Independence in hand, ND a playoff winner

The prevailing theme around Notre Dame after all of these talks, all of this speculation, is relief.

The independence to which Notre Dame football clings so tightly remains secure. The tidal wave has passed and a four-team playoff is coming to college football, and the Irish have yet to find themselves in a conference.

The national appeal remains. Recruits from coast to coast still show interest -- and hey, Notre Dame got a pretty big one from WashingtonInsider on Tuesday, for those who were busy -- and the Olympic sports, at least for now, are safe and sound in the Big East, an area vital to the athletic department's recruiting as a whole.

What's more, tough out-of-conference scheduling -- or, in this case, simply "scheduling" -- will be rewarded. USC and Stanford; Michigan and Michigan State; Boston College and a military academy or two; they all get to host and visit Notre Dame on an annual basis, with a few more big names (see: Miami, Oklahoma) making the slate as well.

This was objective No. 1 for Jack Swarbrick upon his hiring four summers ago. As the landscape of college athletics continued to shift ever so surely (and ever so slowly), Notre Dame's athletic director was charged with guiding the football program through the unsteady waters, to avoid panicking and to not jump to safer shores at the first sign of trouble.

"I believe that I accept this job on the threshold of extraordinary change in intercollegiate athletics in America," Swarbrick said on July 16, 2008. "I have my theories on what that change may entail and where the industry is headed, but I think they'll be enormous. There's much about this industry that you won't recognize in 10 years. We must be at the forefront in that. We must participate in dictating that change. Notre Dame cannot have that dictated to it. And I love the challenge of accepting that responsibility."

Questions remain -- and they will so long as this sport continues to change. Just when it looks like the pause button has been pushed on conference re-shuffling, Pitt and Syracuse jump to the ACC, threatening the Irish athletic department's safe haven in the Big East. And just last week, reports surfaced about Notre Dame's Olympic sports possibly moving to the Big 12, prompting a rebuttal from Swarbrick on the same day.

What happens from here on out is, frankly, unpredictable. But with college football now moving to a playoff, the biggest change in the sport's 143-year history has come and gone. And Notre Dame, independence in hand, is better off for it.