Monday, July 20, 2009

Of Hurricanes & Horned Frogs

The tension has been simmering all summer over future Notre Dame schedules. What schools will be on it? What schools will try but won't be included? How many obnoxiously misplaced "neutral home games" can be squeezed into one calendar year?

Then came today, July 20, 2009. The morning began with this link making the rounds at all of the Notre Dame web-sphere greatest hits - NDNation, Irish Eyes, Mike Frank, Rivals - claiming to have the 2010 final Notre Dame schedule along with the obligatory analysis. The 12-game lineup for the Irish, according to this blog which cited no sources and provided no links (home gaps in caps):
Sept. 4 - PURDUE
Sept. 11 - MICHIGAN
Sept. 18 - @ Michigan St.
Sept. 25 - STANFORD
Oct. 2 - @ Boston College
Oct. 9 - PITTSBURGH
Oct. 23 - @ Navy (Meadowlands)
Oct. 30 - TCU
Nov. 6 - ARMY (@ Yankee Stadium)
Nov. 13 - UTAH
Nov. 20 - TULSA
Nov. 27 - @ Southern Cal
Ten of these opponents were known entities - what ND Nation was waiting (in anticipation? in anxiety?) to hear was who Jack Swarbrick had in mind to fill two open dates on the schedule. For those hoping to rekindle the Miami series, great news - the Hurricane is on the schedule! Bad news, it's the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa, where double Domer Lawrence "Bubba" Cunningham is athletic director. Also on the docket are (again, assuming this is to be believed) the proverbial top dog of Mountain West Conference, the TCU Horned Frogs, who last season posted an 11-2 record, the only losses coming on the road to undefeated Utah (by a field goal) and BCS Title game participant Oklahoma (The Frogs lost 35-10 but only gave the Sooners 25 yards on the ground).

So if I told you that Notre Dame's two open slots on the 2010 schedule were filled by a team coming off an 11-win season where the only losses were to teams that finished #2 and #5 in the AP Poll, and a second team that's gone a combined 21-6 in the past two years, most would say Notre Dame went out and got two competetive opponents. They would say it was something they might be interested in. After we've seen what programs are actually behind Door #2 though, it becomes less Let's Make a Deal and more Who Wants to Tar and Feather an Athletic Director? Judge for yourself. Allow me first to (fruitlessly) state that I'm not trying to be an apologist, I'm just trying to point out that, however probable it all seems in the wake of the Kevin White Error, this schedule being bandied about is still a hypothetical (I'll expand on that point in the next post).

It's not for me to say who is wrong and who is right in the debate over how "good" a team has to be to earn a place on Notre Dame's schedule. It's also, I think, worth pointing out there's no independent verification that this is indeed going to happen. I say that almost as a courtesy because I would place the odds of an upcoming announcement involving Notre Dame, Tulsa, and TCU and way above 50-50. I just would like to see some kind of a source document, that's all.

The point of this post is not for me to rant against the money-grabbing administration or to prop up strawman arguments (after all, I would like to think my point here is that we can be able to avoid going to either of those extremes). What I ask is this:
Should a program with championship aspirations (and even if they may be borderline delusional, Notre Dame does indeed have championship aspirations) be scheduling with the intention of getting "big name" opponents, or scheduling opponents who have quality records and results even if their conference pedigree doesn't stack up with the SEC?
Frame it this way: a popular argument about the BCS is that it is designed to shut out the little guy, it's a tool of "The Man" meant to maintain a rigid system of haves and have-nots in college football. Fans across the country, of programs big and small, rail against it every year and proudly point out moments like Boise State-Oklahoma in '07, or Utah-Alabama last year, as proof that the little guys should get a shot. In the very next breath, when somebody suggests, "Why don't you put those teams on your schedule then?" we hear a wave of righteous indignation about how the very idea of such a creampuff opponent is beneath us. With two concepts in such direct conflict with each other, something clearly has to give.

Notre Dame fans often get chided for living in the past, romanticizing about the days of the single-wing and trying to recapture the glory of a by-gone era. Notre Dame just doesn't get it, they can't accept how much college football has changed, is the popular refrain, usually peppered with far more colorful message board slang. Wouldn't it then be fair to say that part of the sea-change we've seen in college football, with its exploding internet coverage, television packages, blogs, and recruiting-via-Twitter, is the simple reality that you don't have to have an 80-year tradition of excellence to be a good team? To underscore the point, Tulsa & TCU have popped up semi-frequently on Oklahoma's schedule in recent years (the draw of playing the Sooners no doubt offering those programs a boost in money value and recruiting), and I haven't heard a loud chorus in their fanbase going on long tirades about how atrocious their schedule is and how much it hurts in the eyes of the people who matter (i.e., the voters). Then again, I haven't been listening to OU's fanbase all that closely.

I don't have all the answers. I'm just asking questions, and I'll be asking more as conditions warrant.

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