Some Big Ten supporters think the conference should stop scheduling Notre Dame, to "punish" the Irish for joining the ACC. They're making a fundamental error: thinking like a fan, rather than thinking like an athletic director.
Here are some basic facts:
Michigan and Notre Dame have played annually since 1978, aside from a couple of two-year hiatuses planned long in advance (1983-84, 1995-96, and another coming in 2018-19). Michigan has had seven athletic directors during that time, starting with Don Canham, who reinstated the series after a 35-year absence. You'd think that if playing Notre Dame were such a terrible idea, one of those ADs would have stopped it by now.
Even Bo Schembechler, who famously said "To hell with Notre Dame," didn't cancel the series during the three years that he was Athletic Director. Given his control over the program, it is hard to believe that Bo couldn't have put an end to it, if he'd really wanted to.
So, why does Michigan play Notre Dame?
The series has numerous benefits. It's a high-profile game that is always nationally televised. Travel costs are low. The game is competitive but winnable. Even in years that the Irish are terrible, the media always act like beating them is a Big Deal. The last three games, all won by Michigan, have created iconic moments that very few opponents could supply: Tate Forcier's coming-out party in 2009, Denard Robinson's in 2010, and Under-the-Lights last year. Since the series resumed, most of the games have been very entertaining, with 19 out of 28 contests decided by 8 points or less.
You might think that Michigan could easily replace Notre Dame with comparable opponents. You'd be wrong. A lot of those opponents don't want to come to Ann Arbor. (Dave Brandon recently tried to schedule Oklahoma, and was refused.) And outside of the Big Ten, most of the premier programs play in hot-weather climates, where a September game would put Michigan at a significant disadvantage. If you thought it was bad playing Alabama indoors, imagine what it would be like in Tuscaloosa.
In short: if Notre Dame fell off of the schedule, Michigan would be hard pressed to replace them annually with acceptable games against high-profile home & home opponents. Of course, somebody would come to play Michigan, but if you think the replacement game would regularly be as good as Notre Dame (in terms of prestige, TV viewership, excitement, or any way you measure it), you're kidding yourself.
The case for playing Notre Dame is even more compelling for Michigan State and Purdue. The Boilermakers have played Notre Dame every season since 1946. It is more important to them than any rivalry in the Big Ten, as it's the only game they play that is guaranteed to be televised nationally. No other Purdue game attracts so much interest. And there are probably no major football programs that would consider a trip to West Lafayette worthwhile. Cinncinati in 2016 is the most prestigious non-Big Ten, non-ND home game the Boilermakers currently have scheduled, supplementing a diet of directional schools, MAC programs, and the like.
The situation is quite similar for Michigan State. Remember their memorable overtime win vs. Notre Dame, which was the featured night game on ABC two years ago? They're doing it again tomorrow. Who else could the Spartans play, that would generate that kind of coverage? The Spartans have been elevating their schedule lately: they have future home & home series with Miami (YTM), Alabama, Oregon, and Boise State. But of that list, only Alabama matches Notre Dame in prestige.
I have no interest in helping Purdue and MSU recruit, but the fact is: to kids who might be considering playing football at those schools, an annual game with Notre Dame is a perk.
So I can only laugh when people suggest that the Big Ten ought to refuse to schedule Notre Dame, to "punish" the Irish for not joining the conference. It's a big like "punishing" Kate Upton for refusing to date you. Kate will do just fine, and so will Notre Dame. Oklahoma, Texas, Northwestern, and Arizona State, are among the teams that have scheduled the Irish in future years, in addition to their usual rivals (USC, Stanford, Brigham Young, Navy) and various ACC teams.
I'm not aware of any athletic director who resents the Irish for choosing to be independent. Athletic directors realize that games with Notre Dame are good business. Whether or not the Irish deserve their popularity, the fact is they are popular, because two large ethnic groups — Irish and Catholics — consider Notre Dame their de facto home team. This is why the major conference commissioners treat the Notre Dame athletic director like an equal; why they have their own network TV deal; and why they have their own entrée into the BCS, under conditions granted to no other school.
So to the extent that Big Ten schools for decades have found it useful to schedule Notre Dame, what exactly has changed? The answer is: nothing. Notre Dame always made clear that they intended to remain independent in football. All they've done is to leave the rotting Big East, as numerous other schools have done when the opportunity arose.
The match-up makes sense for both parties. As the weakest of the "Big Five" football conferences, the ACC wanted to make itself more attractive to television and the bowls. Notre Dame's strong academics are also an attraction, in the only available conference that is academically as strong as the Big Ten. Notre Dame gets access to the ACC's bowl tie-ins and a far better home for basketball and its olympic sports. It will play 5 ACC teams in football every year, but many of those teams have regularly played the Irish anyway.
Culturally, the ACC is a better fit for Notre Dame than any conference, including the Big Ten. The ACC already has five other private schools (if you count Syracuse, joining next year), including the only other Catholic school that plays FBS football (Boston College). The ACC footprint includes large Catholic and Irish populations, and Notre Dame alumni historically have tended to migrate east. Outside of the midwest, the East is Notre Dame's most fertile territory for recruiting. That's a big reason why the Irish chose the ACC over the Big 12, which was the only other major conference willing to admit the Irish on similar terms.
Numerous news stories have mentioned that the Irish will probably be re-evaluating their future schedules, now that they're committed to play five ACC teams per season, starting in 2014. If you add Navy, USC, Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue every year, that would leave the Irish with just one "flex" game, or none in the years Brigham Young is on the schedule.
So which rivals might Notre Dame play less often? The Irish consider USC and Stanford their most valuable rivalry games, because it ensures they play in Califorina every year, an important selling point for West Coast recruits. The Navy game has been contested every season since 1914, making it the oldest uninterrupted intersectional rivalry in college football. It's also practically an automatic win for Notre Dame. There's no way they're giving that up.
The three Big Ten rivalries have different costs and benefits for Notre Dame. They've played Purdue every year since 1946, and it's another game they usually win. However, very few people other than Notre Dame fans and Indiana residents care about the game, so it doesn't really help them with recruiting. Of all Notre Dame's rivals, Purdue really needs the game. Canceling it or playing it less often would really screw Purdue.
Michigan is the best known of Notre Dame's Big Ten rivalries, and the one that's the best media draw, but it's also the toughest for them. Michigan is one of the few schools (and the only one the Irish play regularly) that has a winning record vs. Notre Dame.
The Michigan State rivalry goes back to 1897, and since 1948 the two schools have missed each other just four times (1953, 1958, 1995-6). Historically, Notre Dame dominated the series (other than the 1950-63 period, when MSU was good), but since 1997 the Spartans have given Notre Dame fits, winning 10 out of 15. If Notre Dame decides that it doesn't need to play two state-of-Michigan schools, you'd think Michigan State would be seen as the dispensable game.
There is very little doubt in my mind that if the Irish want to keep playing, the Big Ten will continue to welcome them with open arms. In an interview with CBS Sports, Purdue's athletic director almost seemed to be pleading: "You have two schools in the state of Indiana with shared values -- their close proximity is a mutual benefit when it comes to travel and potential missed class time by the student-athletes -- so it only makes sense that we will continue to compete against them."
Dave Brandon told the Associated Press that Michigan wants to keep the series going, but that it would be up to the Irish. MSU AD Mark Hollis said that the school has a contract with Notre Dame out to 2031 that calls for four years on, two years off. So that ought to dispel the idea that Big Ten teams have any notion of kicking Notre Dame off their schedules.
Perhaps one scenario is that the Irish will continue to play Purdue every year, while alternating the Michigan and Michigan State series (2 years on, 2 years off). That's just one way it could play out. Because of the continuous tradition, the in-state proximity, and the fact that the Irish usually win, it's harder to imagine them playing Purdue less often.
For Michigan fans, the question isn't whether we want to play Notre Dame, but whether Notre Dame wants to play us. If the Irish are available, David Brandon will schedule them, just as the last six athletic directors that preceded him have done, over and over again.