Notre Dame has everything it wants, so why would it stay in the ACC long term?

Dan Wetzel
·5 min read

Clearly, Notre Dame’s short-term, pandemic-inspired, shotgun marriage with the ACC has been a success for both sides.

The Irish, briefly facing a gutted 2020 schedule, are 10-0 and likely headed to the College Football Playoff no matter what happens in Saturday’s ACC title game against Clemson.

Meanwhile, the ACC has found a rival for Dabo Swinney’s Tigers while enjoying the massive television bump Notre Dame football can provide — Saturday’s audience should be a record for the title game.

That’s left plenty of people wondering if this should be a more permanent union — namely, should Notre Dame join the ACC for good?

No. Notre Dame shouldn’t.

And just as importantly, the ACC shouldn’t want them.

These two are far better off in the friend zone, linked but not joined. The benefit they provide each other is considerable, but with limits.

Every conference wants a program such as Notre Dame — a great brand that generates television ratings and ticket sales. The Big Ten tried to get them for decades. The Irish are so coveted, the ACC has been willing to accept most of the school’s other athletic teams in exchange for an annual five-game schedule agreement in football.

When the Irish invariably come to town (whether it’s Boston or Miami or Winston-Salem), it’s the biggest (or close to it) game of the year, if not years. That’s a gold standard built up through over a century of championship teams, fawning media attention and Hollywood movies.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly looks on before a bowl game against Iowa State on Dec. 28, 2019. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly looks on before a bowl game against Iowa State on Dec. 28, 2019. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the ACC is good for Notre Dame, providing a base of scheduling certainty and lots of major showdown games — especially with brand names such as Clemson, Florida State and Miami.

Yet you can have too much of a good thing and any setup that curbs Notre Dame’s ability to schedule games in every corner of America should be avoided.

The Irish thrive on a potent, but very particular, recipe.

Like all programs, it needs a great coach (in this case Brian Kelly). It also needs the ability to stretch its recruiting far from its South Bend, Indiana base. It is a somewhat limited pool of players who are attracted to, and then capable of thriving, under the school’s academic standards and campus life. It can’t just count on in-state or local talent. It has to find guys.

To do that, it needs to go everywhere. There aren’t enough players in the Midwest — and too many other tradition-rich programs with glorious stadiums. Notre Dame can be good, but not a national contender.

That’s why even though the Big Ten may be a better fit in terms of proximity, the ACC is far better for recruiting. The Irish have been able to get a foothold in the talent-rich Southeast by regularly playing in or against teams from that region (not to mention Western Pennsylvania, New England and New York), while still doing well in the Midwest.

The ACC/Notre Dame partnership got fully rolling in 2015. Since then, the program has surged — five 10-win seasons and likely a second playoff appearance. It appears to be getting increasingly stronger. Seven recruits who signed with Notre Dame on Wednesday hailed from the Southeast.

But that’s just part of the mix. Having just five ACC games means the Irish have seven open dates to go coast to coast. That includes playing each season in California against either USC (Los Angeles) or Stanford (Bay Area). The Navy game and the annual “Shamrock Series” get played all over — San Diego, Jacksonville, MetLife Stadium, San Antonio, or even Dublin, Ireland, Yankee Stadium, Fenway and Lambeau (canceled due to COVID-19, but still).

Then it can pick and choose short series with other major national programs — past and future opponents include Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Georgia, Texas A&M, Cal, Arkansas and so on.

No one in America plays such a diverse and built-for-attention slate of games. Recruits notice. Despite not being able to bring any prospects onto campus for an official visit, Kelly signed 24 kids from 14 states on Wednesday.

This is the formula that works — a great coach leveraging independence to find that elusive player who fits at the institution.

If you change that — if Notre Dame no longer plays annually in California, for example — then is quarterback Ian Book (El Dorado Hills) or defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey (Antioch) starring for them Saturday?

Basically, would Notre Dame be able to recruit the same level talent if it was anchored to the ACC for eight or nine games each fall? The Irish would then be a Midwestern school in an East Coast/Southeastern league. It would likely do fine, but would it do this fine?

That’s one very big risk to take.

The current system is working because the current system works. Notre Dame gets just enough from the ACC while maintaining just enough of its national presence to max things out.

Because of that, the Irish provide great value to the ACC, even if it’s on a partial scale. More might bring less, for both sides.

The ACC and Notre Dame courtship has been fun this year. But they are both better off just being friends.

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