Recent success secures Notre Dame’s treasured independence

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame is as confident as ever that the treasured football independence of the Fighting Irish is safe despite the maelstrom that is college sports.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the program’s position is even stronger now than when he stepped into the job in 2008, bolstered by success on the field and investments in the program.

“I think it’s probably less threatened than it was back then,” Swarbrick said. “Part of that may be the natural growth and my understanding of the value of independence. But part of it is, I think we’ve done a number of things to position us to be better and to compete effectively.”

The fifth-ranked Fighting Irish begin their first full season under new coach Marcus Freeman on Saturday night at No. 2 Ohio State. Notre Dame is coming off its fifth straight double-digit victory season, a school record, and has had just one losing season since 2010, Brian Kelly‘s first as coach.

When Swarbrick arrived losing seasons had become fairly routine in South Bend. From 1997-2009, the Fighting Irish had more seasons under .500 (four) than seasons with at least 10 victories (two).

“We had some lean years back then and … we’ve only had one in the past 10 years,” Swarbrick said.

The national championship remains elusive, but Fighting Irish football is healthier than it’s been since Lou Holtz led Notre Dame to its last title in 1988. Since the 2012 season, Notre Dame has made the College Football Playoff twice and played in a BCS championship game.

“That’s at the core of whether you’re threatened or not. If we can’t compete at that level, you got a choice to make,” Swarbrick said.

As conference realignment brings consolidation of the biggest brands and bluest bloods in college football – USC and UCLA to the Big Ten, Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference – Notre Dame remains the most valuable free agent on the market.

Swarbrick said representatives of several conferences reached out to Notre Dame over the last six months to gauge the school’s interest in a membership that would include football. He said Notre Dame has not had discussions with anyone about joining a conference.

Swarbrick has said that as long as Notre Dame has a strong television partner to broadcast home football games, reasonable access to the CFP and a conference home for its Olympic sports, there is no pressure to change.

Most of Notre Dame’s teams compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That membership includes a football scheduling arrangement requiring Notre Dame to play five ACC teams per season, plus a commitment by the Irish to join the ACC if they were to give up independence. That contract runs concurrent with the ACC’s media rights deal with ESPN and expires in 2036.

Before joining the ACC, most Notre Dame teams competed in the Big East.

“My experience with Notre Dame is they value independence. It’s who they are. And I think they will protect that at virtually any cost,” former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said.

Tranghese, who was part of the commissioner group that ran the BCS, said there was never any desire among the conferences to create a postseason structure that would force Notre Dame into a conference. And he doubts there would be now.

“What’s the incentive? Why would you force Notre Dame to go join somebody else and make them stronger?” Tranghese said.

The Big Ten recently finalized a media rights agreement worth more than $7 billion over seven years. The Big Ten and SEC are poised to pull away from the other Power Five conferences in terms of revenue.

Notre Dame’s television deal with NBC runs through the 2024 football season. The backloaded agreement that went into effect in 2016 paid the school an average of $15 million per year.

Former Fox Sports Networks President Bob Thompson estimated that if Notre Dame can earn upward of $65 million from a new television deal and membership in the ACC, the Irish would likely be comfortable remaining independent.

“Notre Dame is a brand unto itself,” Thompson added. “Whether they’re playing good or poorly, they have a following. And the following is not just in a certain geographic area. It’s across the country.”

Swarbrick acknowledged remaining independent will perpetuate, and maybe even grow, a revenue gap between Notre Dame and the schools it considers its peers, the ones that have a recent history of consistently competing for national championships.

“We have always accepted the reality that there’s a cost to independence, there’s a price that we pay for independence on the revenue side,” Swarbrick said.

How big can the gap get before it becomes too much for Notre Dame – with an endowment valued at more than $13 billion – to accept?

“We certainly don’t have a number in mind,” he said. “But we have to be able to compete for national championships in football. We have to have the resources to do that. As long as we have the resources to do that, I anticipate Notre Dame remaining independent.”

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.

CFP expansion talks head toward October after 7-hour meeting

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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ROSEMONT, Ill. — The conference commissioners who manage the College Football Playoff met for almost seven hours Tuesday to work on expanding the postseason system from four to 12 teams as soon as the 2024 season.

There is still much work to be done.

“We will not wrap up this week,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said.

The CFP management committee, comprised of 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director, is scheduled to convene again at the Big Ten offices for a few hours Wednesday morning. They are set to meet again in person in Dallas on Oct. 20.

“That’ll be important,” Hancock said.

Expansion talks were revived by the university presidents and chancellors who oversee the College Football Playoff last month.

By adopting a 12-team plan that had been on the table since the spring of 2021, the presidents pushed the commissioners to try to implement a new format before the end of the CFP’s current contract with ESPN. That deal ends after the 2025 season.

Expanding from four to 12 in 2024 and ’25 will require rescheduling semifinals and championship games that already have dates and sites set, plus adding four new first-round games in mid-December to be played on campus sites.

Squeezing it all into about a month and working around the NFL for television will be challenging.

Hancock said the idea of moving up the start of the college football season to the week before Labor Day to create more room at the end for the playoff has been discussed, but more for beyond the 2025 season.

“I think most people view that as a future item. As long-term item and not an immediacy item,” Hancock said. “Remember, there’s so many details.”

Hancock said CFP officials have spoken to bowl partners and hosts cities that are set to hold semifinals and championship games after the 2024 and ’25 seasons, but they have not been presented definitive new dates.

Atlanta already has been chosen as the host city for the championship game to be played following the 2024 season, on Jan. 6, 2025. The game would have to be pushed back about two weeks if the playoff grows from four teams to 12.

“(Atlanta organizers) have some work to do because of other businesses in the community,” Hancock said. “Other meeting-type business, hotel business and Convention Center business there. They’ve been great to work with.”