I-AA Minus

Had Notre Dame's offense remained in neutral (or, with 11 penalties accounting for -80 yards, was it reverse?) and had the defense not managed to shut down the force of nature that Calvin Johnson seems to be (or was it Patrick Nix who did that?), the Irish most certainly would have left Atlanta 0-1.

As is stands, ND did manage to eke out a win on Saturday. Although if it went the other way, believe it or not, it would NOT have qualified as the most devastating loss of the weekend.

Yes, Notre Dame's chances at a National Championship would have been dealt a near-fatal blow. Yes, Notre Dame fans would be forced to endure cackles of schadenfreude from media outlets great and small (even THINKING of the gloating puss of Mark May makes me shudder). And yes, Brady Quinn's Heisman Trophy campaign, in full swing for months now, would be at least temporarily derailed.

But for just a moment, think of how you would feel if you bled BLACK and gold instead of blue and gold. How would you feel if you woke up today in Boulder or Denver or Golden (or anywhere else in Colorado where the fortunes of the Buffaloes are more important than fresh powder) and had to face the fact again, in the light of another new day, that your team has lost the first game of the season to Division I-AA Montana State?

You have waited nine months for a rebirth. You hired a slightly zany, completely lovable and apparently competent head coach from a small program that had enjoyed outsized success recently. You hired him to chase away the stink of scandal and failure. You scheduled a I-AA patsy to ease into the season. You lost.

Escaping Bobby Dodd Stadium with a 14-10 win doesn't sound so bad now, does it?

Colorado's predicament brings scheduling philosophy to the top of my mind. With a 12th regular season game permitted this season by the NCAA, there has been a proliferation of a trend that that should be alarming to Notre Dame fans, if only because there is very little chance we will ever stoop to benefit from it.

For years, top programs have been scheduling cannon-fodder games, especially early in the season as "tune-ups" for the conference schedule. Recently, and especially this season, top-echelon teams have become especially blatant with regard to Div. I-AA teams. From the perspective of Montana State, who hit the jackpot Saturday, Denver Post columnist Terry Frei writes:

"The Big Sky Conference program won one for all the other ‘byes' who were designated victims on the first full weekend of the season. Northern Illinois. Eastern Washington. Idaho. Montana. Missouri State. Western Kentucky. Louisiana-Lafayette. Perhaps Nicholls State, Nebraska's upcoming opponent (perhaps because the Baldwin-Wallace Yellow Jackets already were booked), can use this as inspiration in the next week."

Four teams in the top 25 scheduled a I-AA opponent for their opener. Of those who didn't, Nebraska seems especially odious because, as Frei points out, they have I-AA Nicholls State next week and Troy (picked no. 112 in one pre-season poll out of 119 I-A teams) two weeks later after having pounded Louisiana Tech (no. 86) in their opener. They deserve kudos for scheduling USC in the middle of all that fluff, but the other three games, in addition to some second-tier Big XII opponents, leave their schedule reading like the slate of a fifth-grade kickball team.

If you hear ANYONE bash Notre Dame's schedule again, cover your ears and start screaming because it's the only way to keep insanity like that out of your head.

The media, who apparently are the source of all evil on planet Earth, are of course responsible for this travesty as well. Their constant carping and parsing of the BCS formula over the years, which, absent a playoff, has never done a horrible job of picking the teams that should be playing for the National Championship, has led to a systematic de-emphasis of strength of schedule.

Their tactic of pointing to a minor conference match up and running the numbers to show how that game affected some contender's strength of schedule and, indirectly, the BCS poll, led to plenty of misplaced animosity against the BCS. This resulted in trashing the quality-game component and separate strength-of-schedule component completely and de-emphasizing the prominence of computer polls in the final numbers (by the way, if anyone deserves "quality game" points this week it is Tennessee, a team I am glad we played last year).

The BCS has been hashed and rehashed too many times to count in print. My point is, taking strength-of-schedule out of the formula to the present degree has opened the door to the rash of I-AA teams we now see on I-A schedules. Most of the incentive for teams to schedule tough slates is gone. The only thing that counts now is wins and what is the easiest way to schedule a win? There is also no way to stuff this back in the box it came in. Any future tinkering with the BCS formula will meet with massive opposition from Athletic Directors who can pluck a I-AA team to fill their schedule, saving them the few extra dollars they would have had to pay a more traditional I-A patsy like…oh, I don't know…Akron.

Kevin White's comments suggesting Notre Dame would dumb down future schedules notwithstanding, the Irish will never use the 12th game as it is being used by many teams. Army fills that slot for ND this year. And while the Black Knights will never strike fear into ND like they did in the first half of the 20th century, it is a team filled with tough, proud, intelligent men who know how to play like a team. In short, they can always be a danger (as I will never forget having sat high up in Giants Stadium in 1995, exhaling only when Ivory Covington preserved a one-point win by stopping the Army TE cold on a two-point conversion attempt). That's who the Irish schedule.

Future scheduled openers against Nevada and San Diego State have the insidious potential to send us partially down that road. But the I-AA barrier is one that will never be breached. If it is, it would be the move that finally gets White fitted for that noose. Or at least puts his job on the chopping block, if not his head.

Because as Lenn Robbins, reporter for the New York Post put it on Sunday when describing our close win against the Yellow Jackets, "Notre Dame doesn't open with a I-AA or a lesser I-A opponent. It's the price of being America's Team."

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