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With speculation continuing to swirl about conference realignment, it's time to ponder the Notre Dame/Big Ten question.
While Notre Dame's football relevance is up for spirited debate these days, nobody can question the value of the Notre Dame brand. The Irish still generate solid television ratings and when they play, people pay attention. Maybe not as much as they did 25 years ago, but Notre Dame still matters in the world of college football.
Let's say Notre Dame officials decide football independence is an impediment for the Irish to reach the highest level of excellence. And let's also say that Notre Dame wants to reside in the neighborhood conference and become the Big Ten's 13th member (instead of the ACC or Big 12).
Now those chances are unlikely after the Irish openly spurned the league once and later on behind closed doors at least one other time. And don't automatically assume if Notre Dame joins the Big Ten the conference would expand to 14 or 16 schools just to make divisional play easier. After all, this is the league that sat on 11 schools for nearly 20 years.
So if Our Lady joined the Big Ten, how would it fit? Well, here's a semi-radical (but completely plausible) plan for the Irish to become a full-fledged member, not wreck any rivalries and make the league about as interesting as it gets.
First, you shift to three divisions based on all the tenets of realignment past -- competitive equality, rivalry preservation and geography. Here's a sample:
[naviga:li]Heartland Division -- Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin[/naviga:li]
[naviga:li]Mission (Michigan/Indiana) Division -- Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, Notre Dame[/naviga:li]
[naviga:li]Lakes Division -- Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern[/naviga:li]
Then you establish permanent, cross-divisional rivalries (excluding Notre Dame). They include Michigan-Ohio State, Nebraska-Penn State, Wisconsin-Michigan State, Purdue-Illinois, Iowa-Northwestern, Minnesota-Indiana.
While scheduling initially sounds like a bear, it really isn't. First, each school plays every divisional opponent. Second, the five schools in the Mission play two schools in each of the other two divisions. Third, the Heartland and Lakes schools play two Mission schools and three schools in the opposite four-team division.
As for Notre Dame, let the Irish maintain a similar schedule by playing each of their four divisional mates in the season's first four weeks. Notre Dame's regular schedule includes playing Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue in weeks two through four. Why not expand it with Indiana in week one?
Then let the Irish leave open weeks five, six, seven, eight (plus nine during a 14-week season) and 13 for non-Big Ten games or an open date. That would allow Notre Dame to continue its series with USC in the current format, plus open up the middle for traditional games against Navy, Army or Stanford.
As for the title game format, simply place the top two divisional champions in the game. If there's a tie, go with the current tiebreaker system starting with head-to-head. Yes, it might cause an awkward finish one year but remember it's the regular season we care about, not the postseason.
I admit this idea is a bit outlandish but in today's college football world, everything is up for debate.