By Chris Mahr
When Notre Dame announced on Wednesday that it would be joining the ACC as a full member with the exception of football, I thought, “Finally, a conference move by an established program that I can get behind.”
Admittedly, that’s a decidedly hyperbolic statement to make. Not every conference switch by a college team is inherently disagreeable. But a lot of the ones I hear about sure seem like it.
San Diego State and Boise State in the Big East? West Virginia in the Big 12? Missouri in the SEC?
The Irish to the ACC, though, makes sense. Never mind that it’s in a state that doesn’t border the Atlantic Ocean at all. Not being located in the Northeast Corridor didn’t stop Notre Dame from joining the Big East in 1995, and that worked out fine.
Oddly enough, even though Notre Dame’s new conference affiliation applies for everything but football, it’s the best move possible for the football team and the athletic program overall.
Reason #1: Southern Recruiting
When you look at the football rivalries that the Irish have maintained in the past decade or so, you see a lot of Midwestern flavor — Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Penn State, etc. — with the exception of the service academies, 1-2 games a year against the Northeast and annual (or near-annual) games with USC, Stanford and BYU.
Noticeably absent from that schedule have been consistent games against competition from the southern Mid-Atlantic and the Southeast. Indeed, the Irish have only played five such opponents in the regular season since the start of the 2002 season: South Florida, Georgia Tech (twice), North Carolina, Tennessee (twice) and Florida State.
It’s been pretty well established at this point that any team with national ambitions must recruit in the South. When you play only one game a year (if any) against a team from that region, you’re not going to have as many players as you’d like recognizing your program and its merits.
As part of its all-but-football move to the ACC, Notre Dame will play five games annually against ACC teams. That will mean at least one game each year against a team from the talent-rich states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and/or Florida. (The four “exceptions” in the conference being Syracuse, Boston College, Pitt and Maryland.)
More games against the South means more exposure to the South and its bevy of talented recruits.
Reason #2: Enhancing the ACC’s Football Identity
With the exception of the Big East — which, let’s face it, will soon cease to be relevant in football — the ACC is currently the weakest power conference on the gridiron. Among the conference’s 12 current members, just three have reason to be really excited this season: Virginia Tech, Clemson and Florida State.
Notre Dame won’t be a football member of the conference in the sense that they’ll compete for an ACC title. But just its presence in five games involving an ACC opponent each year will raise the national perception of the league.
Think about it. The Irish will likely maintain their lavish TV deal with NBC for the foreseeable future. That means additional games each year where the ACC will play for a national network audience and won’t be preempted in favor of a more regional game.
It feels like the national attention paid to, buildup for and TV coverage of current ACC clashes is lagging behind that of its power conference counterparts. When it starts receiving front-and-center coverage from NBC each fall, that will change.
Reason #3: Not Just a Smart Football Move
College conference musical chairs too often reeks of having football — and only football — in mind. An athletic program’s other, smaller-revenue sports are expected to toe the line even if the league change is to their detriment.
With Notre Dame, when you look at what its new conference will do for its other teams, you start to understand why it and the ACC thought of the idea in the first place.
A consistent men’s basketball team is in good position to win 20 games a year, go at least .500 in conference play and earn a decent seed in the NCAA tournament. The women’s team, meanwhile, will immediately compete for supremacy in a league that finished 2011–12 with four teams (Maryland, Duke, Miami [FL] and Georgia Tech) in the Top 25.
The Irish also take a substantial step up in competition when it comes to soccer (the women were NCAA champions in 2010), baseball (College World Series participants in 2002) and lacrosse (the men’s team made six straight NCAA tournaments from 2006–2011).
Everything about this move seems too good to be true. If the Irish are lucky, there won’t be any hyperbole about that.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.