How will expansion affect Irish title hopes?

When the carousel of conference expansion came to a halt last year, Notre Dame once again stood outside the queue, content to stay in its own playground area.

The Big Ten has always had interest, the Big East dreams of making the Irish a full-fledged (read: football) member, and just about any other league would find a way to bring the Notre Dame brand into its fold. But the school stubbornly clings to its independence and will continue to do so for as long as it is economically possible.

Yet there's no disputing that the college football landscape has changed. And how will that change affect Notre Dame?

In many ways, it doesn't mean a thing. The Irish will keep on playing a national schedule, keep on banking on their national fan base and keep on cashing checks from NBC. They still have an entry way into the BCS and are as attractive an at-large option for the BCS as anybody because of the crowds and TV ratings they will draw.

At the same time, expansion could hurt Notre Dame's chances of playing for the BCS title. OK, let's face it: It's been a long time since the program was even within sniffing range of a national title. But if Brian Kelly can get the team back to the level that Lou Holtz enjoyed in his heyday, the Irish could find themselves at a disadvantage.

A 12-0 Notre Dame team is going to get unrelenting attention and hype, and the strength of schedule will always be good enough to help its BCS numbers. But what if, say, a Big Ten team also goes undefeated? That team would have a compelling argument that it had gone through a rugged conference schedule unscathed and then survived a conference title game a week after the Irish had wrapped up their season. The most recent impression matters to voters. Same goes for the Pac-12 with its new championship game. And at this point, it's almost a given that an SEC team will get one berth in the title game.

The flip side is that conference title games also provide another chance for teams to lose a game. So if Notre Dame is sitting there behind a team or two in the BCS pecking order, and the ones in line in front of the Irish get upset in their conference championship tilt, the Domers could slide into a title shot.

Another thing to consider with conference expansion is the effect on Notre Dame's future schedules. The Big Ten announced last week that it would go to a nine-game schedule in 2017, joining the Pac-12 and Big 12. Teams in power leagues will have fewer slots for nonconference games and will likely have less of an appetite to schedule aggressively when they know they already have nine league games to fight through. Will schools like Oklahoma still want to make a deal in the future?

Much of this remains to be seen, and Notre Dame's first goal is to get back to a place where these discussions even matter. But clearly, the actions of others affect the Irish, even if they don't want to play in the same sandbox.