By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) For Notre Dame, ranked No. 1 in the land with a single regular-season game remaining, the door to the national championship is wide open. But the door to the Big Ten? Well, that’s almost closed.
Back in September, when the Fighting Irish announced that they were kinda, sorta joining the ACC by agreeing to play a semi-league schedule in football and a full slate of games for its other sports, I shared my thoughts about a move that was hailed by most analysts across the country as super brilliant and really wise and great and stuff.
“I understand the reasons why Notre Dame is bolting to the ACC – most significantly, its ability to have the cake of conference affiliation, while being able to dine on football independence, too,” I wrote. “Nevertheless, I still think the Big Ten was the best fit for the Irish.
“Because, someday, in an age of superconferences (which most likely is still coming), a situation will arise where Notre Dame is going to have to join a league – all the way. And when that happens, its football program would have been a better fit in the Big Ten than the ACC, which will always be more of a basketball conference than it ever will be a football one. And, as we all know, football is what Notre Dame is really about. Today, tomorrow and forever.”
Well, flash forward two months, and that superconference situation has again arisen – far sooner than anyone imagined. This week, the Big Ten rocked the nation when word leaked that Maryland and Rutgers were bolting the ACC and Big East to become the 13th and 14th members of Jim Delaney’s favorite league.
So powerful were the tremors sent out by the seismic realignment news that it shook even the King of the ACC himself, Mike Krzyzewski. On Monday, Coach K told SI.com’s Pete Thamel that he’s worried about the future of the Atlantic Coast Conference, saying that “maybe we should have done something else” in regards to the ACC adding Notre Dame as a partial member. Krzyzewski, according to Thamel, mentioned perhaps the ACC should have considered adding UConn, Louisville or Rutgers.
“For my own conference,” Coach K lamented, “it’s time to circle wagons and take attendance and make sure we have who we have.”
As for the Fighting Irish, well, they should perhaps also be figuring out if they truly have who they want in terms of a future conference partner. Because, some day – perhaps soon – Notre Dame is going have to actually marry the ACC, and move in together.
Clearly, football independence is working right now for the Fighting Irish under Brian Kelly, seeing as how they’re undefeated and on pace to play in the BCS championship game in January. This season is the best for the Irish in almost 20 years.
However, the high may not last long. With the rapidly shifting sands of the NCAA, it’s unlikely that in the future independence is going to work for any football team that wants to be in the national championship picture.
Consider this: With the Big Ten moving to 14 teams, you can count on the fact that the conference will be moving up to 16 soon. The same almost certainly goes for the SEC and the Pac-12, which won’t hesitate to keep pace and gobble up other desirable members.
With those three 16-team superconferences formed, the ACC, Big 12 and Big East will then scramble to survive and form one of their own. Maybe two leagues will survive, or maybe it will be just one. Right now, remarkably enough, the Big 12 appears to be perhaps the most stable.
Whichever way that things go, however, Notre Dame in that scenario almost certainly will not be able to be a .5 in a 16.5-team superconference – scheduling would be a nightmare. As a result, the Irish will be forced to finally give up their treasured football independence.
And having already hitched its wagon to the ACC, Notre Dame almost certainly will have to go all in with that league, even if the ACC looks deeply undesirable in football by that point. Even worse, the conference might ultimately cease to exist altogether.
The Big Ten has two slots remaining before it almost surely closes its doors for good. It will be interesting to see which schools find safe haven in the stable conference’s wealthy harbor.
And it will be a shame that Notre Dame didn’t get there first.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.