The latest Big Ten expansion rumor has the conference extending feelers to Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Missouri. If Notre Dame were to decline, Rutgers might receive an invitation.
This conflicts, of course what Big Ten officials said last month, indicating that they would be taking their time to reach decisions, leaving the impression that could be several months.
Everyone, including the Big Ten and the presidents of the schools, is denying that any contacts have been made. So one has to assume the latest buzz is a trial balloon to see how the idea flies with a certain group of fans.
That, of course, would be the Notre Dame fans, with a national fan base unrivaled by any school in any sport. They value their independence, and selling them on the idea of a conference affiliation is going to take a little time for fans still living in the past. One has to believe the Notre Dame administration recognizes that tradition can only take one so far.
Despite its national following, Notre Dame no longer has the appeal it once had for the average fan. Sure, the Irish consistently have a tough national schedule and a list of traditional foes. But over the last two decades, Notre Dame has been little more than an also-ran in college football. Yes, the Irish have been invited to a few BCS games. But expectations were low, and they usually met them.
That could change if Notre Dame were to join a conference, providing more of an incentive for fans of other schools to watch the Irish on TV, competing for something tangible, rather than sentimental reasons.
Imagine how much meaningful a Notre Dame-Michigan game would be if the teams were playing a conference game. Purdue and Michigan State are annual foes, but those games could garner major TV ratings’ gains if the games meant anything to anyone besides Notre Dame, Purdue and Michigan State fans.
Notre Dame could actually become relevant again by giving up its independence.