Each season, as Notre Dame becomes further and further removed from the school’s last national championship in 1988 under Lou Holtz, a common argument arises about whether the Fighting Irish should follow the example of nearly all of the other historical independents in major college football and join a conference. Whether the Irish have contended for a championship all season or not, the voices are the same after the team once again comes up short: Notre Dame puts itself at a competitive disadvantage by remaining an independent in football.
The obvious response is that, while the Irish have not reached the top of the college football mountain in quite some time — a record which the program shares with almost every team outside of the southeastern United States — the Irish have reached a BCS Championship game and earned two CFP berths in the past decade, cementing Notre Dame as a consistent contender even as an independent. But taking a less reactionary view, it is worth examining the merits of the detractors’ claims, especially in the context of another season ending with a high-profile bowl loss.
The most common criticisms of Notre Dame’s independence have to do with the Irish’s inability to compete for meaningful conference championships, something that has become even more relevant as conference championships were included as one of the few clarifying criteria in the CFP Committee’s formula for selection. Lacking an opportunity to play in a conference championship game eliminates the benefits of a 13th data point which can serve as a decisive piece of evidence for the CFP selection committee’s evaluation of a team. As Irish fans are painfully aware of after finishing fifth in the final CFP rankings of the 2021 season, the margin between being in the playoff and playing in a bowl game can be razor thin, so any competitive disadvantage in the selection process would be a powerful incentive for the Irish to buck their historical independence.
But does such a disadvantage truly exist? Certainly in the 2021 season, an additional quality win and a conference championship would have helped bolster the Irish resume, but it is extremely doubtful that it would have lifted Notre Dame over the fourth-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats (who held the head-to-head advantage) or the third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs. Similarly, in the 2020 season, the one-time-only participation in a conference actually worked against Notre Dame’s Playoff stock, with a loss to Clemson in their rematch in the ACC championship.
So, while in theory Notre Dame’s independence could keep it out of the Playoff, recent experience does not suggest that the program should consider this as a negative when deciding whether to maintain its independence. Rather, the Irish’s last few seasons show that participation in a conference is essentially a neutral factor that can either hurt or help one’s chances of making the College Football Playoff depending on the particular circumstances of that season. Additionally, the seemingly inevitable but entirely unofficial plans
to expand the Playoff to twelve teams would make this argument against Notre Dame’s historical independence even less effective, as the Irish Playoff berth would be even more dependent on the team’s performance on the field and less on the set of tiebreakers used by the Committee.
Another argument that is commonly leveled against Notre Dame’s independence charges that the Irish put themselves at a financial disadvantage and damage their ability to remain popular and relevant by refusing to join a conference. While the Irish have a lucrative and exclusive media contract with NBC that ensures the Irish keep their coffers full and their name atop headlines for now, in another age of conference realignment — during which the SEC has moved to establish themselves as a super conference by adding Big 12 powers Texas and Oklahoma — the Irish’s deal could be surpassed very soon. This criticism rests on the tenuous idea that Notre Dame’s brand will not be able to attract continually improving media deals and Name, Image, and Likeness money that can compete with the average payout of a typical school from the new southern super conference.
All of these counterarguments to the common attacks on Notre Dame football’s independence offer compelling reasons why the Irish should ignore the critics and stay the course. Moreover, the current arrangement the Irish have with the ACC for non-football sports and the current power dynamics of college football ensure that the Irish will remain independent for the foreseeable future.