Currently No. 1, Notre Dame just pawn in future playoff discussions

The Orange Bowl is juicier with its ACC/SEC/Big Ten deal, but what does it say about the value of Notre Dame? (US Presswire)

While currently No. 1, Notre Dame has become more or less a (valuable) pawn going forward in the new playoff era.

We're beginning to see why the Big Ten rocked the college athletics world by expanding to Maryland and Rutgers this week. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany intimated that expansion would have been unnecessary if a proposed Pac-12/Big Ten challenge in all sports had gone through.

The Big Ten might have also desired a stand-alone spot in the Orange Bowl opposite the ACC champion. But when the Orange Bowl announced its future matchups last week, it became clear in retrospect that the Big Ten was going to act quickly. Just two days after the Orange Bowl announcement, ESPN.com reported the league was in talks with Maryland and Rutgers.

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While the Big Ten has long thought to favor both schools, expansion talks escalated after the Orange announcement that included the Big Ten and SEC as partners.

The Orange Bowl press release pointed out -- as CBSSports.com reported in September -- that the game would match the ACC champ against the highest ranked from a group that included Notre Dame as well as teams from the SEC and the Big Ten beginning in 2014.

The next sentence was loaded with unseen asterisks so massive they needed to be measured by one of those truck-weighing stations on the side of the highway.

The ACC champ is guaranteed an Orange Bowl berth except in years when the bowl “passes through” the system as a national semifinal. That leaves eight “contract” matchups in 12 years, just like the Sugar and Rose bowls. The SEC and Big Ten are guaranteed at least three of those appearances. Notre Dame has a maximum of two appearances and no minimum.

Yes, if the winds blew right in college football, Notre Dame would have no major-bowl anchor in the new playoff era. It kind of depends on the Irish's quality of football. If they are good enough, they will be picked by a selection committee for some bowl or another, just not necessarily in the Orange. Think of that. Essentially, the Orange Bowl didn't want to be locked into having to take Notre Dame if it was the highest ranked among the three partners.

The big winner is the ACC, which has a guaranteed spot in the playoff bowl rotation. Also, the Big Ten and SEC, which have two potential guaranteed spots -- one more than the Big 12 and Pac-12. Don't forget that the Orange suddenly became more flexible -- maybe even better in certain years -- than the Rose and Sugar bowls.

Down the list is Notre Dame. The Irish football brand, it would seem, has diminished even though it remains this season's only undefeated bowl-eligible FBS program (despite being undefeated Ohio State is ineligible). The new Orange setup suggests the worst access that Notre Dame has had to the system since getting to the Fiesta Bowl at 6-4-1 in the mid-1990s.

And that seems like the way that it will be until ND decides to join the ACC full-time. And if the recent raid just happens to destabilize the ACC/Notre Dame partnership, it's not the worst thing in the world for the Big Ten.

“It's the flip side of independence,” Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick told reporters last week at the BCS meetings in Denver. “We love it and all the benefits it gives us, but the conference anchor, the perception of the conference, you never have a benefit from it.”

While the Big Ten desired a stand-alone spot in the Orange, another idea was to go straight highest-ranked (among SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame) vs. ACC champ. But sources recommended the tweaks so that the ACC/Orange would not get trapped in a bad brand matchup. Example: Texas A&M has the potential to be a sexier pick than Iowa. Given that flexibility, the Orange could pick the Aggies even though Iowa would be ranked higher.

That makes the Orange potentially more entertaining, something it hasn't been frequently in the BCS. The wow factor has been lacking mostly with the bowl locked into the ACC champion and frequently forced to take the Big East representative. Ratings and attendance suffered.

By tying up with the ACC, the Orange retained its major-bowl spot in the postseason. When ACC commissioner John Swofford talked the Big Ten and SEC into tying up the other slot, the Orange got a new coat of paint. Gold paint.

I have proof. Here's a look at the last four Orange Bowls:

2012: No. 23 West Virginia vs. No. 15 Clemson

2011: No. 4 Stanford vs. No. 13 Virginia Tech

2010: No. 10 Iowa vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech

2009: No. 19 Virginia Tech vs. No. 12 Cincinnati

That's three top-10 teams in eight slots in four years. That's an average rank of No. 13. Virginia Tech appeared four times in a five-year period. That's a lot of folks from Virginia getting really bored staring at a lot of art deco.

Using current rankings and projecting conference champions based on the 2014 selection process, the Orange this season would feature Florida State vs. Georgia.

Not bad.

That's why the Orange had to remake itself. Considering that flexibility, the Orange has a better chance of staying relevant -- even more interesting in certain years than those Rose and Sugar bowls. There will be more variety. The Rose Bowl, for example, might end up with two teams ranked outside the top 10 this season. In seasons in which the Sugar Bowl is not a national semifinal, it will frequently host -- at best -- second-place teams from the SEC and Big 12.

Think of the current Cotton Bowl matchup in most years being played in New Orleans.

Throw Notre Dame in the Orange, and you have a chance for a “Super ACC Championship Game.” Let's say ND, in its new scheduling agreement, plays the ACC champion during a particular season. A rematch in the Orange Bowl wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. One team would be guaranteed to have the revenge motive from the regular season. The Orange winner could stake some sort of claim of being the overall ACC winner.

That's an unlikely match but worth thinking about for a bowl that needed all the juice it can get.

There's also TV juice. In the new playoff era, the Orange Bowl will be played on Dec. 31 in prime time. In years in which the semifinals are played in two host bowls, the Orange will be played on New Year's Day at 1 p.m. ET.

(Indications are those host bowls are likely to be in Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta.)

When the Orange Bowl is hosting a semifinal (four times in 12 years), the ACC champ will be placed in another host -- or open -- bowl. The SEC/Big Ten rep will not. Remember, we're talking about a No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4 choice from those leagues. If they are good enough, they will find a home in another playoff bowl.

Take a look around South Florida. The art deco just became a whole lot more interesting.

 
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