The fate of the college football free world rests in South Bend, Ind.

Golden Domers may have an overinflated opinion of Notre Dame’s importance, but not in this case. The Fighting Irish are positioned to determine whether college football remains a national pastime or a consolidated, lesser version of the NFL.

It’s no secret that the Big Ten is holding out for Notre Dame after plucking USC and UCLA from the Pac-12. B1G commissioner Kevin Warren is Thanos, and the Fighting Irish are the Mind Stone. If he beats the SEC in the race to land Notre Dame, the acceleration into 2 super conferences that control the College Football Playoff is complete.

Maybe that won’t be the death of college football. But it will be the removal of its soul. And if there’s one place where saving souls should matter, it’s Notre Dame. So maybe the right choice will be made.

But it’s going to take a whole lot of willpower given the pot of gold the Big Ten can offer.

What’s at stake for Notre Dame

Notre Dame has famously been a football independent from the beginning. But it didn’t always want to be.

Knute Rockne was very keen on getting the Irish into the Big Ten, which was then called the Western Conference. But the 1920s were rife with anti-Catholic prejudice in the Midwest. It was seen as a religion for immigrants and subversives. Or the types of people who joined labor unions.

“Who can trust people taking their orders from Rome? This is Uh-merica!”

So Notre Dame’s proposed application to join the conference was rejected. Other reasons were provided by Big Ten presidents, but Rockne felt they were just blowing smoke. (Though, obviously, not white or black smoke.)

The Fighting Irish have maintained that path of football independence ever since, with the exception of full ACC membership in 2020.

As the Notre Dame brand became a powerhouse, independence paid very well. The first groundbreaking college football TV deal wasn’t for a conference, but for Notre Dame. The Irish split off from the College Football Association and signed a 5-year deal to broadcast all home games on NBC in 1991.

That relationship continues to the present day, paying Notre Dame $15 million a year. The school makes an additional $10-11 million from its partnership with the ACC in all other sports.

It’s not a bad bit of money. But it’s also chump change compared to what B1G schools are expected to make once USC and UCLA arrive. Though nothing is finalized yet, it’s speculated that member schools could make $100 million a piece on media rights alone by 2030.

Time is of the essence

Just like the current College Football Playoff contract, Notre Dame’s deal with NBC expires after the 2025 season. The futures of both ND and the CFP feel inexorably linked.

If the Irish take the money and join the B1G (or SEC), the race to 20 teams is on. And only those 40 teams that are members of the B1G or SEC will have access to the “College Football Playoff.” Because the CFP will be driven by TV contracts, not a selection committee.

ESPN/ABC would televise a 4-team SEC playoff. Fox would carry a 4-team B1G playoff. The winners meet in a national championship game that rotates between the networks, much like the Super Bowl.

The other schools will undoubtedly file some type of antitrust lawsuit, but guess which side will be able to afford the better lawyers?

That does not necessarily have to be the future, however. Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins could take the path of sacrifice and piety, walking away from the extra money.

Though tradition clearly doesn’t matter to any of college football’s present-day power brokers, it’s inconceivable there would be a CFP structure that doesn’t include access for Notre Dame. To use the only term they care about, the brand is too valuable.

The ACC Irish could save college football

In order to stave off the 2-super conference monster, Notre Dame must choose the ACC. Independence will no longer remain viable.

Without full-time Notre Dame membership, the ACC is very much in peril — even though exit fees are enormous and the landmark media rights contract states the ACC owns every member’s media rights money through 2035, no matter where a school jumps. Lawyers will figure that out.

Clemson, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech are potentially appealing brands — there’s that word again — for the SEC. Or maybe internal pressure in Kentucky swaps the Hokies out and brings Louisville in.

Either way, schools actually located in the southeast represent the most logical point of attack should the SEC choose further escalation. And if the ACC is weakened, that forces an independent Notre Dame’s hand.

The Irish would have little choice but to join the B1G. Notre Dame would lose out on too much revenue with its other sports in a watered-down ACC.

The future of the CFP will be dominated by SEC and B1G teams. But Notre Dame is a strong enough counterbalance to prevent it from becoming the exclusive domain of those 2 conferences.

If you’re a fan of any ACC, Big 12, Pac-10 or Group of 5 program, the time has arrived to do the unthinkable: cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame.

And if you’re a Notre Dame fan, a similarly unthinkable moment has arrived. If they want the Fighting Irish to maintain a distinct identity, it’s time to accept that means actually giving up independence to bolster the sport outside of the B1G and SEC.

We are at a fork in the road of college football history. And the road runs through South Bend.