COMMENTARY | Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
Noted football sage John Madden once opined that, "Usually the team with the most points wins the game." But who you play and when you play them can factor heavily in who is able to put up the most points.
Due to its independence (though a soft ACC affiliation begins next year) and notoriety, Notre Dame has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to play an incongruous group of opponents. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick has done an excellent job of setting up a schedule that puts the Irish in a great position to compete and win.
While it won't be the electrifying campaign that saw the Irish square off with the Alabama Crimson Tide in the BCS title game, the 2013 season is showing just how far Swarbrick and coach Brian Kelly have taken this program.
And while the last thing I want to do is downplay the work that Kelly and his staff have accomplished in 3+ years in South Bend, I want to take a look at how the structure of Notre Dame's schedule has set them up for success.
After a home opener that saw the Irish walk over the Temple Owls, Notre Dame had three consecutive tilts with Big Ten opponents: at Michigan, at Purdue, and home vs. Michigan State.
In the first of these three games, Notre Dame faced a big B1G challenge in the Big House, playing the Wolverines under the lights for perhaps the final time. While they lost that matchup, games with the rebuilding Purdue Boilermakers and underwhelming Michigan State Spartans (whose only loss thus far has come at ND's hands) welcomed them.
The Irish were able to stay within 3 hours of campus and faced teams that offered familiarity in terms of both setting and style of play. And while they didn't impress in wins over the Boilers and Sparty, the Irish finished the first third of the schedule at 3-1.
The Shamrock Series
While it might be a purist's nightmare, the Shamrock Series has proven to be an enormous success, not only in terms of Ws but also in marketing and recruiting as well. High-profile neutral-field matchups and higher-profile one-off uniform/helmet combos have shown that this isn't your grandfather's Notre Dame.
This year's game saw the Irish go up against the 22nd-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils in the Taj MaFootball that is Cowboys Stadium. Playing in primetime under the world's largest TV was just what ND needed to get over a tough home loss to the Oklahoma Sooners, as it burned ASU 37-34.
Strategic bye weeks
The last thing any team needs is to be looking forward to a big-time matchup so much that it fails to see the game that's right in front of it. By having an open date between the Shamrock Series game and the USC game, Notre Dame avoided that issue entirely.
Even though Lane Kiffin had spent the last 3+ seasons systematically deconstructing the Trojan horse piece by piece, all bets are off in a rivalry game. USC limped into Notre Dame like a wounded animal, and then Tommy Rees came up lame, forcing Andrew Hendrix to toss a few dead ducks.
Injured animal reference aside, the Irish hung on and gutted out a win in which no scoring occurred in the final 31 minutes. But, as I wrote earlier, ND was able to capture its first home win over the men of Troy in its last six attempts. Having an extra week to come down off the ASU win and prep for USC was integral in reversing a losing trend.
Notre Dame has long been known for having at least one of the service academies on the docket, and 2013 is no different. But, unlike in years past, Air Force and Navy are back-to-back on the schedule. But more than being two winnable games, these teams are similar stylistically.
Belying the specialties of their respective branches, both Air Force and Navy run the option offense. And unless you're playing small-town high school football, the option isn't something you play against often. By playing these two teams consecutively, the Irish don't have to change their game plan drastically from one game to the next.
It also gives Notre Dame a chance to impose its will, as its superior size and strength can show through. I lean again on the incomparable John Madden, who said, "Hey, the offensive linemen are the biggest guys on the field, they're bigger than everybody else, and that's what makes them the biggest guys on the field."
Pace and Intensity
Unless you're playing an FCS opponent, there really isn't a matchup in college football that you can overlook. There are, however, some that should be much easier than others. And while the Irish haven't always made them look that way, their schedule has allowed them to follow a very difficult game with one or more easier contests.
A game under the lights in Ann Arbor (who's not the woman of ill repute Ohio State fans would have you believe) was followed by two lower-pressure games. Back-to-back games with ranked Oklahoma and Arizona State led into a bye.
The intense rivalry with USC led into games with the service academies and Pitt. Finally, Notre Dame will have another open date, which will precede a home game with BYU and a trip to Stanford to close out the regular season.
The Fighting Irish currently stand at 6-2 and should win 3 of their last 4 games to finish at 9-3. That won't get them into a BCS bowl game, but they're winning the games they're supposed to, which hasn't always been the case over the past decade.
To close, I turn once more to Madden, who said: "When you have great players, playing great, well that's great football!" That's true, but the schedule itself is an overlooked factor when it comes to great football.
Evan Altman is a freelance sportswriter with a vast collection of useless trivia and pop culture references. He grew up in Northwest Indiana watching the Irish on WNDU-TV and reading about them in the South Bend Tribune.
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