They’re at the front of the line now, Irish jigging in navy blue and gold — and in anticipation of all that green.

Notre Dame can hold out no longer. The biggest prize of all in college conference expansion soon will have a choice to make.

The SEC or the Big Ten? The final, critical move on the chessboard.

“If Notre Dame wanted to join the Big Ten now, (Thursday’s) announcement would’ve been USC and Notre Dame,” an industry source told Saturday Down South. “But that doesn’t mean it still can’t happen.”

It’s a simple numbers game, one that Notre Dame — its forever staunchly independent status as much a fabric of its identity as Touchdown Jesus — can’t avoid.

Vanderbilt and Northwestern will make $80 million annually from the SEC and Big Ten.

Notre Dame makes $15 million annually from its NBC contract to televise its home games, and an estimated $10-11 million annually from the ACC (the Irish received a full $35 million share in the 2020 COVID season), depending on the number of games it plays.

That’s $55 million reasons annually Notre Dame will soon have a conference membership.

Notre Dame’s NBC contract — once the gold standard of media rights deals before the boom of media rights deals over the last two decades — leaves the Irish woefully on the short end of media rights revenue. It expires after the 2025 season.

The same year the College Football Playoff contract expires.

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“They’re sitting out there as the last big fish,” another industry source said. “They’re going to play it for all its worth.”

The longstanding obstacle for a Notre Dame and Big Ten marriage — as well as an ACC deal — has been the NBC contract. Notre Dame wants to keep the NBC deal.

For years, Notre Dame had the ability to decline conference overtures because of the NBC contract, and because the Irish were the biggest property in college sports. Bigger than any conference, too.

Those days are long gone.

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal released a college football value rankings. At the top of the list was Texas, with a $1.1 billion value.

Ohio State and Alabama were the only other programs with a value of more than $1 billion, and Notre Dame was fifth at $913.4 million. Of the top 10, 7 were current or future SEC schools (Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee), and 2 were Big Ten schools (Ohio State, Michigan).

Any addition of Notre Dame for the SEC or Big Ten will increase the projected $80 million annual payout for each conference team. That’s Notre Dame’s sales pitch.

Adding Notre Dame adds significant value to the current SEC and Big Ten 16-team formats. That’s how Notre Dame will try to keep the ability to sell its home games.

The Big Ten previously wanted the Irish completely under their media rights umbrella, a significant obstacle to any potential agreement.

“The SEC — and I would suspect this was the Big Ten’s issue in prior attempts — would never agree to (Notre Dame) membership without shared revenue,” a former SEC president told Saturday Tradition. “But there’s pause now. (Notre Dame) adds significant value. Is it big enough to allow a side (media rights) deal? My guess is (a Big Ten deal) didn’t happen now because Notre Dame believes it might be able to get what it wants by negotiating with (the SEC and Big Ten).”

The SEC has been gaming expansion since the breakdown of Playoff expansion. Commissioner Greg Sankey’s “blue skies” thinking included not only an SEC Playoff instead of a CFP Playoff but expansion, too.

One SEC source told ST that conference presidents expect the remaining Power 5 schools (and some Group of 5 schools) to stop scheduling games against the SEC teams should the SEC Playoff become reality.

ACC media rights commitments are through the 2035 football season, and media rights of conference members are legally beholden to the ACC until then. Schools could leave the conference, but their media rights would belong to the ACC until the 2036 season.

But if Notre Dame moves to the SEC or Big Ten, one industry source said ACC schools could legally argue that the ACC landscape has changed because of a loss of 4-6 games a year against Notre Dame.

The loss of those marquee games could be enough to legally separate from the ACC. At least, it could give ACC blue bloods — Miami, Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina, Duke — the ability to argue and/or mitigate separation agreements.

Translation: the SEC and Big Ten could easily become 20-team conferences.

“We’re in a volatile situation in college sports,” an industry source said. “This is just the beginning.”

And Notre Dame holds the key to the final move on the board.