Notre Dame will continue its FBS independence in 2014, but it will be more closely tied to another conference than folks in South Bend are used to.
As a partial member of the ACC, the Irish will play games against Syracuse, North Carolina and Florida State, dropping their annual showdown against Michigan State to make room for their newer foes. Even more change looms in 2015, when six ACC teams appear on the schedule and Michigan and Purdue disappear.
But despite this partial membership, Notre Dame is still not affiliated with the conference in earnest. It is not part of a division, its games do not count toward the conference standings and it cannot appear in the league championship game. It is merely a scheduling matter.
Which got us thinking: what if Notre Dame really was in the ACC? Heck, what if it was in any of the power conferences?
Where would the media for those leagues vote the Irish in their preseason polls? How would a team less than two years removed from a birth in the national title game be regarded?
Here is a quick, hypothetical look:
Note: There is an important distinction between where I, myself, would rank Notre Dame and where I think the media of each conference would. This list is predicting the latter. It does not reflect my own opinion of Notre Dame; it reflects my opinion of other peoples' opinion of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame in the ACC
|1. Florida State||1. NOTRE DAME|
|2. Clemson||2. North Carolina|
|3. NOTRE DAME||3. Miami|
|4. Louisville||4. Duke|
|5. Boston College||5. Virginia Tech|
|6. Syracuse||6. Georgia Tech|
|7. N.C. State||7. Pittsburgh|
|8. Wake Forest||8. Virginia|
Notre Dame begins its ACC partial-membership in 2014, but without being a full member, its spot in the conference standings—both before and during the season—remains purely hypothetical.
Checking in behind Florida State is obvious. Slotting one spot behind Clemson in the Atlantic and one spot ahead of North Carolina in the Coastal would be closer and likely spark some debate in the voting.
In the end, I think the ACC pundits would keep Clemson ahead of Notre Dame because of what the Tigers have proven the past half-decade. No team besides Clemson and FSU has won the division since 2008. The Clemson offense loses a lot of talent, but it still has Chad Morris running the show, and the defense returns Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony and projects as one of the best in America.
On the other side, some voters would prefer North Carolina's upside to Notre Dame's, but the majority would be happy to put an established power atop the Coastal division, which has been an ugly stain on the league the past two seasons (no offense to Duke).
Notre Dame in the Big Ten
|1. Ohio State||1. Wisconsin|
|2. Michigan State||2. NOTRE DAME|
|3. NOTRE DAME||3. Nebraska|
|4. Michigan||4. Iowa|
|5. Penn State||5. Minnesota|
|6. Maryland||6. Northwestern|
|7. Indiana||7. Illinois|
|8. Rutgers||8. Purdue|
Notre Dame might now be a partial-member of the ACC, but it is more closely linked (by proximity and culture) with the Big Ten.
Conference media are familiar with the Irish from its yearly games against Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State—R.I.P.—and because much of its roster is comprised of local recruits.
Notre Dame was the only team to beat Michigan State last year, but those in and around the league have not forgotten how dubious the officiating was in that contest. It would still finish behind the Spartans in the preseason poll, although, ironically, the other Michigan school, the Wolverines, would likely check in right behind it—despite being the only team from the state that beat the Irish in 2013.
In the other division—the disproportionately weak West—I imagine a close three-way battle between Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Nebraska, with Iowa checking in not too far behind. Any of that first trio could finish the hypothetical poll in first, second or third without drawing too much national ire. They all seem pretty evenly matched.
Call this order more of a gut-shot.
Notre Dame in the Big 12
|3. NOTRE DAME|
|5. Kansas State|
|6. Oklahoma State|
|7. Texas Tech|
|8. West Virginia|
|9. Iowa State|
Notre Dame got beat up pretty good against Oklahoma last season—and with Blake Bell at quarterback, no less.
This year's Notre Dame team should be better, but so should Oklahoma, and the image of that home-field loss will remain in Big 12 voters' heads. This is a group that takes their region pretty seriously, and an intruder from the north would have to prove itself before cracking the preseason top-two over Oklahoma and Baylor.
Fortunately for the Irish, there is not terrible competition for the next spot on this list. Texas will get its votes and has just as much blue-chip talent on its roster, but Charlie Strong in Year 1 against Brian Kelly in Year 5 makes the Irish a slight preference—and rightfully so.
Folks are down on Oklahoma State, the other traditional modern power, and Kansas State is plucky but still a cut below Notre Dame in terms of roster talent. Same goes for Texas Tech, although, just like last year, there could be some close bunching toward the top.
Notre Dame in the Pac-12
|1. Oregon||1. UCLA|
|2. Stanford||2. USC|
|3. NOTRE DAME||3. NOTRE DAME|
|4. Washington||4. Arizona|
|5. Washington State||5. Arizona State|
|6. Oregon State||6. Utah|
|7. California||7. Colorado|
The top two in the Pac-12 North is without dispute.
Yes, Stanford loses a lot from last year's offensive line and defensive front seven, along with defensive coordinator David Shaw, but it also returns some great talent to replace those pieces. And Notre Dame itself loses some great front seven players along with both coordinators, Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco.
The real battle would come in the Pac-12 South, where an argument could be made for the Irish to start the season first, second or third in the preseason poll. UCLA is the presumptive favorite, but no Notre Dame fan thinks it will be worse this year than hated rival USC.
Still, this is the Pac-12's show, and conference voters would likely defer to their own traditional power over a familiar national foe. Both teams should get better quarterback play in 2014 than they did in 2013, when Notre Dame beat USC in an ugly 14-10 affair, but the Trojans bring back more on defense, especially in the front seven.
The teams will settle this score in the last week of the regular season, when Notre Dame travels to Los Angeles.
Notre Dame in the SEC
|1. Georgia||1. Alabama|
|2. South Carolina||2. Auburn|
|3. NOTRE DAME||3. LSU|
|4. Missouri||4. NOTRE DAME|
|5. Florida||5. Ole Miss|
|6. Tennessee||6. Texas A&M|
|7. Vanderbilt||7. Mississippi State|
|8. Kentucky||8. Arkansas|
This one is the hardest to predict—and it's not all that close.
Notre Dame has a tricky relationship with the SEC, having lost its last two games against the conference by a combined score of 83-28. One of those games was the 2013 BCS National Championship against Alabama (42-14), and the other was the 2006 Sugar Bowl against LSU (41-14), and both have served as anti-Notre Dame fodder for SEC fans ever since. It has made the Irish a bit of a punchline.
This is particularly relevant now, as Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly reiterated his desire to schedule an SEC team on a recent podcast with Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com. His exact words:
No I don’t think that that’s something that’s too hard. I think one of our wishes, Jack (Swarbrick, Notre Dame AD) and I, is that we want to get an SEC team on our schedule. The discussions have been to include an SEC opponent, and we want one that we feel makes sense, that has a very good geographical draw for us in the SEC.
If you look around we’re in Florida already with Florida State, so I think you can probably figure out pretty easily what SEC (team) would be the best draw for us as it relates to recruiting and an alumni base.
In this projection, I have given Notre Dame the benefit of the doubt. It is more likely to be ranked in the preseason AP poll—something voted on by national media—than teams like Missouri and Ole Miss.
However, in a hypothetical world where Notre Dame was actually a member of the SEC in 2014, I am not so sure the local media would be as forgiving. Teams such as Florida, Missouri, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and even Mississippi State have proven they can beat other SEC teams more recently than the Irish have, and there's a chance the preseason poll would reflect that sort of bias.
The list above is what I would expect to see, above all else, but it would not surprise me one iota to see Notre Dame ranked fifth in either division. That's just how these preseason polls sometimes work.