notre Dame decide to pursue conference membership, the Big Ten is the most logical choice. Many of Notre Dame's traditional rivals are Big Ten schools, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Purdue University, and Penn State University. Another annual opponent, USC, will soon be among that Big Ten brotherhood.
And the Big Ten would welcome Notre Dame with open arms. In fact, the league recently tried to land Notre Dame along with USC to counter the SEC's addition of Texas and Oklahoma. When the Irish declined, UCLA became the next-best option.
Such a move assumes Notre Dame could somehow escape the grip of the ACC. Under its 2013 Grant of Rights agreement, were a school to leave the conference, it would still owe the ACC any media rights money it earned until 2036.
However, given that Notre Dame football doesn't compete in the ACC, that rule would apply only to its non-football revenues. Some observers claim the university could simply buy its way out of its ACC affiliation or challenge the contract in court.
There's little chance Notre Dame's football program would seek to join the ACC given the potential departure of several of its top schools for the SEC. And they're not about to leap into the raging dumpster fire out west engulfing the Big 12 and the Pac-12.
Could Notre Dame answer the siren song of the SEC should it be sounded?
Perhaps, though the conference doesn't appear to be a good academic "fit" for the university. In academic evaluations of major conferences, the Big Ten and ACC usually rank as the top two. The SEC doesn't offer a suitable profile on that front. Could Notre Dame maintain its academic standards as an SEC school?
All this really leaves Notre Dame two options — remain independent or join the Big Ten. Choosing the former means the university risks losing future championship opportunities, along with potentially millions of dollars, depending on how the playoff structure and television contracts shake out.
Joining the Big Ten Makes the Most Sense
Should it opt to join the Big Ten, it would codify its traditional rivalries and maintain its coast-to-coast footprint on the college football landscape.
Notre Dame is the hot free agent on the college football market. With it comes the promise of greater television contracts and national visibility. Winning championships, however, might be another matter.
Notre Dame's legend rests more on laurels than on recent accomplishments. Its last national championship was in 1989. Its last Heisman Trophy winner was in 1987. The Irish did finish the 2012 season ranked No. 1 but lost the title game to Alabama, 42-14. Two other appearances in the playoff semifinals, in 2019 and 2021, also resulted in lopsided losses.
Joining the Big Ten might bolster Notre Dame's recruiting prowess, particularly in light of the inexorable emergence of the Power 2, and help it reclaim some of that distant glory.
Perhaps it's time for the Irish to realize they need the Big Ten more than the Big Ten needs them.