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The ACC-Notre Dame Catch-22

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, Notre Dame and the ACC are in discussions to enter into a scheduling agreement that would place the Irish against the ACC Champ in the Discover Orange Bowl. School spokesman John Heisler confirmed that Notre Dame A.D. Jack Swarbrick has been in discussions with the ACC conference staff about striking a scheduling deal.

Last week ACC commissioner John Swofford hinted at much the same, mentioning that the Irish could very well be in the mix as an opponent for the ACC champ in the conference's anchor bowl.

Greenville Online's Bart Wright wants to see the ACC-Notre Dame relationship expanded even further. Wright's idea is to create a season-opening "kickoff" game in Charlotte featuring the Irish against an ACC opponent. The game would be similar to Atlanta's Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic.

"There's some real potential there," said Michael Kelly, senior associate commissioner of the ACC, "it could be a great thing for (the ACC) and for Notre Dame.

"Two things would have to happen," he said. "The (Charlotte) business community would have to step up and Notre Dame would have to be willing to give up one of its home games, but they've done that before, so it's worth discussing, no question."

The thought process is that deals like the Orange Bowl and a Charlotte Kickoff Classic could bring the Irish closer to the conference. Should the Irish eventually want to settle down into a conference, the ACC could offer a landing spot with another round of expansion to 16 teams.

This isn't a bad idea, but it's not really giving the Irish anything they need. In fact, Notre Dame really has no need for a game like this, especially if they wish to continue long-standing Big Ten rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.

Unlike the ACC, the Big Ten's non-conference schedule is much more rigid, with teams playing the vast majority of the non-conference portion of the schedule in the first four weeks of September. The ACC offers much more flexibility, allowing programs to schedule non-conference games throughout the season and then building the conference schedule around those pre-existing non-conference obligations.

So long as Notre Dame keeps its non-conference series with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, the Irish won't be hard up for early season games. Where Notre Dame needs ACC programs is in the middle portion of the schedule, between dates with the Big Ten early and USC / Stanford late.

While it may be in the conference's best interest financially to pair with Notre Dame for both the Orange Bowl and a neutral-site, season-opening game in Charlotte, it's certainly not the best negotiating tactic if you want to see Irish football added to the conference. The ACC would simply be giving up too much; giving the Irish zero incentive to join up considering the Irish would then have:

a) access to college football's playoff structure (by virtue of no conference champion requirement)
b) a soft landing spot in one of the Big Six bowl games
c) a season-opening scheduling deal with an ACC opponent
d) additional games against ACC opponents scheduled during the year to fill the portion of the schedule between Big Ten and PAC-12 opponents
e) a re-upped TV contract with NBC

Deals like this with Notre Dame would be more akin to the Big Ten-PAC-12's recently announced scheduling deal - expanding without expanding. ACC teams would benefit financially from the association with Notre Dame, but the conference would really have no real shot at ever luring the Irish into the conference as an all-sports member, either.

If the ACC really wants to land the last big name left on the board, a better approach would be to hold out on the Irish and the Orange Bowl. Though the Orange Bowl is perceived as a notch below the Rose Bowl or Champions Bowl, it is still one of the three big name bowl games left on the board -- and the only one still looking for an opponent. If the ACC instead decides to keep a seat warm for, say, the highest ranked non-playoff, non-BCS AQ conference champ, Notre Dame would really have to play their way into their spot in the college football playoff + system.

The conference would forget about Wright's suggestion of the bizarro Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic (Belk Kickoff Classic?) as that game really offers Notre Dame nothing they need. Nor does it offer anything of value that the Irish couldn't just strike out and get on their own (Notre Dame faces Miami at Soldier Field this season).

Finally, the conference would alter its policy allowing conference members to schedule non-conference games at any point in the season. This is really a key factor if the conference has any hopes of luring in the Irish. Under the current policy, Notre Dame can schedule traditional rivals like Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Miami, as well as teams like Wake Forest and Maryland, during the middle portion of the schedule when the Big Ten and PAC-12 are in the heart of their conference schedules. Limit Notre Dame's ability to fill the middle portion of the schedule against programs from a power conference and you make Irish football scheduling as an independent a bit more painful.

If the ACC altered its scheduling policy, Notre Dame would have a tougher time filling a 12-game conference schedule against power conference teams. Especially when you consider that both the PAC-12 and Big 12 play a nine-game conference schedule, the Big Ten has less flexibility scheduling non-conference games and Notre Dame has very little history with SEC programs.

While the Irish won't have any trouble finding 12 programs to fill the annual football schedule, I'm sure NBCUniversal wouldn't be too thrilled if the Irish's middle portion of the schedule included less power conference teams and more programs like Temple, Tulsa and Akron.

Making scheduling tougher on Notre Dame is really the only bargaining chip left to the ACC short of a Big East implosion which would send the Irish's Olympic sports looking for a soft landing spot. The ACC could probably dip once more into the Big East to throw a life raft out to Louisville, UConn or Rutgers, essentially crippling the conference once more. But the league can't add a 15th without a 16th, and you can't add a non-ND 16th without completely shutting the door on ever acquiring Notre Dame football.

Striking a Orange Bowl / Belk Kickoff Classic scheduling deal with the Irish may give the conference a boost financially, but this isn't the way to successfully lure the Irish into the fold as an all-sports member. There's the catch. The ACC may need Notre Dame as a scheduling partner to keep up with the Big Four, but an Orange Bowl scheduling deal gives Notre Dame the last thing it needs to maintain its football independence.