Notre Dame's Opponents: Reward clear, risk miniscule in Irish matchup with HBCU Tennessee State

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Tennessee State at Middle Tennessee
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Tennessee State at Middle Tennessee

Cynics will offer tandem thoughts when illogically upset Notre Dame is playing FCS-level Tennessee State this season (Sept. 2 at 3:30 ET on NBC). They will insist this game brings no reward to the Irish, only risk.

Both aspects are false.

To start with the reward, the 2023 season will be far more manageable for Notre Dame because this game could fit a unique need.

Setting aside the good that can be done by elevating a historically Black university and the added events expected around South Bend on Labor Day weekend — items that should not be discounted but are a bit more intangible than the intention here today — realize the Irish were in a scheduling bind with the 2023 season barreling down on them.

That bind began when the pandemic forced Notre Dame and Navy to scrap their planned trip to Dublin in 2020. Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick and the Notre Dame administration decided to use one of their home games to reschedule that trip, a schedule change announced in November of 2021. The previous two trips to Ireland in this 94-year series were both hosted by Navy (1996, 2012).

Suddenly the Irish 2023 schedule was designed to have an open week on what is effectively the first week of the season, Sept. 2.

“A little bit had to do with the annual exercise of working with (head coach) Marcus (Freeman), in this case, to say when do we want the byes to fall,” Swarbrick said in April of 2022 when this game against Tennessee State was announced. “What should that look like?

“We originally talked about a bye on this date, but to take your bye so early in the season isn’t a great idea. As we started to talk about this, we said what if we moved the bye and used this date.”

In a 14-week season, Notre Dame did not want to burn an idle week after one game. Logical. But that meant the Irish needed to find an opponent available on Sept. 2, 2023, with less than two years warning. With teams scheduling games well into the 2030s, finding an opponent with an opening on the first week of the season with such short notice was a tall order.

For example, when Notre Dame and Tennessee State announced this matchup in April of 2022, Rice was already scheduled to play Texas on Sept. 2, 2023. UMass has a date with Auburn, Nevada at USC and New Mexico against Texas A&M. Those schools are not chosen at random, they are simply the most notable among the 10 different non-MAC Group of Five opponents the Irish have faced in the last 13 seasons.

With Central Michigan already on the schedule for two weeks later, another MAC opponent was unlikely.

Swarbrick needed an opponent for Sept. 2, 2023, in order to set up Notre Dame’s entire schedule as best as possible, and FCS teams simply do not schedule as far in advance or with as stringent of contracts. Tennessee State fitting that need created a reward for the Irish. Holding that additional idle week until the final half of the season should raise Notre Dame’s ceiling in 2023.

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As for the risk aspect of this matchup, it is minimal.

No offense intended to the Tigers or head coach Eddie George, but the Irish will be just fine on Sept. 2. When sportsbooks belatedly post lines for this game, Notre Dame could be favored by seven touchdowns. An upset would be, literally, the biggest upset in NCAA football history.

The Tigers went 4-7 last year, including a 49-6 loss at Middle Tennessee State in which they gave up 6.2 yards per play and 212 yards on just 25 pass attempts.

By no means was Middle Tennessee State a 2022 juggernaut, finishing No. 88 in SP+ rankings with the No. 68 offense. For context, Notre Dame would have been favored by about 16 points if it had played MTSU in a bowl game last winter.

George has a long hill to climb, and he has always known that.

“Hopefully we’ll look a lot different as a team, be in a different place and come in with a great deal of confidence,” he said 16 months ago.

But what about any given Saturday?
Sure, there have been 84 FCS over FBS upsets in the last decade, but that is out of 1,034 games. FCS teams have an 8.1 percent success rate in the last decade.

Against Power Five opponents, FCS teams have won just 21 games in the last decade, including Southern Illinois beating Northwestern last year, East Tennessee State walloping Vanderbilt in Clark Lea’s head-coaching debut in 2021 and two upsets of Kansas at its long nadir. For good measure, note three different victories from North Dakota State, annually better than dozens of FBS teams.

Of those 21 Power Five losses to FCS foes, only four teams were ranked in the preseason AP top 25, as the Irish assuredly will be next week. (The coaches’ poll has already slotted Notre Dame at No. 13.) Looking at the Sagarin Rankings from the ends of the previous seasons — the Sagarin Rankings attempt to order FBS and FCS teams together in one 261-team ranking — those four FCS teams ranked No. 76 (Montana following 2020), No. 36 (North Dakota State following 2015), No. 88 (Eastern Washington following 2012) and No. 72 (Northern Iowa following 2012).

Tennessee State finished last season at No. 204 in the Sagarin Rankings.

There is no risk in playing the Tigers. Only the reward of not having to spend Labor Day weekend on the couch eating cheeseburgers.

After Notre Dame plays Tennessee State, USC will be the last FBS team to never play an FCS opponent in the modern era. The Trojans were scheduled to play UC Davis to open the 2021 season before paying UC Davis $725,000 to cancel the game.

UCLA was also in that exclusive club before playing Alabama State to open last season, winning 45-7.

Only one former Tiger is currently playing at the next level, Arizona Cardinals tackle Lachavious Simmons. He started 18 games between 2018 and 2019 before the Chicago Bears drafted him in the seventh round in 2020.

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