By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly has recruited a top ten class nationally every year since he was hired in South Bend after inheriting two classes ranked outside the top ten. The talent is there for the most part.
But the Fighting Irish have set themselves up for failure in 2012 and beyond, and no amount of talent short of a semi-pro SEC team will save that. For some reason the schedule-makers in South Bend have a sort of Napoleon complex wherein they feel they need to legitimize themselves nationally by creating the toughest schedule that doesn’t have to be so. As an independent, the Irish can pretty much play any team that’s willing, yet almost every year they schedule Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford—three teams almost guaranteed a preseason top 25 ranking.
Their odd “rivalry team” is USC, which is likely the largest geographic gap of any American sports rivalry. Most fans today would probably tell you they have a much greater distaste for Wolverine than Trojan, not that I’m saying Michigan should give up its rivalry with Ohio State for the sake of a non-conference game. Anyway, USC is a premier college football team and will be likely year in and year out for a long time.
Scheduling Navy used to be a joke, but lately it hasn’t been so funny as the Midshipmen have won three of the last five meetings. The schedule usually fills out with the usually-bowl-worthy likes of Pitt, Boston College, Purdue, and BYU, and then a few randoms to fill the holes. In 2012 those holes are filled—like a duck about to be foie gras—by Oklahoma and by likely less-than-stellar Miami and Wake Forest who, though, are still FBS teams and not Directional State Tech with whom many schools like to pad a schedule.
So five games for the Irish in 2012 are against preseason top 25 teams—Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma, and USC. A few of the rest may be against teams that end up in the top 25 at some point between now and bowl season. This is a schedule by choice, not forced by conference necessity, and it’s one that will likely keep an otherwise talented Irish team from a BCS bowl. To expect ten wins out of Notre Dame will leave any fan pretty disappointed come December, and even nine wins seems like a stretch right now.
Of course the schedule was made with BCS implications in mind, one of which being difficulty of schedule as a factor into how the giant scary computer spits out who is worthy and who plays in a bowl with dot-com in the name. But wins are first and foremost. Undefeated against a soft schedule trumps four losses against very good teams.
Television dough is a factor, too. NBC surely appreciates in its exclusive deal with Notre Dame getting a game, for example, that brings much of the state of Michigan to its network. Notre Dame vs. Eastern Michigan, not so much.
But mediocrity doesn’t breed ratings, and since the team’s last National Championship in 1988, that’s more or less what Notre Dame football has been. I’m sure the school loves getting $15 million a year from NBC, but I doubt the recent ratings are making the network happy, especially when the price has gone up while viewership has gone very much down.
Wins create popularity, among fans and among prospective recruits (while Kelly somehow does a good job getting talent to come to a middle-notch program with higher-than-average academic requirements, I don’t think he’s long for this Blue and Gold world). Notre Dame has a unique advantage of being able to legally tilt the odds of increasing wins in its favor.
One way is to loosen those academic standards and fall in line with the Houses of Ill Repute in the SEC and elsewhere, or as team radio analyst Allen Pinckett alluded to on Wednesday, have flat-out criminals on a consistent basis. I can’t say I agree with encouraging that, and I doubt most fans would either.
The other way is to ease up on the difficulty of their opponents. The 2012 schedule is at or near the top of strength of schedule lists, which would be noble if it was a dominant squad taking the field, but Notre Dame doesn’t have a dominant squad. They have a pretty good one, and pretty good against those opponents gets you a late December game, not a January one.
I wish it were different because this plan does sound like conceding. As a fan I would love them to defeat thirteen ranked teams in a season. That isn’t reality, though.
A model similar to Boise State’s of recent vintage would serve the Irish much better, and Broncos have been confined to a division. For years now they have put out teams that have dominated most opponents on the schedule and found themselves BCS bowl eligible despite being criticized for being in an inferior Mountain West conference (they join the Big East in 2013).
Regardless, Boise State has won two Fiesta Bowls since 2007. Notre Dame has sat at home eating Tostitos instead.
The University of Notre Dame is a very prideful institution that holds itself to a high standard, and that even bleeds into the historic football program. Academics hamstring the team in regards to who dons the gold helmet, and the program has long been staunch in its policy of not being as lenient as other teams are in that regard.
College football is no longer romantic, though. It’s dirty as hell with a shiny coat of paint to fool us between whistles.
The team takes pride in its tough schedule, too. I don’t think it takes pride in losses, though, and those are what they’ve set themselves up for. Choosing to have less of a killer schedule would be much less of a hit to the collective ego than allowing dumber players or morally inferior players.
The Fighting Irish need to accept that and swallow a little bit of their pride in order to keep up with the teams that accept the way of the game today. Otherwise they’re just choosing to be behind.
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa and Governors State University and began blogging at The Score after winning the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He enjoys writing things about stuff, but not so much stuff about things. When not writing for 670TheScore.com, Tim corrupts America’s youth as a high school English teacher and provides a great service to his South Side community delivering pizzas (please tip him and his colleagues well). You can follow Tim’s inappropriate brain droppings on Twitter @Ten_Foot_Midget, but please don’t follow him in real life. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more of Tim’s blogs click here.