Notre Dame is the lone wolf in the college football world surviving by the power of numbers. The simple fact remains that there are more Notre Dame fans than any other DI school, and that power allows the Irish to remain independent—free to choose to play anyone at any time.
However, I believe Notre Dame's independence, and more importantly, their commitment to certain rival games, can make scheduling difficult, and Notre Dame's chances of BCS games and National Championships even more difficult.
If I were athletic director at any school, I would want to make sure my team played a mixture of difficult and easy games…..enough difficult games to earn respect, but not too many to limit my school's chances of going to a BCS game.
More importantly, I'd like to put some distance between each "difficult" game, and Notre Dame often doesn't have that luxury. It's my belief that it's very difficult for any coach to have their team mentally prepared to play, and win, back-to-back difficult games where teams are pretty evenly matched. It's also very hard for any coach to play the "meat" of his schedule at the beginning of the season. The loss of top players to graduation takes time to overcome, and too many early tests can lead to disaster.
Ultimately, I'd schedule three difficult games, four games that might give you a challenge, and then five games where your team would be large favorites to win.
If you look at Notre Dame's 2006 schedule, one would think that someone was thinking along the same lines as me, although this schedule contains too many challenging games for my liking, but that's the perils of scheduling.
USC, Michigan and Penn State would be the three traditional power games where the teams would likely be evenly matched. UCLA, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Purdue, North Carolina and Stanford are all capable of giving Notre Dame a game, and Army, Navy and Air Force are all games Notre Dame should always win.
Let's take a look at the 2006 schedules for some of the projected top teams heading into this season.
Oklahoma has an outstanding schedule in my opinion. The Sooners start out with Alabama-Birmingham and Washington at home—two easily winnable games. They then travel to Oregon for a difficult test. They follow the trip to Eugene, Ore., with a home game against Middle Tennessee State followed by a week off. Even if Oklahoma were to trip up in Eugene, they have a great shot to end September 3-1 with a week off to heal injuries and fix any problems they might have before their conference begins. There is an outstanding chance they'll be 4-0 and have a lot of confidence heading into their game against Texas after the off-week.
Will anyone drop their ranking if they've played three cupcakes in Alabama-Birmingham, Washington and Middle Tennessee State? Not if they beat Oregon in Eugene.
What about their rival, Texas? Texas starts the season with North Texas before playing a very difficult game with Ohio State. They follow with Rice, Iowa State and Sam Houston State before meeting their rival in the Red River Shootout. Even if Texas loses to Ohio State, they still have a great chance to be 4-1 heading into their Oklahoma match-up. A win over Oklahoma, even with one loss, would put them right back in the hunt.
Florida also has a fairly easy month of September. They start with two tune-ups, Southern Miss. and Central Florida, before they travel to Knoxville and play Tennessee. They follow that game with a game against Kentucky before hosting Alabama. The Gators will certainly be at least 3-1 before the Crimson Tide comes to town.
USC also has a fairly easy schedule this season. They start the season at Arkansas and then host their big game, Nebraska, in their second game. They follow the Huskers by hitting the road at Arizona and Washington State before returning home to face Washington for "Homecoming." The Trojans have a great shot at being 5-0 and build confidence and momentum, and 8-0 with games against Arizona State, and at Oregon State and Stanford. The Trojans finish strong with three straight homes games, Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame, and then play city rival, UCLA, for the finale.
Auburn is another school said to have a chance to win it all this season. Auburn starts with two fairly easy games in hosting Washington State and traveling to Mississippi State, and then they host the big game, LSU. Buffalo at home is another cupcake before they head to South Carolina for a difficult game. Auburn also should be at least 3-1 heading into that game in Columbia, S.C.
Ohio State also has two easily winnable games in their first three starting with Northern Illinois before heading to Texas. They follow their trip to Austin, Texas with a game against Cincinnati before playing their revenge game against Penn State.
Most people would agree the six teams above would be considered likely candidates to win it all. All six have favorable early schedules, which gives them a good chance to build some confidence as a team heading into their tougher conference games.
The Irish, on the other hand, play Georgia Tech away, Penn State and Michigan at home, and then have another difficult road game at Michigan State in the month of September. The Irish could just as easily lose all four games as they could win all four. Notre Dame should be favored in the first two, provided they beat Georgia Tech, but Penn State is no slouch, regardless of how many players they've lost from last year. Michigan is always an epic battle, and Notre Dame struggles mightily against the Spartans.
Why does Notre Dame continue to put themselves into a difficult situation year in and year out with these early games? Rival games are the reason.
Notre Dame feels they must play Michigan State and Purdue every year due to some "rivalry" between the two schools. Do you care about the Purdue or Michigan State rivalry? I don't, and the players don't seem to either. Then, the Michigan/Notre Dame rivalry also interferes with scheduling.
It has been said, although not confirmed by me, that the Big 10 asks their teams to play all their non-conference games before their conference season begins. Thus, all games must be played in the first month of the season.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, that leaves a heavy slate of Big 10 teams early in the season. Notre Dame doesn't get the opportunity to feast on teams like Middle Tennessee State and Akron to build confidence, momentum and team chemistry. Instead, they're in the midst of a "rivalry" game every week where the opposing team (Michigan State, Purdue) feel the rivalry much more than Notre Dame does.
What does Notre Dame get out of playing these games? Besides the Dillingham-to-Battle pass, when was the last time a Michigan State-Notre Dame game ranked high on your memories of favorite Notre Dame games? I can barely remember anything about these games. I just don't think they're important to most Notre Dame fans.
So why play them?
Who is Michigan State and Purdue to dictate when Notre Dame must play them to continue the rivalry. Why should Notre Dame bow down to their wishes? If the Spartans and the Boilermakers want to continue the rivalry, then they can schedule the game at a convenient time for Notre Dame. The Irish have plenty of teams that will play them at any time of the year (see Tennessee last season and Florida State a few seasons ago). North Carolina has no problem disrupting their conference slate to visit South Bend this season. Athletic directors across the country would love to schedule a home and home with Notre Dame any day of the week. Some might even consider a neutral site game…..hmmmm.
Let's take this season for instance. Say Notre Dame told Sparty to pound sand this year. Michigan State would be off the schedule this season and replaced by, oh say, Vanderbilt. We could move Vanderbilt up into the Michigan slot and then play Michigan the week after—or the slot where Michigan State currently resides.
Notre Dame would still play two very difficult teams in Penn State and Michigan, a good challenge in Georgia Tech, and then a game they should win against Vanderbilt. They would also have a week in between the two difficult games in Penn State and Michigan. I think most Notre Dame fans would be excited about this.
Or better yet, just commit to playing two teams no matter what—USC and Navy. The vast majority of Irish fans would agree these two teams are the two teams Notre Dame should always play. This would allow the Irish to schedule anyone at any time, and it would give them freedom to spread out the more difficult games throughout the season. It would also allow them to showcase their team (a big factor in recruiting battles) in any part of the country they wish.
With this scenario say Notre Dame would play a schedule that might look like this:@ Georgia Tech
@ Air Force
Tennessee (in Orlando)
If Purdue doesn't want to do that, or the Big 10 says no, replace them with Duke or someone else who'd be glad to play the Irish at that time.
The Irish would play three very difficult games, a good number of teams that can give them a game, and a few teams that look like easy wins.
In reality, how is this any different than Oklahoma's schedule for 2006 listed below:9/2 -- Alabama-Birmingham (5-6)
9/9 -- Washington (2-9)
9/16 -- at Oregon (10-2) 2:30 p.m. (CST)
9/23 -- Middle Tennessee State (4-7)
9/30 – Open
10/7 -- Texas (13-0) at Dallas
10/14 -- Iowa State (7-5)
10/21 -- Colorado (7-6)
10/28 -- at Missouri (7-5)
11/4 -- at Teas A&M (5-6)
11/18 -- Texas Tech (5-6)
11/25 -- at Oklahoma State (4-7)
12/2 -- Big 12 Championship (Kansas City)
Will Oklahoma be ranked in the top three or higher teams in the country if they win all 11 games? Will anyone question whether they belong to be there? If Notre Dame played the first four teams on Oklahoma's schedule, I doubt anyone would think there's a chance they'd be anything less than 3-1.
I know some Irish fans will say; "we have to play Michigan State and Purdue." Why? Who says so? What does Notre Dame get out of these games? Do you feel better beating Purdue than beating say North Carolina? I'm going to guess you do. But, would you be happier coming out of September 4-0 versus 3-1? Now that is the real question to ponder. The rivalries with Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue make that very hard to do.
In fact, since 1989, 16 seasons, Notre Dame has started the season 4-0 just twice.
Let me be clear in saying that I'm not saying the Irish should drop their rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State or Purdue. In fact, at least two could stay, probably all three if they wanted it to. But Notre Dame has been bending over backwards for the past 30 years to accommodate these three teams and their conference affiliation to its own detriment. Why would you continue to do this?
Would you, as a Notre Dame fan, revolt if Michigan State wasn't on the schedule this year or the next? Would you if both Michigan State and Purdue were not scheduled? Personally, I don't think many Irish fans would care.
The real problem for Notre Dame is that the Irish can stick to their standard of difficult schedules, but the rest of the DI world has seen the light and they're already "scheduling down." With each team playing one less difficult game per year, you'll likely see more undefeated teams in the future.
A one-loss team will be hard pressed to play for anything, no matter how good they are. The Irish fans that want the Irish to still schedule all comers can say "we'll play anyone" but that won't matter if you're 11-1 and 10-2. You won't get the chance to play for it all. All the other top schools are scheduling down and Notre Dame must react to the market. They'd be foolish not to.
Reacting to the market might mean losing a "rival" game or two. It doesn't have to be, but I believe Notre Dame should stand up to these Big 10 teams and say "we're going to start playing these games when it's convenient for us or we're not going to play them at all." The Big 10 teams can decide if they want to continue to the rivalry as they've had it "their way" for the past 30 years.