I totally agree that if anyone can survive as an Indy, it's ND. But that's only if the football program stays healthy. Over time ND (admittedly the love-hate relationship with the Big 10 goes waaaaay back) has ticked off the Big 10, and recently they've ticked off memebers of the conference in which they participate in all other sports, the BE. ND has made some powerful enemies. If the BCS conferences go to 12, and the BE no longer allows ND to take one of its bowl slots, then ND will be walking a tight rope. Scheduling will be tougher, and even if they are allowed to particpate in the BCS or whatever it will later be called, the conference schools will increasingly resent their special privileges. If ND's program hits a bump in the road at that point, the program might never recover. I think the ND folks have gotten a dose of reality in recent years. They may still roll the dice and go it alone, but can they really afford to stumble if they are the only independent left, and no conferences are donating bowl slots to them? If they fall in a hole at that point, they could turn into the next SMU. Granted, ND will never fall of the face of the earth completely, but if fan support dwindles and bridges are burnt, they'd have problems. And keep in mind it's not liek the athletes that go to ND have all heard of Knute Rockne. If ND starts losing and they are an indy, they could be stuck in a hole for a long time. Tradition won't mean much to their recruits. Trouble like this may never come along, but I don't know if they can afford the risk, especially since they have other sports to worry about as well.
Given, ND may still say screw it and go it alone. They may figure that if they hit a rough patch, they can still join a conference at a later date. A BCS conference would be more than happy to rehab them. But they'd have almost no bargaining power at that point. Mighty big risk.
I think they'll join one of the two obvious conferences. Interesting to compare:
BE--Home to rivals Pitt, BC, great potential rivals in West Va, 'Cuse, Miami. May also be home to Navy by then. In BE could recruit Florida better. ND is one of the major eastern market draws (though much bigger in Chicago). Could cut a better deal with the BE than the Big 10. BE tv contract might not be what Big 10's would be with ND included, but ND could get more favorable terms. Realignment would make Miami/ND title game likely most years. Is already current home for other sports. Arguably (some of you will disagree) will have easier schedule in BE, due to more favorable scheduling. Will take less of a physical pounding than in Big 10. Growing resentment, but conference still eager to have them in all sports. Better institutional fit in BE.
Big 11--Home to historic rivals Penn State, Mich St., Mich, Purdue, as well as great potential rivalries with Indiana, Ohio St., Northwestern, Wisconsin. More of a fan base in Big 10 region, especially Chicago. TV contract for Big 10 as whole with ND would be better than BE (probably), but ND would have far less leverage in conference. Might get screwed in scheduling. Hard feelings already between Big 10 and ND. All the other ND teams would have to switch conferences.
Between the two conferences, I think ND will join the BE, if the BE plays their cards right, and if the ND guys aren't too stubborn. ND in the BE would mean the sky's the limit in the BE. The BE would be able to make a push as Clemson, FSU, and probably Penn State. If the Big 10 can't get a 12th member that they want, and PSU's recruiting continues to take a hit, I think the athletics department at least will look fondly at the BE. Sounds like the fan base is happy with the Big 10, but I wonder how they'll feel if they still play Mich St. at the end of the year and continue to lose recruits to BE teams. The grass will begin to look greener, especially with ND, Pitt, Miami, Syracuse, Rutgers, West Va, (and ideally FSU) all in the BE.