Notre Dame big fish in ACC’s pond

If it was possible for Notre Dame to come up with the perfect way to dip its football program’s toes into the conference waters, it might have just found it

The school’s move to the ACC will have a more immediate impact for a basketball program, ditching the Big East for a more lucrative national profile, but it’s the right move at the right time for the football program, too, even though it’s not jumping in with both feet.

Notre Dame is getting everything it wants. It gets to remain relatively independent in football. It gets to keep its status as a national program with games down the road vs.Texas and Arizona State to go along with the regular matchups with Michigan, Navy, and of course, USC. It gets to see how the new TV agreements shake out before having to make a call on whether or not the money might be better once everyone figures out exactly how the new playoff format is going to work. And in terms of focus and attention, the move ends all the speculation about the future while quieting down those screaming that the Irish football program needs to join a conference.

Football-wise, the Big East would have allowed Notre Dame to be the anchor and star of a mediocre league, but that wouldn’t have been prestigious or splashy enough. The Big Ten was never, ever, ever going to happen considering both sides went out of their way in recent years to reject the other; the Irish didn’t want to share any of the spotlight with Michigan and Ohio State and the Big Ten didn’t kiss the ring and come up with a sweetheart of a deal.

The SEC was never going to happen because the academics aren’t up to snuff, and there was no way the football program was going to allow itself to be swallowed up whole by the monster while becoming a perennial also-ran. The Big 12 was a rumor, but academics were also a concern along with the same Big Ten-like issues in terms of the conference’s focus with Texas the anchor and Oklahoma the star.

The ACC works.

Florida State is still a name program, but it’s not Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, USC or Alabama in terms of being bigger than Notre Dame in size and scope. The same goes for Virginia Tech and Miami, meaning Notre Dame won’t play second banana to anyone in the league football-wise.

It also makes sense in terms of the upcoming playoff format. With a committee choosing the four teams in the playoff starting in the 2014 season, having a great schedule is a plus and not being fully tied into a conference really matters.

The one stated aspect the new playoff committee will be looking for is a conference championship, but that won’t apply to the Irish because they won’t be in the ACC title chase. Instead, a committee can look at the body of work and apply a little wiggle room, rather than eliminate the team if it doesn’t win a conference title.

Take this season for example: If Notre Dame goes 10-2 with one of college football’s toughest schedules, and those two losses come in close games on the road to USC and Oklahoma, a committee might look at that and give the Irish a break for its two forgivable defeats. With the half-in, half-out approach to the ACC, Notre Dame can have most of the benefits of being in a conference, while still maintaining its ability to be judged as an independent.

There’s also the matter of the fallback in terms of a bowl slot. Assuming the Irish don’t get into the BCS, there isn’t a sure-thing bowl tie-in of significance this year. Of course some bowl will weasel out of whatever deal it has in place if needed, but as things are set up right now, it’s going to take a conference not filling out its slots for the Irish to find a postseason home. The Pac-12 probably won’t have enough tie-ins for all its eligible teams and there’s a chance the Big 12, Conference USA and the Big East will have more than enough teams for their spots. With the partial move to the ACC, Notre Dame can find a way to assure itself of one of the league’s better bowl ties, but without needing to be a part of the conference race to get it.

And now the ACC can now look at the long view and try to calm down the impulsive nature of conference realignment. By doing this move, the ACC is telling Virginia Tech, Florida State, Miami and others that it plans on making sticking around the right play financially, and emphasizing the point with a whopping $50 million exit fee.

After it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Virginia Tech was gone to the SEC once everyone got used to the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M, and with all the talk Florida State and Miami moving to the Big 12, now the ACC seems like more of a destination. Clemson probably isn’t going to jump ship any time soon, and any speculation that North Carolina might be sniffing around the various possibilities might be gone. Notre Dame is the cash cow and the key piece in any television negotiation, and even if it’s not fully involved, having five games with the Irish as part of a package will still work.

The ACC is still alive, the Notre Dame national profile and brand are still in place and strengthened, and now the superconferences are growing and getting even stronger.

Notre Dame is getting its cake, and eating it, too.

You expected something different?