No matter what happens Monday night in the BCS championship game against Alabama, Notre Dame will be the big winner for 2012, and many more years to come. Call it the luck of the Irish if you want, but they could not have picked a better time to put together a dream season.
As recently as the end of last season, it was legitimate to question whether Notre Dame was a national thing any longer. Squeezed out - on its own volition, no less - of the mad conference realignment money-grab, Notre Dame had become a perennial also-ran in a landscape increasingly dominated by the SEC and other power conferences. The Irish had lost 10 of their last 12 bowl games, including nine in a row from 1994 to 2006. And their TV ratings had slipped so much that they were even mocked by their own network.
All it took was a 12-game winning streak to fix all that.
Expectations weren't high as the Irish began their third season under Brian Kelly unranked in the preseason AP poll with a brutal schedule that included Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and top-ranked USC, with the latter two on the road. They were an independent outfit, an anachronism from a bygone era.
But as it proved this season, Notre Dame is uniquely qualified to strike out on its own. And independence is a vital part of its identity as the team rang up victories and cash registers alike.
Win or lose on Monday, Notre Dame will collect $6.2 million this season by playing in a BCS bowl game, which dwarves the payout to any given conference member. The Pac-12 teams, which lead the rest, will collect $2.48 million each this season by virtue of having two conferences members in BCS games and thus dividing $29.8 million 12 ways.
Notre Dame went with a winner-take-all approach in the first eight years of the BCS, during which it earned $27.5 million by appearing in two BCS games. Starting in 2006, it opted for a more risk-averse route, accepting a smaller but guaranteed annual payment, with a bonus in years it qualifies for a BCS game. Even if the Irish fail to make a BCS bowl next season, they will have collected at least $21.6 million over eight years, an annual rate of $2.7 million that outstrips every other school during that timespan.
With the arrangement of BCS 2.0, Notre Dame likely will increase the BCS payout gap on its conference-affiliated competition. With six bowls and a total of 12 slots available annually, the Irish will have a better chance to become a fixture in the new setup, especially if Kelly can build on his success this season with more banner recruiting classes. In the new scenario, Notre Dame should qualify for a BCS game every season with two losses or fewer, not an extraordinarily high bar considering it'll be playing at least five ACC foes per season by 2014.
And it gets better (if you're a hater, it might be a good time to close the browser now). Notre Dame's renaissance comes just in time as negotiations for a new TV contract heat up. NBC pays Notre Dame a reported $15 million annually in an eight-year deal that expires after 2015. And this year's TV ratings for the Irish, capped by a blockbuster 10.3 in the regular-season finale at USC and maybe double that for the BCS title game, will only reinforce their brand power and value.
Since most of the major conferences have recently signed new TV deals worth at least 20 million annually to each school, expect NBC to match that to keep Notre Dame home games on the Peacock Network. At the very least, Notre Dame's new deal should exceed the $17 million per school the ACC is getting, but no one should be surprised if the new TV contract pays the Irish $25 to $30 million a year.
All in all, things have worked out swimmingly for the Irish this year. They beat the posse out of the fast-imploding Big East by putting all their Olympic sports teams in the ACC. The five-football-games-per-year agreement with the ACC allows the Irish to play a high-profile schedule without being too severely challenged. All the while they get to maintain their cherished independence as the most truly national program in college football.
And if they manage to beat Alabama and Nick Saban on Monday night? It's a prospect that just might be too terrifying for some to contemplate.
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