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Leftovers & Links: Time is Notre Dame’s ally, for now, in independence as Big Ten and SEC grow

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Notre Dame at Georgia

ATHENS, GA - SEPTEMBER 21: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick talks with former Pittsburgh Steeler running back Jerome Bettiis before the game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on September 21, 2019 at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The thing about existential crises is, by definition, they cover too much vague ground to be considered in one swoop. To handle them correctly, or just responsibly, time must be taken.

Notre Dame will take its time as it considers the existential crisis being imposed upon its football program and athletics department as a whole. The Irish did nothing to spur this along aside from stick to their long-held tenets of independence, yet this tipping point has arrived, nonetheless. Last week’s moves from USC and UCLA into the Big Ten, effective in 2024, guaranteed as much.

But that is still two years from now. Know what comes between now and then? A-whole-nother summer.

It was less than a year ago, but still last summer, that these inevitabilities gained that descriptor of “inevitable” when Texas and Oklahoma announced they would head to the SEC effective in 2025. That timing could still move forward by a year or two, but each passing week without an agreement with the Big 12 lessens the chances of “or two.”

So the figurative arms race that is unfolding between the SEC and the Big Ten will not become immediate reality for another 24 months. For scheduling purposes, that gives Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick about 12 months to strategize.

Making a definitive move quicker than that would be rash given all that is at stake for Swarbrick and the University as a whole.

Obviously, money is involved. Irish fans may insist remaining independent is worth whatever lost revenue, but they are not the ones in budget meetings trying to figure out how to afford assistants getting counter offers from the SEC or how to hire as many analysts as fill the football facilities in Columbus. Those are annual costs requiring annual incomes, not ephemeral donations from ethereal boosters. Those idealistic fans are not the ones whose livelihoods hinge on keeping up with the multiplying and proverbial Joneses.

That money largely comes from TV deals now, and some may worry Notre Dame needs to tell the Big Ten its plans before the conference firms up its new TV deal to go into effect in 2023, but any such TV contract will include mulitple clauses spurring renegotiation if the Big Ten adds any teams. That exact reasoning is why the ACC hopes to pull in the Irish, to reopen a pitiful TV deal otherwise locked in until 2036.

RELATED READING: What will the Big Ten’s new TV deal look like? Here’s what we know (as of June 14)

TV has always been the keystone to Notre Dame’s independence. Frankly, it is why this scribe collects a paycheck. (Let’s be clear here: This scribe is corporate levels away from being levels away at NBC to having any idea where all this will go.) There is no doubt the Irish will continue to have national TV access; branding is increasingly what makes the world go round. And while NBC may not be willing to meet the excess coming to USC and UCLA by joining the Big Ten, it is presumably prepared to increase its annual payment when the current agreement with Notre Dame expires after the 2025 season. (Again, this reporter has absolutely no inside information on this front, only the same logic you all presumably enjoy.)


That make championship access Swarbrick’s biggest wonder. Notre Dame football must have a path to win a 12th national championship. If the once-expected Playoff expansion had become reality in 2021, the Swarbrick-designed plan that included 12 teams with the Irish “forced” out of a first-round bye due to not being a conference champion, then Swarbrick would have little left to fret over. Notre Dame could remain independent and count on its usual scheduling approach to hold up even in a new age of college football, though undoubtedly with some slight adjustments.

Instead, he now weighs three paths. To admittedly over-simplify those options:

1) Join the Big Ten, a conference that will soon approach 20 teams, spanning coast-to-coast, and completely halt Irish independence.2) Join the ACC, strengthening that conference both on the field and in its newly-brokered TV deal, stalling the surge toward only two “Power” conferences, still halting Irish independence.3) Find a way toward assurances of Irish entry into an expanded Playoff when it arrives in 2026 and lean on NBC to make up a notable amount of the revenue gap included with independence.

If those assurances exist, Swarbrick will have found a way toward preserving Irish independence. Those are no longer Notre Dame-driven decisions, though. Perhaps the SEC is so desperate to keep the Irish from the Big Ten that it will grant such a freedom. That alone could turn the absurdity of independence into a lasting practicality. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey would have reason to do so, as lessening the Big Ten TV deal by any amount will lead to a slight competitive advantage for his conference.

Perhaps not.

Those are conversations even the plugged-in Swarbrick was not imminently planning on having a week ago. Now they are the moments that will define his tenure, one already in its 14th year.

Those are conversations that will take time.

Notre Dame does not need to tell the college football world what comes next just yet. It does not need to come this offseason. Probably next.

But know what’s between now and then? An actual football season.

Let’s not lose track of the very reason these conversations are so tense. A full fall of Saturdays awaits. Not to get too romantic about a sport that clearly is hurdling toward a barely-recognizable future on the backs of billions (with a B) of dollars, but too often more words are spent on the other 349 days of the year rather than on the 16 Saturdays from Aug. 27 to Dec. 10.

While Swarbrick and Notre Dame take their time pondering their very definition of existence, don’t forget to enjoy the time coming.

There are 61 days until the Irish arrive in Columbus and the Horseshoe. Maybe in a couple years, that trip will not feel as unique. This summer, it still does.

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