August 21, 2009
Most suggestions for a BCS or similar "Wake Up the Echoes" type season from Notre Dame have been met with guffaws, this being a team that's 10-15 the last two years with 15 losses in its last 16 games against teams that ended the year with winning records. (The one win was last year's survival against Navy). The Irish haven't come within two touchdowns of a team that finished with at least nine wins since October 2006 (again, Navy). With that kind of track record, any mutterings about the BCS sound like a lot of rot -- unless, that is, you're one of the many observers willing to endorse ND's "favorable" schedule as the path to nirvana, based precisely on that lack of top-end challenge: Outside of the annual bloodbath against USC, none of the Irish's other 11 opponents fall within the consensus top 25 going into the year.
That kind of slate is a blessing and a curse, in terms of public opinion: If they're inclined, some people really do see it as "favorable," as an opportunity or even an asset; the haters, of course, see it as soft and potentially fraudulent. It's athletic director Jack Swarbrick's job to be one of the former group, but he clearly didn't expect the critics to crop up during Q&A sessions with his own constituents:
"A little frustrated by the assessment of our schedule this year," Swabrick [sic] said in his office Thursday afternoon. "I just think it's wrong. ... It is true we have fewer top 10s, top 15s than some of those schools. But also, using the average preseason ranking, we got more teams from 25 to 35 than anybody. It's one thing to say, 'They don't have two top 10s or three top 10s they're playing.' To extrapolate from that that the overall schedule is softer than somebody else's I think is just wrong."
The Chicago Tribune does some remedial math (journos and numbers, watch out) and concludes Swarbrick is more or less on target (well, slightly less) in his comparison of Notre Dame's schedule with those at Texas and Florida, in terms of the "average" opponent. And ND remains one of the most admirable schedulers in the country in that almost totally eschews cupcakes; there are only two teams on this year's slate from outside one of the "Big Six" conferences, and both -- Nevada and Navy -- are coming off solid bowl seasons. Including Stanford and Michigan, the Irish have nine games against teams that are realistically bound for the postseason. In that sense, there are very few gimmes -- fewer than most heavy-hitters have lined up, anyway.
But what the critics see in the lack of elite opponents is a schedule tailor-made for a BCS run without the requisite leap on the field: The Irish don't have to improve much, if at all, to turn half of last year's losses -- Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Boston College -- into wins, and come out on the better end of dropping North Carolina, another close loss in '08, for UConn. Essentially, ND could easily be favored in 11 games, all except the visit from USC, win nine or ten of them and slip into one of the big-money dates without having to climb any significant hills to get there. It's not like they're just going to roll downhill into a pot of money, either, but crossing flat land is no great achievement.
Obviously, Swarbrick will take what he can get where the BCS is concerned; 10 wins gets the Irish in, period, and nine would put them in the discussion, even if none of them come against ranked teams (and there's a good chance, Swarbrick's stumping for Stanford and Nevada notwithstanding, that none of ND's wins this year will fall under that category). But if he wants people to stop complaining about it, then he's in the wrong job.