Over the last week or so, a steady stream of college coaches have taken to their bully pulpits to make the argument that Notre Dame should have to join a conference and/or play a 13th game to be eligible for the College Football Playoff. It’s a topic that’s generated plenty of buzz — the season’s just over a month away, thankfully — though in reality, it’s a pointless debate.
Money drives college football. It's why Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers are in the Big Ten. It's why Colorado and Utah are in the Pac-12. It's why Mizzou and Texas A&M are in the SEC. It's why Syracuse and Pitt are in the ACC. And it's why a number of traditional and/or heated rivalries — like Notre Dame-Michigan — are dormant.
All this talk emanated from ESPN’s “Car Wash,” which puts college coaches on a media blitz in Bristol before preseason camp starts next month. After Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said Notre Dame should have to join a conference within a year because “they don’t have independents in the NFL,” the likes of Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Duke’s David Sutcliffe, Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer and North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren jumped on board with the idea of requiring the Irish to play an added game or fully join a league.
Gary Pinkel said no independents in @CFBPlayoff. “Give Notre Dame year to join a league. They don’t have independents in NFL"
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 20, 2015
Dabo Swinney agrees w/Gary Pinkel: “Absolutely Notre Dame needs to be in conference or play 13 games to be in @CFBPlayoff"
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 27, 2015
Add Jimbo Fisher, David Cutcliffe, Frank Beamer & Dave Doeren to list who believe Notre Dame should be in league/play 13 games
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 28, 2015
There are plenty of reasons why all this chatter doesn’t carry any weight. First, it’s all coming from coaches, who wield a fraction of the power athletic directors, conference commissioners and the College Football Playoff selection committee does. And ACC commissioner John Swofford seems fine with his conference’s arrangement with the Irish.
— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) July 28, 2015
Having Notre Dame play five games against ACC opponents per year (four in 2014, six in 2015 due to scheduling constraints) helps from a strength of schedule standpoint but more importantly from a monetary standpoint. The cheapest ticket on StubHub.com for this fall’s Notre Dame-Virginia game in Charlottesville is $79, while fans can get in the door for a mid-October game against Syracuse for as cheap as $17. Tickets are often hard to come by when Notre Dame rolls into town, and that’s a huge boost for athletic departments.
It would take a consortium of athletic directors and conference commissioners to pressure the selection committee into only picking teams that’ve played 13, not 12, games to get Jack Swarbrick & Co. to even consider ending Notre Dame’s football independence. But even if they pressured the selection committee, they’d have to convince ESPN to forgo a potential ratings boon and exclude Notre Dame from the competition.
That seems incredibly unlikely. ESPN/ABC routinely puts Notre Dame in prime time even when it plays mediocre opponents like Pitt, Purdue and Syracuse, and last year’s loss to Florida State in Tallahassee became the most-watched non-BCS game on ABC in two years. The game it beat out? 2012’s Notre Dame-USC game.
The SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 have their own networks, as does the University of Texas. The latter — the Longhorn Network — is one of the core reasons why the latest cycle of conference realignment began back in 2010. Ratings matter, and Notre Dame gets ratings.
There’s the whole other issue, too, of Notre Dame being dinged for only playing 12 games by the selection committee. We’re only one year into the playoff, but Baylor and TCU were left out of the four-team bracket in favor of four teams that played 13 games in 2014. An 11-1 Notre Dame team might have a difficult time beating out a 12-1 conference champion.
But for Notre Dame to hit the panic button and join a conference — which would have to be the ACC, as per the university’s deal with Swofford’s league — would be short-sighted. Coach Brian Kelly is on record saying he expects the College Football Playoff to consider expanding to at least eight teams in the future, which wouldn’t be a surprise given how good the ratings were for the two semifinals and championship in its inaugural year.
Assuming the playoff does grown to eight teams, Notre Dame could certainly get in the field with an 11-1 record. The first four teams left out last year all played a dozen games and went 11-1 (Baylor and TCU) or 10-2 (Mississippi State and Michigan State). It might lead to a couple of nervous Novembers in South Bend, but there’s no reason for Notre Dame to give up its independence if the playoff ultimately will double its field.
So unless the NCAA (or, let’s be honest, Power Five commissioners) granted independent programs a waiver to play a 13th game that doesn’t involve a trip to play Hawaii in Honolulu, Notre Dame is sticking to 12 games. It’s not easy to see why. Just follow the money and not the hot takes from other coaches.