Notre Dame's play for freedom

Originally Published: December 29, 2012
By Matt Fortuna | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- For as many questions as Notre Dame's football team faced entering this season -- and for a team whose starting quarterback got arrested, whose freshman All-American end transferred, whose secondary was undergoing a makeover and whose schedule seemed daunting, there were plenty of them -- the Fighting Irish were facing every bit as many off-the-field uncertainties about their piece in the college football picture.

How would Notre Dame fit into the new playoff format? Was its independence viable? What about the potential collapse of the Big East?

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Stadium
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame's football program enjoyed a winning season on and off the field.

The answers came during a six-month course that saw the Irish gain access to college football's new postseason and broker a deal with the ACC that allowed the football team to maintain its independence. Then, they further validated their presence at the adults' table by restoring the glory on the field, running the table en route to a 12-0 record, No. 1 ranking and spot in the Discover BCS National Championship on Jan. 7 against reigning champion Alabama.

Notre Dame also topped the NCAA's graduation success rate figures, becoming the first school to be atop that list and the BCS standings simultaneously.

"Two things stand out. Before the season started, before we had won one football game, we were able to gain access to the final four," coach Brian Kelly said. "So I think everything that led up to this season still made it clear that Notre Dame had a seat at that table. After winning this year and showing that we can win nationally against perennially great programs, I think it just secured our philosophy of being an independent and being part of the national landscape.

"So two things came together: One, that we had that seat before the season started, and then we strengthened that decision by going undefeated. I think those are the two things that came together this year for us."

Notre Dame and Alabama dominated the college football season on the field by finishing No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, and their strong play and even stronger brands off the field kept them ahead of the pack when it came to television sets, too.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly should likely have a smooth spring with 15 returning starters and his staff intact.

With the Irish needing only a prime-time win at unranked rival USC on Nov. 24 to clinch a spot in the national title game, ABC drew a 9.4 rating for the 22-13 Notre Dame victory, making it the network's most-watched regular-season game since No. 1 Ohio State's 2006 win over No. 2 Michigan (13.0). Notre Dame's 12th win of this season drew ABC's largest Saturday night football audience ever, and it drew the network's biggest audience for an Irish game since 1993, the last season in which the school had been truly in the national title hunt.

Notre Dame's four games on ABC this season averaged a 5.3 rating, or nearly 9 million viewers.

"A school with the magnitude of the following that we have, with an expectation of national championships and national dominance, to take over the program where Coach Kelly took it over, which was really -- as has been quoted many times by people -- almost nationally irrelevant, to turn that back into something that is relevant is really an awesome thing," Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said of this season. "The cheering never went away. Notre Dame Nation continued to cheer, when they really didn't have much to cheer about. Which is awesome. Now it's got to be a great feeling for the players in particular, that those people have something to cheer about. They put their interlocking ND on, and can proudly walk down the street and through the hallways of their workplaces. It's fun."

One week after Notre Dame beat USC, Alabama clinched its date with the Irish by pulling out a squeaker against Georgia in the SEC title game, drawing a 9.8 rating on CBS. The two contests, according to Sports Media Watch, are the fifth and sixth most-viewed regular-season games of the past 20 years.

Then there is the whole matter of the NBC deal, a luxury afforded the Irish based on their national appeal. Their reported $15 million-per-year deal with the network to broadcast home games expires in 2015, and athletic director Jack Swarbrick said early in the season that he had every intention of extending the deal.

All that has happened since is the program's first undefeated regular season in 24 years, with Notre Dame's seven regular-season games on NBC averaging 4.4 million viewers per contest, up 69 percent from its 8-5 season in 2011.

Three Irish home games this season averaged more than 5 million viewers. That did not happen once in 2011.

[+] EnlargeJack Swarbrick
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsAthletic director Jack Swarbrick has said he has every intention of extending the Irish's deal with NBC.

All four of Notre Dame's true road games this season were made prime-time affairs. For the outlier, roughly 35,000 Americans made the trip to Dublin for Notre Dame's season opener "at" Navy. The school has moved home games to San Antonio, New York, Washington and Chicago in each of the past four seasons for its Shamrock Series game, a tradition that will continue next season in Dallas and, Swarbrick has said, through at least the 2016 season.

ACC schools will benefit from Notre Dame's two or three trips to the conference per year beginning in 2014, when the Irish will face five rotating ACC opponents in football while the rest of their sports participate in the conference as full members, beginning at a yet to be determined date.

And yet, all this was in place before much of Notre Dame's renaissance run, proving that one of the only college sports entities more dynamic than Notre Dame football is good Notre Dame football.

"Our participation in the BCS has little if anything to do with our success on the field in any particular year," Swarbrick said. "Rather it reflects three distinct things: One, the important role Notre Dame played as a founding member of the BCS. Two, the importance of having the independents represented at the table, and three, the significant commercial value Notre Dame contributes.

"The latter factor is enhanced in a year like this one as demonstrated by our broadcast ratings, but it always exists."

Matt Fortuna | email

College Football