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The Plot Thickens For Notre Dame And Conference Realignment

How close is Notre Dame to the unthinkable?

Notre Dame has made it abundantly clear that remaining a football independent school is of top priority in this current chaos of conference realignment.

The school certainly has its reasons. Being an independent allows Notre Dame to not only schedule its annual rivals like USC and Michigan, but it also gives the school the flexibility to schedule a variety of different schools each year in different parts of the country.

If the school and athletic director Jack Swarbrick had it their way, Notre Dame wouldn't join a conference. Regardless of its affiliation, ND could probably bank on a provision to allow them into the newly proposed four-team playoff system in the BCS due to its national pull in television ratings. There seems to be no indication that joining a conference is a necessity to be eligible for the playoff system, and as long as that doesn't change, Notre Dame is in good shape.

Here are some things to consider when determining what is best for ND:

Joining a conference could potentially damage ND's national brand and recruitment process. Notre Dame annually plays all over the country and on both coasts (from Boston College and Wake Forest to Washington and Stanford). The Irish have exciting series coming up with schools such as Oklahoma, Miami and Texas. They play at top-notch neutral sites such as the Alamodome (2009), Yankee Stadium (2010), FedEx Field (2011), Soldier Field (2012), and even Aviva Stadium in Dublin (2012).

Since it is not geographically tied to any one region, it can recruit talent from all over with a name that is nationally recognized. Aligning with a conference definitely takes away this national brand name.

Another nice recruiting pitch is the national exposure the university gets from its television contract with NBC. This allows anyone to be able to view the Irish each and every Saturday. This also provides a nice chunk of change for the school. Joining one of the developing “super conferences” may put this agreement in jeopardy and takes away this unique element Notre Dame prides itself on.

While the benefits of independence are far greater than being in a conference, Notre Dame cannot be the school left out in the cold and without a chance at a playoff system, improved revenue, and improved national exposure. Trying to avoid being the fifth wheel has to be a priority if four super conferences form, which might be playing out with the Big 12 and SEC agreeing to a New Year's Day bowl. In an attempt to achieve the security the Big Ten and Pac-12 have in giving their regular season champions a lucrative bowl game high in pageantry, the Big 12 and SEC have formed a bowl game of their own.

What does this mean? For one, Notre Dame needs to seriously weigh its conference options. Since 2010, ND has been linked to the ACC, Big Ten and most recently the Big 12.

So where is Notre Dame going to end up if it has to join a conference?

The ACC might have lost its chance

Notre Dame and the ACC seemed like a great match about a week ago. If Notre Dame had to join a conference, its brand would hardly be affected joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. It could recruit in talent-rich states like Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. It could continue a steady rivalry with Boston College as well as rekindle a new one with Miami. Although basketball is not the focal point of conference realignment, being able to play Duke, North Carolina, Pitt and Syracuse each year would have been an awesome perk for fans.

The ACC and its commissioner John Swofford took a big hit with the Big 12 and SEC bowl game agreement, however. There are four conferences now who are prepared for the four-team playoff system with the security of a championship bowl game. The ACC is the conference without a partner that now must scramble to keep its power football schools feeling secure.

With Florida St., Clemson and Miami already rumored to jump ship for the Big 12, we could be on the verge of a super conference era if the ACC starts to crumble. It still has a chance to bounce back, but things are certainly looking gloomy and this conference does not seem most appealing anymore for Notre Dame.

The Big Ten isn't likely

There are some good reasons why the Big Ten makes sense. The Big Ten Network would provide ND with more revenue than its current NBC contract. Three of Notre Dame’s annual rivals (Michigan, Michigan St. and Purdue) could be an automatic part of its conference schedule. This would give ND some room to schedule other rivals such as USC or Boston College, minimizing the annual games it loses with a conference schedule.

The Big Ten stands little chance of landing Notre Dame, however. Commissioner Jim Delaney and the Big Ten will not court Notre Dame again after being told “thanks, but no thanks” multiple times. Call it pride or whatever you wish, but that relationship will never happen if Notre Dame has to be the initiator while the Big Ten waits to be approached. Additionally, the Big Ten and Pac-12 are moving fast toward an agreementthat would schedule home-and-home series between schools from both conferences. Notre Dame would not fit into this scheduling deal, as they are already committed to Stanford and USC each year.

Notre Dame values its national reach way too much to join the Big Ten anyways. Being tied to a geographic location would severely hurt its national exposure and ability to recruit anywhere outside of the Midwest. It's not out of the question for Delaney to put all things aside and focus on how Notre Dame is far and away the most valuable potential conference addition out there. The key is convincing Notre Dame that the security of a power conference would be more valuable than a brand name.

Big 12 may be best, but nowhere near perfect

Tons of schools have been linked to the Big 12 in the last few months. Of the four conferences sitting pretty, it has the fewest members. The Big 12 will surely be fielding a lot of calls with interested teams. The most likely candidates to join are Florida St., Clemson, Miami, BYU, Louisville and Notre Dame.

Some think twelve is a likely number, with Florida St. being very close to joining the Big 12 because of an ACC television contract dispute in addition to the new SEC agreement. If that happens, it would be interesting to see if another ACC team would leave with FSU to put the Big 12 back at twelve members. Clemson has been linked longer to leaving the ACC, but Miami seems like the natural partner for FSU.

Others think all six teams will move to the Big 12, putting the conference at the super conference number of sixteen teams and ensuring the most amount of teams possible feel secure about getting into the playoff system.

By sheer process of elimination, this might be the best course of action for Notre Dame if joining a conference becomes a necessity. This is not a perfect fit, however.

No schools currently in the Big 12 can compare to Notre Dame's academic standards. A key reason that Notre Dame liked the ACC was that it could boast terrific academic institutions like Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Boston College, etc.

While this conference provides intriguing match-ups with schools like Oklahoma and Texas, many are interested because of the money, which Notre Dame already has more than enough of from its current annual match-ups. ND already has series scheduled with Oklahoma and Texas anyways. A spot in the Big 12 is not a necessity for getting these primetime showdowns of schools that don't have much history together anyways.

Again, remaining an independent is far more desirable than joining any of these conferences. Notre Dame might have to commit somewhere though if the rest of the nation keeps moving toward a super conference era.

Ideally, the BCS keeps the playoff system as planned, where any school can qualify for a playoff spot so long as it has a high enough BCS ranking. Swarbrick has no need to be worried yet, but the time has come to start seriously contemplating giving up Notre Dame's independence. Evidently, he has quite the dilemma on his hands if he needs to choose a conference, as Notre Dame may be facing a no-win situation.