Only Notre Dame can save the ACC

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If the ACC is ever going to survive on the football field and run with big dogs like the Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC, then it must find a way to get the premier free agent on the market: Notre Dame.

Right now, this is what most everyone believes is going to happen to the ACC as soon as next month: Florida State and Clemson bolt for the Big 12, with the then football-insignificant ACC raiding the holdovers from the Big East to become what amounts to a basketball-centric outfit once and for all.

The Atlantic Coast Conference is incredibly rich in basketball tradition and has been for decades, with blue bloods Duke and North Carolina having captured nine national championships between them and posing an annual threat to make it to the Final Four. Additionally, NC State and Maryland have cut down the nets at least once, plus Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the league soon to add an additional hoops punch.

Nevertheless, intercollegiate athletics revolves around the game of football these days and the multi-billion-dollar contracts it can fetch from television networks, so the ACC seemingly continuing to focus on basketball -- and top-tier academics, to a lesser degree -- is little different than your neighborhood Best Buy stocking up on VCRs. College football is going to a four-team playoff in all likelihood, and with the Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC in position to be the four major players in the sport from a conference perspective, the ACC is inevitably the fifth wheel. No matter how many times the Blue Devils and Tar Heels emerge as the monarchs of March Madness, the ability to compete financially on the hardwood is largely a product of their respective institution's dealings on the gridiron.

But even if it can pull not one but two rabbits out of its hat before the clock strikes midnight and somehow hold on to the pigskin-crazy Seminoles and Tigers, is it fait accompli that the ACC is destined for second-class-citizen status?

Not if embattled commissioner John Swofford goes for broke and finds a way to land the Golden Domer goose: Notre Dame. Make no mistake about it, even if the recently conceived Big 12-SEC postseason game eventually becomes the equivalent of the Big 10-Pac 12's Rose Bowl, any conference that features the Fighting Irish is going to gain access to the VIP room behind the proverbial velvet rope.

Despite having joined the Big East in 1995, Notre Dame has maintained independent status on the football field and reaped the monetary rewards of having its own TV deal with NBC -- the agreement currently runs through 2015. Referred to by many as the "University of Football in America," ND's relative lack of success the last generation or so has been trumped by a century of history, a coast-to-coast base of supporters and a love-'em-or-hate-'em effect on non-Irish fans that sells tickets and turns on idiot boxes. FSU considers Notre Dame a rival to some degree even though the two schools have only faced each other seven times, most recently in the Champs Sports Bowl this past December, a matchup the 'Noles won in dramatic fashion 18-14.

The game had no significance whatsoever on the national-title race, yet it sold out the Citrus Bowl in Orlando and drew a 3.6 rating, which was a 64-percent spike from NC State-West Virginia the year before.

The eventual arrival of Syracuse and Pittsburgh will move the ACC from 12 teams to 14, assuming Florida State and Clemson stay put, naturally. Making Notre Dame the 15th member -- crushing the dreams of the Big 10 in the process -- would forever alter the college football landscape and suddenly change the perception of the league from that of a sinking ship to that of a shooting star.

As for member No. 16, Swofford can satisfy the Tobacco Road types by extending an invitation to Connecticut, which has won three national championships and is coached by Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun. If fellow powerhouse Syracuse can depart from the hoops-friendly Big East, so can UConn. With the ACC a shade top-heavy lately due to programs like Maryland and Georgia Tech struggling to win consistently the way they did in the past, a fearsome foursome of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and UConn would be unmatched by the Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 or SEC.

And expanding to 16 teams is the perfect excuse to scrap the much-maligned Atlantic and Coastal divisions to use a simple, geographical approach -- North and South.

It actually works out perfectly that way, with Boston College, Connecticut, Maryland, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech making up the North. The South could then be Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest.

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That's a nice blend of football-first and basketball-first schools for the North and South, makes in-division travel a snap and the Irish could still play its yearly affairs with Michigan, USC and a service academy or two -- is anybody outside Indiana going to miss Notre Dame-Purdue? Not to mention the fact that ND already has a rivalry in place with Boston College, as both are Catholic institutions. The Domers have Miami (remember Catholics vs. Convicts?), Pittsburgh and Wake Forest on their schedule for 2012, so there is more Irish familiarity with the ACC than, say, West Virginia desperately jumping to the Big 12 and basically starting from scratch.

Will it happen? It's a snowball's chance in hell, of course. But these are the things we come up with during the offseason. After all, we're talking about Swofford here. He's probably on his way to Best Buy at this very moment to pick up a new VCR.


John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.

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