Should Notre Dame Join a Conference—or Stay Independent?

Michael CollinsAnalyst IJuly 3, 2008

Let’s talk Independence.  You don’t have to look far on message boards or in sports articles to see advice to Notre Dame to “join a conference”—usually without clear reasons and occasionally with disparaging comments about Irish football.


Notre Dame football has yet to sacrifice its independence or many of its longtime rivalries—something many Americans still respect.  This independence has greater risk and more challenges in assuming duties conferences handle, but also has greater rewards and more freedom.


The achievement is a national university football program whose every game is televised, rivalries from coast to coast, and a national fan base. 


The financial benefits of membership in a large conference, however, include a chance at a BCS bowl, a collection of secondary bowls for three-quarters of its teams, an eight-game conference schedule, share in a lucrative conference championship, and a division of all the bowl monies, plus a television package through the conference.


Major conferences generate a degree of market control, some pricing power, and a collective identity.  Fans debate which conferences have the better teams, the best defenses, or the harder schedules.


Conferences encompass some great traditional geographic rivalries—Ohio State-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma, Alabama-Auburn, USC-UCLA—and the tension that goes with finding out who will be the conference champion. 


As an independent, Notre Dame must earn it alone.  Is there still a place in college football for the independent—the equivalent of a successful family business in a corporate world?  Should Notre Dame join a conference? 




Notre Dame’s “Conference” of Opponents Compared - Longevity


For argument’s sake, we’ll call the eight teams listed below Notre Dame’s “conference”—three Big Ten teams (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue), two from the Pac-10 (Southern Cal, Stanford), one from the Big East (Pittsburgh), one from the ACC (Boston College) and one Independent (Navy).


Notre Dame is the major non-conference opponent for each of these teams.  Compared to most conferences' teams in longevity, Notre Dame’s traditional rivalries are quite comparable, especially the top five teams.



Notre Dame                     Okla                        USC                           LSU

               (Big 12)                   (Pac 10)                      (SEC)

Opponent       Yrs


Navy                81            Okla St     102          Cal     95              Miss St   101


   Cal                79            Texas       102     Stanford  85                Miss      96

Purdue              79            Kansas       99        Wash    78                Ala        71

Mich St              71            Mo             93          UCLA  77                Kent     55

Pittsburgh          63            K-State      89         Ore St   71                Fla      54

                        373                            485                   406                       377

Michigan           35            Nebr           83       Wash St   67             Ark        53

Stanford           22              Colo         58         Ore       54               Aub       42

Boston             17             Tex A&M    26          ASU     33             Vand       28


Total Yrs       447                              652                    560                        500


Army (49 yrs) and Northwestern (47) have played the Irish more than Stanford or Boston College, but neither are on ND’s future schedule except for one game against Army.  Stanford has played ND the last eleven years.  BC has played ND 14 out of the last 16 years.  Notre Dame has scheduled Stanford and MSU through 2011, Pitts and BC through 2012, and Michigan and Purdue through 2016. 


Southern Cal has played Notre Dame more than any of its conference opponents except Cal and Stanford. 


The Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC (above) have more history with their opponents than ND does, but the three conferences most mentioned as possibilities for Notre Dame football are the Big Ten, ACC, and Big East (below). 


Notre Dame           Ohio St                       Clemson                        West Va

Opponent      Yrs    (Big Ten)                        (ACC)                       (Big East)


Navy              81     Mich     104               NC St   76                        Pitts    100


    Cal             79     llinois     94                Wake   73                   Syracuse   55

Purdue           79     Wisc        73               GTech  72                 Rutgers     35

Mich St          71       NW        73                  Md     56                     Cincy     16

Pittsburgh       63    Purdue      50                  NC     53               Louisville     9

                    373                  394                        330                               215

Michigan         35      Minn        47               Duke     51                 Conn         4

Stanford          22    Mich St    38                Va        44                    S. Fla      3

Boston            17    Penn St     33              V-Tech   30                         (None)


Total Yrs       447          512                       455                                 222        



Purdue and Michigan State have played Notre Dame much more than Ohio State.  

Again, the longevity of games with opponents is more than comparable—especially when ND is compared to an ACC or Big East team—even allowing for the Big East only having eight teams. 


So, if Notre Dame joined a conference with a full eight game in-conference schedule, which four opponents should ND keep?  Southern Cal, Michigan, Navy, and Boston College?  Would it not be like Florida switching to the ACC and being told to choose which four SEC teams it wished to continue to play non-conference? 


Joining the Big Ten would allow Notre Dame to keep Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State.  The Irish might substitute non-conference Pittsburgh for Michigan, adding to USC, Boston College, and Navy.


That non-conference schedule would be tougher than the usual Big Ten or Big East teams's non-conference schedule.  Notre Dame’s strength of schedule ranks traditionally in the top ten—seventh in the 2000s, eighth in the 1990-99 decade, and first in 1980-89—for the past 30 years.


More on that comparison with my next article. 


Tradition matters—for Notre Dame and for its long-standing opponents.


(Thanks to Chestertonlep for permission to me to use this photo)