SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame first met Michigan State on a football field 115 years ago, but whether or not the two schools do battle 115 years from now very well may have been impacted by Wednesday's bombshell announcement of the Fighting Irish joining the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The two teams will meet tonight at 8 p.m. (ABC) for the 76th time.
Even though Notre Dame (2-0) isn't joining the ACC as a full-time member in the sport of football, the Irish are contractually obligated to play five teams annually from that conference. So where exactly does that leave the long-standing rivalry with the Spartans?
“We have not gotten to that level of detail yet,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “It's obvious that we will not be able to maintain every rivalry every year.”
With the new league affiliation, the purpose of the deal wasn't so much solving a regular season dilemma for Swarbrick – as many in the media speculated, but a post-season problem.
Though figuring out how to fit longtime rivals such as Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, etc. into future regular season schedules, the more pressing issue was how to allow the Irish to be able to gain access to decent bowl games, die to the many conference tie-ins that currently exist.
“(It was) Critical,” Swarbrick said. “We had to solve the challenge of what post season football would be for us below the BCS level. And that was one of the things that was very important to us in this. And so again, I think this relationship worked so well because important needs like that were served, but to the benefit of both parties. We believe that our inclusion will help the ACC get better bowls. It already has a great bowl package, but we think it can enhance it even more.”
Notre Dame's affiliation with the league won't impact it if indeed the Irish are eligible to participate in a BCS bowl. However, as Notre Dame fans comprehend all too well, that scenario doesn't come around very often. So to ensure that the Irish fans and the program have the strong possibility of playing in a more well-respected bowl game and location, that was Swarbrick's objective in getting involved with the ACC.
“For us, being part of that gives us an assurance we can't find in the bowl world as it is structured now without some partner, some conference partner, to help you do it,” Swarbrick said. “I can only promise the Bowl that I'll be there when I'm available; it's hard to build a bowl around that. And so any solution we came to had to solve that problem. And at the end of the day, you know, we feel very good. We have finished in the Top 4, we know where we are going to be; if we finish slightly below that, we are going to have an opportunity in the Orange Bowl or one of the other BCS host bowls and below that, we are going to be in the ACC package. That's what we needed. We needed a soup to nuts solution for post season and we have achieved it.”
It was written widely that with the overwhelming majority of college football teams being tied to conferences, that Swarbrick's job of filling 12 games each fall was increasingly becoming more difficult. However, the athletic director was emphatic that nothing could be further from the truth.
“I know people have speculated about that,” Swarbrick said. “We have never seen any evidence of that problem. We have more people we have had more people asking to play us in recent years than we could accommodate. And so of all the things that were factors here, some sensed that, boy, if we have some group of games with a single conference, it will help our scheduling, was never a part of it made my life easier, but it wasn't because we needed games.”