Oct. 8, 2004
by John Heisler
The NCAA rankings this week for the toughest college football schedule in the land say that Notre Dame’s remaining games comprise the most difficult set of assignments of them all, compared to those on the slate of any other Division I-A team.
The six teams left to play for the Irish stand 18-5 between them against other Division I-A opponents, for a .782 mark.
On a cumulative basis, the overall Irish schedule stands fourth, with Notre Dame foes standing 28-13 overall (.682) – and the 3-2 Irish rating behind 3-1 Texas A&M, 2-2 Baylor and 2-3 North Carolina in that category.
Just for comparisons, this week’s top five teams (USC, Oklahoma, Georgia, Miami and Texas) rank 47th, 37th, 21st, 26th and sixth, respectively, in the overall schedule difficulty category.
Of the 16 remaining Division I-A unbeaten teams in the ESPN/USA Today top 25 this week, the only ones in the top 20 of the schedule-difficulty rankings are Texas (sixth), Oklahoma State (ninth) and Arizona State (12th). On the other end of the spectrum, unbeatens Boise State, Utah and Louisville stand 99th, 94th and 88th in that category. Other unblemished teams include Virginia 73rd, Wisconsin 65th, California 59th, Auburn 54th and Minnesota 51st.
Check the history book and you’ll see difficult schedules are nothing new at Notre Dame. The NCAA began its schedule-difficulty ratings in 1977 – and in those 27 seasons the Irish 10 times have ranked among the top four teams in the country, including number-one ratings in 1978 (Notre Dame finished 9-3), 1985 (5-6), 1987 (8-4), 1989 (12-1) and 1995 (9-3). On eight other occasions, the Irish have ranked between 13th and 18th in that category. Only twice in those 27 years has Notre Dame stood below 50th.
Meanwhile, future schedules for Notre Dame are in the making. Of greatest interest is the ability to play as many as seven home games per season in Notre Dame Stadium – something that has happened only twice in the history of the Irish home facility (1988 when Notre Dame finished 12-0 and won the national title, and 1999 when the Irish played in the Eddie Robinson Classic at home against Kansas).
History also suggests playing at home provides some better chance to be successful. Notre Dame boasts a .767 winning percentage in games at Notre Dame Stadium since it opened in 1930. The mark drops to .682 in games away from South Bend.
By comparison, teams in this week’s top 25 playing seven home games in 2004 are Auburn, Tennessee, LSU and Boise State. Ohio State played eight home games in both 2002 (its national title season) and 2003.
Potential NCAA legislation could offer even more of an opportunity to play at home. Current NCAA rules permit 12 games in only certain seasons (2003, 2008, 2013, 2014). The Big 12 and BIG EAST Conferences are sponsoring legislation that would permit all teams to play 12 games per season. A decision could come in April – and if the current proposal stands up it would go into effect beginning with the 2006 season.
Meanwhile, scheduling commitments already on the books suggest that, without the move to 12 games every year, the Irish probably can’t get to seven home games until the 2009 season.
What will future Irish schedules look like? Don’t expect massive changes. Over the last 10 years (1995-2004), for example, Notre Dame has played 10 times each against Purdue, Navy, Boston College and USC; eight times each versus Michigan State and Stanford; seven times against Pittsburgh and six against Michigan (the breaks with the Wolverines were due to home-and-home series with Ohio State and Nebraska). Expect most, if not all, of those rivalries to continue in some form.
As the Irish move to play seven times annually at home in 11-game schedules, that could mean the likelihood of eight potential home-and-home relationships providing four home games and four road games per year. Arriving at seven home games then would project three teams annually that would come to Notre Dame Stadium without the games being returned. The last team to come to South Bend without a return visit by the Irish was Washington State in 2003 (the Cougars had been 10-3 and played in the Rose Bowl the year before).
Obviously, if the move to 12 games annually comes about, there will be even more flexibility provided to teams across the country. The motivation for 12 games particularly comes from athletic directors who need football revenue to help pay for broad-based programs.
Consider, too, how much higher the bar has been raised in recent years. Just 10 years ago, after the 1994 season, Notre Dame played in the Fiesta Bowl coming off a 6-4-1 regular season as part of what was then known as the Bowl Coalition. BCS (Bowl Championship Series) criteria suggest that won’t happen again based on current guidelines.
Meanwhile, Stanford visits today with a 3-1 record. Navy, idle today, awaits next weekend at the Meadowlands with a 5-0 mark. Still to come are 4-1 Boston College, 3-1 Tennessee, 2-2 Pittsburgh and 4-0 USC.
So, don’t expect the Irish to disappear from those toughest-schedule standings any time soon.