They are all playing Notre Dame this year, however, and are why nearly every season preview about the Fighting Irish mentions something about the schedule not being as challenging as in years past.
The NCAA rated the school’s schedule as the nation’s toughest in 1978, 1985, 1987, 1989 and 1995. As recently as 2003, the schedule was ranked third-hardest in the nation and in 2004 it was seventh.
Those days aren’t likely to return any time soon. The Irish this year begin a new scheduling philosophy that calls for seven home games, four away games and a game at a neutral stadium that counts as a home game, meaning it will be aired by NBC.
Some Irish fans complain it seems as though Notre Dame is watering down its schedule to improve its chances of ending its national championship drought, which is now at 21 years.
Jack Swarbrick, entering his second year as athletic director, said that’s not the case.
“The 7-4-1 model makes scheduling much more complex. We don’t make any scheduling decisions that are designed to try to produce more winnable games,” Swarbrick said. “But everyone has to understand the price you pay for having more home-game experiences, more things people go to and enjoy, is a limitation on who you can get.”
It’s harder to schedule big-name opponents with the 7-4-1 model because the Irish play fewer away games and big-name teams like Oklahoma and Alabama aren’t going to play in South Bend without a return game.
With more teams playing seven or eight home games, it’s also getting harder to simply find opponents.
Notre Dame just agreed to play Tulsa next season but still needs to find another opponent. John Heisler, senior associate athletic director who has been at the school 32 years, said it’s the latest he can recall the school going without having a schedule secured. Swarbrick said he is in discussions, but wouldn’t say which schools he’s talking with.
As an independent in football, Notre Dame doesn’t have a conference schedule. But it does have four opponents it plays every season: Navy, Purdue, USC and Michigan State. It has another three teams it plays nearly every season: Pittsburgh, Michigan and Stanford. So the Irish basically already have at least three away games built into their schedule.
As part of the Big East in most other sports, the Irish have agreed to try to play three games a season against teams in that conference. It has not yet met that goal. This season, the Irish play Pittsburgh and Connecticut. Next year, Pitt is the only Big East opponent. It has a four-game series with Syracuse beginning in 2014 at the new stadium at the Meadowlands. Swarbrick also is working on scheduling more games with UConn.
Scheduling offsite games hasn’t gone smoothly. When former athletic director Kevin White originally came up with this idea, he envisioned playing a team like Baylor at a site in Texas, possibly Dallas.
That hasn’t happened.
Many conferences won’t allow teams to play an away game at a neutral site within the conference “footprint,” Heisler said. So instead of playing a Texas team at the new Dallas Cowboys stadium in 2014, the Irish will face Arizona State there. This year, they face Washington State – in San Antonio.
Notre Dame’s schedule began becoming easier before the switch to the 7-4-1 model, however.
From 1977-2004, Notre Dame had a schedule ranked as 30th toughest or weaker just four times (1983, 1993, 1996, 1998). In the past four years, the Irish schedules have been rated 52nd in 2005, 34th in 2006 and 30th in 2007. Last year, Notre Dame’s schedule was rated as the 89th toughest, the lowest ever.
Swarbrick defends Notre Dame’s scheduling, saying people need to recognize there are tough teams outside the BCS. He cited Utah, a team that went 13-0 last season and finished ranked No. 2. The Irish play the Utes next year.
“I think our fans need to recognize how the BCS landscape has changed. Utah might not cause the same reaction as some other schools, but look at what they did last year,” he said. “I don’t know that Nevada isn’t this year’s Utah. I think we all have to have a more expansive view, a more studied understanding of how quickly it changes in the top level of college football today.”
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