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Football: Rivals slacking when ND needs it the most

Pat Leonard | Friday, November 4, 2005

In recent years, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) postseason picture has not been the backdrop coloring the Notre Dame football landscape. The Irish have made just two, non-BCS bowl games in their previous four seasons – the 2002 Gator Bowl and the 2004 Insight Bowl.

Also during this time, and especially in the past few years, Notre Dame has boasted one of the strongest schedules in the country. The statistic meant nothing when the Irish were not in bowl contention. But as Notre Dame heads into its eighth game of the season with a 5-2 record and No. 14 BCS ranking, the schedule is oddly turning against the Irish when they need it most.

Uncontrollable disparity?

Notre Dame ranks No. 69 – tied with Clemson, Iowa. St, Memphis and Wyoming – in strength of schedule by cumulative opposition. This means, factoring the records of all teams on Notre Dame’s 2005 schedule, past and future, the Irish have fallen behind 68 of them in the strength of their opponents’ performance. Those 68 teams include Rice, Wake Forest and even Temple.

The past five seasons, Notre Dame has averaged about No. 19 in that statistical category.

Last season, the Irish finished No. 7 in the country in strength of schedule. And in 2003, Notre Dame was No. 3 behind only Alabama and Florida, respectively.

The same teams on the schedule last season are there again this season. So is the situation out of Notre Dame’s control?

“It’s just another example of how you really don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Notre Dame assistant athletic director John Heisler said from his office Oct. 27. “You have these names on your schedule, and at the end of the day, no matter who it is – whether it’s Michigan or USC or whether it’s Pittsburgh or Purdue – you don’t know how good they are and you don’t have any control over that.”

Notre Dame, and any Division-I program in general, also has no control over how the schedule strength affects BCS standings, which ultimately determine postseason aspirations and revenue gains for participating schools.

But the schedule strength clearly is hurting the Irish at this point.

How the BCS system works

BCS standings rank Division-I teams from one through 25. There are three systems, and each counts for a third of the final “BCS average,” the decimal point that determines the rankings.

There is the Harris Interactive Poll, the USA Today Poll and the computer rankings. The Harris Interactive polls former players, coaches, administrators and media. USA Today polls coaches. But the computer rankings, with six different contributors, factor schedule strength along with other stats into their final decision.

Therein lies the difference between Notre Dame being No. 14 at the moment, or potentially much higher [see graphic].

While the Harris Interactive and USA Today polls each list the Irish at No. 9 by their calculations, the computer rankings push Notre Dame back to No. 22.

The Irish get an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game if they are ranked sixth or better with nine wins. Notre Dame also is eligible for BCS bowl selection if ranked No. 12 or better with nine wins.

But average all three of its rankings together, and the Irish are still eight spots out of receiving an automatic BCS bowl bid.

The schedule bowl

Heisler said the BCS bowl picture rebounds to influence the way in which programs now compile schedules. In the past, a team like Notre Dame did not have to schedule while wary of a postseason formula.

“There was really no formal mechanism in terms of the bowl games other than they were probably extending invitations historically at some point in the month of November, quite often when teams still had games to play,” Heisler said.

In 1978, for example, Notre Dame went 8-3 but still received an invitation – which it accepted – from the Cotton Bowl. The BCS, not in existence at that time, was created prior to the 1998 football season partially, Heisler said, to avoid situations such as bowls being determined before a season’s completion.

“That’s probably prompted people to take a harder look at their schedule and say, ‘Hey, whatever we’re being handed by our conference or in our position as independent, 8-3 probably isn’t going to be good enough to make the cut, even more so as an independent,'” Heisler said.

“You’d love to play the Michigans and the USCs every week, but that’s just not reality.”

An evolving future

New NCAA legislation has increased the Division-I football regular season to 12 games, beginning next season, so schools’ scheduling tactics will be evolving yet again.

Once the 12-game season becomes the norm, for example, schools will have room for only one bye week, Irish coach Charlie Weis said Tuesday. That will eliminate any speculation on the effect of having two bye weeks so close together, as Notre Dame did this season (Oct. 8 and Oct. 29), but won’t have a drastic effect on the team, according to the coach.

“If [the bye week] is early in the year, you have to use it to push your system,” Weis said. “If it’s in the middle of the year, you’ve got to use it to rest your guys. You just have to make sure whenever those bye weeks occur, you use them to the greatest benefit.”

Notre Dame is also inching closer to securing “neutral site” games for the 2009 season and afterward. Heisler said Notre Dame is heavily considering the states of Florida and Texas as locations for its 12th game. Notre Dame plans to schedule seven home games and four away games along with the “neutral site” game in those seasons.

“We’ve had a very good response from various cities/bowl games/sports commissions,” Heisler said about interest from possible hosts for the “neutral site” game. “We’ve kept folders and promised to get back to people as we get to the decision-making point. We just haven’t quite pulled the trigger on any of these yet.”

Doing what they can

Though the schedule and postseason pictures inevitably will change again in the future, all the 2005 Irish can do at the moment is fight for wins and the let the rankings take care of themselves.

Though Tennessee is No. 9 in the country in strength of schedule, none of the four remaining teams on the Irish slate are even close to BCS contention. And that is where the interesting contrast exists.

Year to year, in a sport with a constantly evolving postseason format, all programs – Notre Dame included – must adjust to a common set of rules and polls, though season to season, those same rules seem to backfire in different ways.

However the rules of the BCS and the laws of scheduling change, all a program can do is adjust.

“Things could change year-to-year relative to the NCAA and the window of these playing seasons just like they do with other sports,” Heisler said. “The harder thing is that with football, your schedule is being done – more so than other sports – on more than just a year-to-year basis.

“The way we’re doing our scheduling, when we’ve got all 12 games in our hands, there’ll be much more of an ability for us to create … It’s not going to be anyone else’s fault if the schedule doesn’t look like [what] we want it to look like.”