Why Notre Dame's ACC deal was genius - 'I couldn't get Jesus tickets'

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist

No. 6 Notre Dame plays at No. 12 Clemson on Saturday and interest is so high that, as Tigers coach Dabo Swinney put it: "I couldn't get Jesus tickets."

This is saying something if only because Swinney is a devout Evangelical Christian who would pretty much do anything for Jesus. Of course, down in South Carolina, Jesus doesn't have his own mural to peer into the stadium and signal touchdown, the way he does in South Bend. At least not yet.

This is what happens when the Fightin' Irish come to town. You have to start measuring things by Biblical standards. Television ratings soar. Recruits flock for visits. And that secondary market overheats – lower sideline tickets on StubHub on Tuesday night were $1,200 each. The same rows were just $140 for the following week against Georgia Tech.

This is why, much to Swinney and many others' chagrin, Notre Dame football isn't joining a conference anytime soon.

As much as fans of other programs and plenty of the media like to point to the team's only sporadic success on the field of late and declare it a non-factor in the sport, the reality is Old Notre Dame can still wake up the cash registers cheering her name.

The precise hoopla that Swinney acknowledges the Irish are bringing to Clemson this weekend is the very reason the ACC extended a sweetheart deal to the program – all other sports are full members and football gets five games against conference teams a year.

Brian Kelly and the Irish are a perfect 4-0 , but they face a big road test at Clemson. (AP)
Brian Kelly and the Irish are a perfect 4-0 , but they face a big road test at Clemson. (AP)

As such, Notre Dame is a pseudo ACC member, getting the benefit of playing lots of games in the talent-rich Southeast while maintaining scheduling flexibility that allows it to continue to schedule nationally.

It also means the Irish don't compete in the ACC standings and aren't obligated to play in the league championship game. That automatically limits their season to 12 games a year. This rankles Swinney and others who don't think that's fair if Notre Dame wants to be considered for the College Football Playoff. If Notre Dame was in the ACC, then in good seasons it would be forced to play 13 times (with a league championship game).

"I think they should have to play 13 games," Swinney said on Tuesday. "I mean, to me, I feel, not just them, same thing with the Big 12 [which also lacks a championship game]. I don't think that's fair. I don't think it's equitable …"

"How many [teams are in the NFL]?" Swinney continued. "Thirty-two NFL teams? OK, well, if 27 of them have to play 16 games and then the other five play 15 games, well, that doesn't seem right to me, but that's the way it is."

Swinney is willing to speak his mind on all sorts of topics, and that is commendable. He's a good guy, really easy to like. It's just he probably hasn't thought this one through – he's busy with his own job after all and notes that he really doesn't care about the issue. Someone asked him a question, though, so he answered. That's fine.

It's just he – and other coaches – are completely wrong because college football has never had equitable or uniform schedules. As such, how many games are played (quantity) is far less important than who they are actually being played against (quality).

Notre Dame attempts to play an unquestionably ambitious schedule every year, filled with more than enough really challenging games. More specifically, it has never played a team from the former Division I-AA, dragging in a true cupcake. Clemson, among others, does – Wofford this year, South Carolina State next, the Citadel in 2017 and Furman in 2018.

If Notre Dame joined the ACC full-time, dropped one strong non-conference game in lieu of a patsy and then got forced into the title game, the 13-game season would be no more challenging than the current 12-game slate. It's all the same. The only difference is it would get this mind-numbing criticism to go away.

During the great conference realignment of a couple years back, though, Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame athletic director, deftly landed the current deal with the ACC.

While everyone was clamoring for the Irish to join their Midwestern neighbors in the Big Ten – they were invited multiple times – Notre Dame looked for a better option.

The chief concern was getting landlocked in a cold region with poor long-term demographic trends.

In purely football terms, Notre Dame doesn't struggle to recruit in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan now. It's local, but offers a national platform. Playing in the Big Ten would actually lessen that appeal because the upcoming nine-game conference slate the league is instituting would crush the Irish's ability to play across the country. It would suddenly be just another storied program in the area with an enormous stadium and a great fight song.

Instead Brian Kelly can play in markets – and against teams from those markets – where the best high school players are. This is a priority for every coach in America. In the case of the ACC, that means the Southeast areas of Florida, Atlanta, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky. Of the current Rivals.com top 100 recruits, 32 hail from the ACC's southern states.

Backup QB DeShone Kizer had filled in just fine for Notre Dame after it lost starter Malik Zaire for the season. (Getty)
Backup QB DeShone Kizer had filled in just fine for Notre Dame after it lost starter Malik Zaire for the season. (Getty)

Meanwhile Boston College, Syracuse and Pitt allow entry into the traditional Northeast base against teams with longstanding rivalries.

More important, by playing just five ACC games a year, Notre Dame can still play two California rivalry games – Stanford and USC – continue with Navy and get Michigan State and Purdue most years. It also is able to add various other intriguing series – currently Notre Dame has one with Texas but future home-and-homes are signed with Georgia, Ohio State and Texas A&M. Michigan might even come back one day. And there is always the Shamrock Series; one-off games Notre Dame takes on the road, from Washington and Dallas to Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.

Consider the 2016 schedule: Michigan State, Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech, Duke and Nevada will visit South Bend. Games played elsewhere will be in Austin, Texas; New York (East Rutherford, N.J.); Raleigh, N.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; San Antonio; and Los Angeles.

This is the best of all worlds for Notre Dame. Swarbrick couldn't have shepherded the program any better than this. He leveraged its historic power to maximize recruiting and exposure.

And while the ACC may look a little desperate for agreeing to a part-time deal with the Irish, it's already proven worth it. Last year's Notre Dame trip to Florida State was one of the most hyped and most watched games of the year.

Expect something similar for this one against Clemson, a contest so big that Dab couldn't get Jesus a ticket. That's the surest sign that Notre Dame isn't joining a conference – any conference – anytime soon.