What does Notre Dame shacking up with the ACC mean for the SEC?

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The Atlantic Coast Conference announced today that Notre Dame will become a full member in all sports except football. Notre Dame will, however, play five football games each year against ACC opponents. With the planned defections of Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East next year, the ACC will have 15 schools in ten states.

The ACC did not say when Notre Dame will actually leave the Big East, where it currently plays all non-football sports. Big East rules require 27 months notice before leaving the conference, although that does not impact Notre Dame’s football schedule. Notably, the ACC also announced today it was raising its own penalty for leaving the conference to “over $50 million.”

Notre Dame plays three ACC schools this year: Miami, Boston College and Wake Forest. The school’s 2013 schedule is already filled and includes just one ACC opponent, incoming member Pittsburgh. Notre Dame is scheduled to play Pittsburgh again in 2014 along with Syracuse, and Syracuse and Wake Forest again in 2015. Notre Dame presently has three available dates in 2014 that could be filled with additional ACC opponents, which would bring it to the promised number of five.

Since Notre Dame won’t be a full football member, and therefore not eligible for the ACC championship, the ACC won’t have to deal with scheduling an odd number of teams or adding a 16th football school. Conversely, Notre Dame will likely receive more home than away games as part of its five-game guarantee, since parity won’t be an issue.

The looming college football playoff also makes this move more palatable. The playoff, scheduled to begin in 2014, replaces the BCS system of automatic conference berths–including special status for Notre Dame–with a single ranking system. Notre Dame will be treated as an ACC member for purposes of competing in non-BCS/playoff bowls.

All things considered, the ACC is a natural partner for Notre Dame. Although geographically closer to the Big Ten, the ACC has, or will have, six private schools as members, more than any other major conference. And while academic reputation doesn’t matter much to the average college football fan, it’s a major concern of the ACC presidents that voted to accept Notre Dame.

It’s far too early to know how much Notre Dame’s limited football presence will benefit the ACC. This move is akin to the United Kingdom joining the European Union but retaining its own currency. Notre Dame clearly values its independent status as a recruiting tool as well as its ability to schedule nationally against perennial rivals like Michigan and USC. Moving to a full-time ACC schedule was likely never a consideration, particularly one that features third-rate football schools like Duke and Wake Forest.

In the short term, the ACC benefits mostly by enhancing its football reputation at the expense of its closest rival, the Big East, which is still undergoing an identity crisis. (The Big East recently considered, then rejected, a name change to reflect the addition of obviously non-east coast schools like San Diego State.) A half-time Notre Dame, however, does nothing to bring the ACC into the league of the SEC, Big Ten or Pac-12.

Today’s announcement also provides a useful distraction from the growing controversy surrounding two of the ACC’s core members. North Carolina, already under sanctions for infractions committed during Butch Davis’s tenure, is now looking into widespread academic fraud involving former football players. Meanwhile, the storied Duke basketball program faces allegations that a player on the school’s most recent national championship team somehow acquired nearly $100,000 in jewelry that he didn’t fully pay for.

Combined with the increased penalty for leaving, the ACC appears set to remain a 14-member football conference for the immediate future. The ACC plans to go from eight to nine conference games next year when Pittsburgh and Syracuse join. Notre Dame may prove to be a carrot for ACC schools that get the short-end of the stick (four-vs.-five home conference games) in a given season. With fewer available slots for non-conference opponents in a nine-game conference schedule, ACC schools will welcome the preferred access to Notre Dame, without having to compete directly against the Fighting Irish for the conference title.

As for the SEC, while Notre Dame’s change in status has little direct impact, a strengthened ACC means limited prospects for future expansion. Clemson and Florida State aren’t going anywhere with a $50 million penalty. On the plus side–for SEC fans, that is–Notre Dame may be hurting its own prospects in the new playoff system by committing itself to play a potentially much weaker schedule of ACC also-rans. Notre Dame is probably less of a threat to claim one of the four playoff spots under its new arrangement.

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