On Tuesday, The New York Times' Pete Thamel recapped all the moving pieces in a post-John Marinatto Big East world. Among the more juicier tidbits was the report that Notre Dame ain't sticking around if (when?) the basketball side of the conference breaks away from the football side.
The next critical Jenga piece is Notre Dame, which would definitely leave if the basketball universities left - and could possibly leave even if they don't. The A.C.C. is the most likely destination. The Irish's television contract with NBC, currently under negotiation, will go a long way in determining their future - as will how they fare as a stakeholder in the new college football playoff. That appears to be safe and stable for now.
If Notre Dame leaves for the A.C.C., its only realistic destination, the A.C.C. will take Connecticut or Rutgers to make it a 16-team league. And that would send all the Big East blocks tumbling.
No "sources say" anywhere in there so take this for what it's worth. Also, confusion: Is the ACC the most likely destination after a failed attempt at continued football independence? Because the ACC has stated in no uncertain terms it's all or nothing for the Irish.
Regardless, I think the talk of Notre Dame joining the ACC is a bit premature. Two to three things need to happen before Notre Dame decides to forego football independence and join the ACC (according to Thamel, the most likely destination).
1. The Big East basketball schools break away from the football side. Everyone assumes because Marinatto was forced out that the Big East will splinter with the conference in two with the basketball schools, headlined by Georgetown and Villanova, breaking away from the awkward amalgamation of football-only and all-sports programs. I think the opposite is more likely at this point. I think Marinatto was fired precisely to keep the marriage of convenience together. You don't bring BCG in for them to tell you there's more TV value in creating two separate leagues (a basketball-first conference and an all sports conference) than in keeping the gang together.
I think the Big East got a little crazy when they started adding Memphis, Temple and Navy, but the arrangement is still workable. Also, so long as Boise State has a home for its non-revenue sports, both the Broncos and the Aztecs will stick with the Big East as they stand to gain a lot more in TV revenue than if they went back to the Mountain West. I wouldn't expect Boise State and San Diego State to go back on their commitment to the Big East.
2. Notre Dame's spot in a college football playoff needs to be threatened. Changes to the college football postsesason could make Notre Dame's decision on football independence easy on them. If the school feels that there's no place for an independent in a four-team college football playoff -- or they go to the extreme end of the spectrum and require a conference championship qualifier -- then Notre Dame will look to join a conference to gain access to a playoff. This seems like a highly unlikely scenario. Notre Dame A.D. Jack Swarbrick has a seat at the table when it comes to the next iteration of college football's postseason format, and I very much doubt that the rest of the power brokers leave Notre Dame out of a possible playoff.
3. NBC doesn't re-up with Notre Dame on the Irish's TV rights deal. The Irish have now fallen behind the PAC-12, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 in terms of yearly TV media rights revenue, but I wouldn't expect that last for very long. Despite declining viewership numbers, NBCUniversal highly covets more live sports programming and the Irish's media rights are one of the last available rights contracts up for the taking. My guess is NBC will be willing to pay Notre Dame a dollar figure that puts the Irish on par with, or slightly ahead of the big four conferences and Notre Dame can continue its football independence.
As for all these other conference expansion rumors -- Clemson and Florida State to the Big 12! Maryland and Georgia Tech to the Big Ten -- nothing is going to happen until Notre Dame is off the board. Based on the above, I think there is a clear path here for Notre Dame to remain a football independent.