SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When USC and UCLA announced their decision last week to join the Big Ten in 2024, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was watching closely. After all, every time the sport realigns, his program gets dragged into the conversation.
It was almost a year ago that those Big 12 co-founders announced their intent to join the SEC — a shocking move that eventually forced the Big 12 to piece itself together with BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF. It seemed like a blueprint for what happened this summer, as many in the Pac-12 were caught by surprise heading into a holiday weekend when two of its flagship programs opted for a wealthier conference with more exposure.
Now, all eyes are on Swarbrick, as the Irish are arguably the biggest X-factor in what happens next in realignment. While the Big Ten and SEC are flexing their financial muscles and poised to become the first 16-team superconferences by 2025, Notre Dame, the nation’s most recognizable independent, remains free from the turmoil and instead in an enviable position — in high demand.
Would Notre Dame relinquish its historic independent status?
“We don’t feel any particular urgency,” Swarbrick told ESPN this week. “We think there’s ample time for us to let the landscape settle.”
While nothing is imminent, and the Irish might ultimately decide to stay solo, the university’s decision-makers are not naive to the sweeping changes that have engulfed college athletics. In a world with two 16-team superconferences (maybe more?), and power transitioning from the NCAA to the conference level, the conversations about remaining independent have shifted with the landscape.
As Notre Dame weighs its options, we take a look at the various pathways the school could go, as well as the logistics, pros and cons, of each.
‘Our independence makes us unique’
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, one of the program’s most prolific quarterbacks from 2010-13, appreciates the university’s history as both a coach and a former player.
“I understand why we’re independent,” Rees said this spring. “I understand why it’s important that we continue to be independent. I think as the college football landscape changes, we’re going to ultimately be put into a position where there’s a decision that’s going to have to be made.”
Swarbrick has been consistent in his reasoning for what might prompt Notre Dame to consider joining a conference.
“The three things that would make continuing as an independent unsustainable would be the loss of a committed broadcast partner, the loss of a fair route into the postseason, or such an adverse financial consequence that you had to reconsider,” said Swarbrick, a Notre Dame graduate who is entering his 15th season leading Irish athletics.
If “the loss of a fair route into the postseason” could be a factor, Swarbrick would be among the first to know about it. He is the only athletic director in the country with a seat on the CFP’s management committee, which is otherwise composed of the 10 FBS commissioners.
Swarbrick, along with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, outgoing Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, wrote the original proposal for an expanded 12-team playoff. In June 2021, the CFP began consideration of a model that would have included the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus the six highest-ranked other teams as determined by the CFP’s selection committee. There was no guarantee for conference champions, and no limit on the number of teams from a conference.
In theory, that model would still benefit an expanded Big Ten and SEC, as there would be more opportunities for more teams from their respective leagues. A larger field with more at-large bids would also continue to benefit Notre Dame as an independent. It’s highly unlikely the SEC would favor any playoff model that pushes Notre Dame toward the Big Ten, and Sankey and Swarbrick both voted in favor of the 12-team proposal in February.
One of the quirks of the original proposal was that Notre Dame and other independents couldn’t receive a bye because they don’t have the opportunity to win a conference championship. Swarbrick was still a staunch supporter of it, and remains one.
In a recent interview with ESPN, Swarbrick said he believes there are “definitely pros and cons” to operating as an independent as the CFP has committed to four more years in a four-team field.
“There are years where it will make it more difficult for you to make the playoff,” Swarbrick said. “We recognize that. But we’ve had a pretty darn good history of positioning ourselves to make the playoff during the first phase of its existence, and I think we can continue to down the road. There’s a very small number of schools that have been in the playoff more than Notre Dame.”
The selection committee’s written protocol holds independent programs (and any other teams that don’t win their conference championship) to a higher burden of proof than those with a conference title. The committee has to deem them “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country, but if a program like Notre Dame is already in the top four heading into conference championship weekend, it’s less likely to fall out on Selection Day because it doesn’t have to worry about a loss at the most critical time.
Notre Dame offensive lineman Josh Lugg said the players enjoyed their fleeting moment as members of the ACC during the 2020 pandemic-ravaged season, but there’s a greater appreciation among them for their independent status.
“I think that would be across the team,” he said this spring. “Everyone’s viewpoint is that our independence makes us unique. It’s pretty cool after Thanksgiving dinner to fly out to USC or Stanford every year to play those kind of rivalry games that exist within our program.”
One potential roadblock to continuing those rivalry games, along with its typically robust schedule, could be if the expanded versions of the SEC and Big Ten ultimately decide to play 10 conference games. That would leave teams with only two openings, and with such a rigorous league lineup, they might opt for an easier opponent, leaving Notre Dame with less scheduling inventory.
With no conference championship game, a challenging schedule is critical to impressing the CFP selection committee.
‘They know the ACC’s interest’
Notre Dame’s deal with the ACC, which runs through 2037 and requires the Irish to play five ACC opponents each year, allows for the Irish to participate in the ACC’s bowl tie-ins, and grants it access to the annual spotlight national game on Labor Day.
Under the current contract, Notre Dame is obligated to join the ACC if it ever decides it wants a conference home in football.
“They know the ACC’s interest,” commissioner Jim Phillips told reporters last summer. “It’s been less than bashful. It’s been less than bashful since I’ve been here. But I also respect where they’re at. I respect where we’re at.
“You always have to be ready to add,” he continued. “Notre Dame, contractually, if they were to join a conference, again structured by Commissioner [John] Swofford in 2013, would join the ACC. That’s where we’re at.”
Paul Finebaum and Heather Dinich break down why the college football landscape could be shaped by the potential of Notre Dame joining a conference.
A conference spokesperson told ESPN this week that nothing has changed from the league’s perspective. But according to a source, should Notre Dame ever decide to withdraw from the league in its non-football sports, the Irish would no longer be married to the ACC.
During the pandemic, when Notre Dame was a member of the ACC in football, the Irish finished No. 4 in the selection committee’s final ranking despite losing to Clemson in the ACC title game.
“I’ve been in college football for 11 years as a player and a coach, and that was my first chance to have that weekend,” Rees said. “I just viewed it as another opportunity. It’s a big game, and those big games just feel a little differently. That’s something that drives all of us.”
The ACC fared well financially with the addition of Notre Dame as a full member for one season during the COVID-19 pandemic. The league distributed an average of nearly $36.1 million to its schools, including roughly $34.9 million to Notre Dame. Still, Swarbrick said the entire experience wasn’t enough to sway university officials.
“I think most of the people here are very conscious of the benefits of independence and how that would change if you join a conference,” Swarbrick said. “We love the ability it gives us to play nationally, uniquely so. … We’ve played in more NFL markets and more NFL stadia than any other college program in the past 20 years and it’s not close. That’s first. Second is a unique broadcast relationship that allows us to be broadcast nationally every week and to have a quality of productions that’s as good as any in football.”
‘I hope it’s the Big Ten’
The ACC isn’t the only conference that has openly courted the Irish.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who was a member of Notre Dame’s 1973 national championship team and graduated from the university in 1977, said last week he would welcome his alma mater into the Big Ten.
“I don’t know what a next step would be [for Notre Dame],” Smith said, “but I hope they consider that opportunity, and I hope it’s the Big Ten.”
The Irish are such a valuable commodity that the SEC would also be interested, but multiple sources outside the SEC have said it’s geographically and philosophically a better fit with the Big Ten. It would also be in the same conference as rival USC.
“We’re kind of still in an evaluation mode,” one Big Ten source said this week, “but certainly Notre Dame, there’s no question they just move the needle differently than most schools.”
What often gets lost or forgotten in the public speculation of conference realignment, though, is that Notre Dame’s independence is central to its identity as an entire university — not just its football team. The ties in that storyline are strong with the Big Ten.
The program’s mystique stems from 11 consensus national championships over the course of six decades. Its football independence is woven equally as tightly into its history. It was created in large part out of necessity in the early 1900s after the Big Ten repeatedly rejected Notre Dame as a conference member. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany tried to lure the Irish into the league, but by that point, Notre Dame had built its brand and identity as an independent and refused to give it up.
“When the football program first started, that’s what we did. We went and we challenged anybody across the nation,” first-year coach Marcus Freeman said this spring. “We said, ‘We don’t need to be in a conference. Let’s go play the best team, let’s go challenge everybody.’ That’s who we are.
“Playing one of the toughest schedules in the country, which we do every year, is a risk, but that’s who we are at the core of our foundation. So I’ve embraced it. The championship, as long as you have a schedule that is justifiable to get you to the playoff, then that’s all that matters.”
‘Right here, right now’
If the recent power plays by the Big Ten and SEC aren’t enough to lure Notre Dame into a conference, that decision could someday boil down to its own success. Notre Dame has been one of the nation’s most consistent programs with five straight 10-win seasons, but a gap exists between the Irish, who haven’t won a national title since 1988, and the perennial contenders who are only going to get richer. Notre Dame hasn’t played for the national title since 2012, but behind Freeman, those within the program have strong belief it can reach the sport’s biggest stage as things are presently constructed.
“I don’t want to put it on Marcus,” Swarbrick said. “I absolutely believe Notre Dame can win the national championship in the next four years. … We’ve got to take care of our own destiny, but man, I don’t think there’s anybody in the country going to have a more rigorous schedule in the next four years than us to make the case.”
It’s not farfetched to think it could happen sooner than later, as Notre Dame is projected by many to be a top-10 team this preseason.
Notre Dame’s 36-year-old rookie head coach has skyrocketed into one of the sport’s most prestigious positions, as his coaching career began in 2010 after a short NFL career. Freeman was hired as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in 2021 after one season in the same position for Cincinnati.
When he interviewed with Swarbrick for the job, Freeman said he made it clear he thought the program had what it needed to win a national title.
“We have the things we need to be one of the best teams in the country,” Freeman said, “right here, right now.” Notre Dame’s independence has stood the test of time — through the BCS, multiple rounds of conference realignment, the past eight seasons in a four-team CFP field, and even a pandemic during which the Irish were a one-time member of the ACC in football.
Never before, though, has there been so much simultaneous change in college athletics while the Irish try to stay the same.
“It’s a big domino for sure,” one Power 5 athletic director said. “They play it pretty cool.”