Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Independence Day | by Mike

On the day we celebrate our nation's independence, it seemed like a good idea to celebrate our football program's independence. Remaining independent has freed Notre Dame football from the tedium of playing the same damn teams every year, given Notre Dame fans new travel destinations, and allowed the university to maintain its national profile. To that end, consider the geographic distribution of Notre Dame's regular-season opponents in recent years.

Regular Season Opponents, 1996-2006

It's also interesting to note the conference breakdown of the 34 different teams represented. Ranking the conferences by the number of member teams Notre Dame has played or will play during this period produces this ordering:

6 teams: Pac 10 (Arizona State, Southern Cal, Stanford, UCLA, Washington, Washington State)
Big XII (Baylor, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M)
5 teams: Big East (Boston College, Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, West Virginia)
Big Ten (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue)
4 teams: ACC (Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina)
3 teams: SEC (LSU, Tennessee, Vanderbilt)
2 teams: Mountain West (Air Force, BYU)
Independent (Army, Navy)
1 team: WAC (Hawaii)

(Yes, I realize Boston College is in the ACC now. I grouped them with the Big East because they were in the Big East when we played them and Notre Dame's commitment to play Big East teams in football as part of its relationship with the Big East in other sports was a substantial factor in BC's presence on the schedule.)

Of course, Notre Dame played some of these teams almost every year during this time period, and others only once or twice. Thus the above ranking does not reflect total number of games played against each conference. Nonetheless, a few themes emerge from this data. First, it becomes clear that it is more accurate to say that Notre Dame has a continuing association with a few specific schools in the Big Ten, rather than with the Big Ten at large. During this time period, Notre Dame has played less than half of the Big Ten programs. One can see the profound effect clearing a permanent space for Illinois, Indiana, and Northwestern would have on Notre Dame's schedule.

Second, one can see the high degree of turnover in the schedule that has provided Irish fans with fresh destinations to travel to for road games and intriguing new matchups to look forward to in most years. In looking at the names of the programs that Notre Dame has only played once or twice during this period, I found it surprising how clearly I remembered the games against the less-frequent opponents. In particular, the road games afforded by the independent schedule have been particularly memorable. Who could forget the LSU fans' chants of "Tiger Bait! Tiger Bait!" and boasts that Notre Dame fans had never seen an atmosphere like an SEC stadium prior to the 1997 game at Death Valley, only to see everyone except the Irish faithful leave at halftime? There was the 1998 game at Arizona State, where the heat led to a blown transformer, cutting out power to the stadium - and thus the TV feed - for much of the second half, leaving Irish fans at home baffled as to how fullback Joey Goodspeed had run for over 100 yards on just four carries. In 1996, Irish fans saw Jim Sanson kick the winning field goal as time expired in Austin, only to see Sanson miss an extra point in the Coliseum later that year, allowing USC to get its first win against Notre Dame in 14 tries. Irish fans that traveled to Columbus for the Ohio State game were treated to a recreation of the Fall of Saigon, as fires burned on High Street throughout the night and lingering wafts of tear gas hung in the air long after the game. One had the opportunity to dodge hurled whiskey bottles in Morgantown and experience the deafening roar of Neyland Stadium, which proved to be several orders of magnitude louder than Michigan Stadium, despite their comparable seating capacities. Of course given the inferior coaching at Notre Dame during much of this period, not every trip was as enjoyable as it could have been. Bob Davie's quest to become the first Notre Dame coach in history to start 0-3 undoubtedly robbed trips to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln and Kyle Field in College Station of much of their luster, but I'd love to make those trips with Charlie Weis at the helm. Finally, there was the best road trip of my time at Notre Dame, the 2002 conquest of Florida State in Tallahassee. Prior to the game, the surprisingly hospitable FSU fans were quick to let us know how sick we would get of the Tomahawk chop, but such was not to be. After the Irish held FSU to a 3-and-out on the game's opening drive, Carlyle Holiday hit Arnaz Battle for a 65-yard touchdown on Notre Dame's first play from scrimmage and Doak Campbell stadium was eerily quiet for the remainder of the game.

Overall, I'm quite pleased with the distribution of Notre Dame's opponents during this period. There's very little to complain about, although it would have been nice to see more SEC teams on our schedule. Then again, it appears that some SEC teams have no interest in playing Notre Dame, and others are only willing to play Notre Dame early in the season. Consider the report that Notre Dame dropped Alabama from a future schedule over this matter. While it's unfortunate that the game had to be scrapped, this is a move that I agree with in part. Kevin White needs to focus on finding big-time programs that will play Notre Dame in October and November. Look at the 2006 and 2007 schedules. In both years, Notre Dame plays Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State in the first four weeks. Since we should be catching MSU in the "coming up" phase of the annual crack high that is a Sparty season, that's four exciting games right off the bat. Outside of the USC games, the latter halves of these years do not provide comparable excitement. Therefore, I agree with White's decision not to play an SEC team in August or early September. However, that action should be followed by further efforts to secure a game later in the season. In 2007, it would be nice to replace Duke with a top SEC team and get a marquee game in November. If it turns out that Tennessee and LSU are the only SEC teams willing to play us at that point in the season, then those are the teams White should pursue. In addition to balancing our schedule, playing SEC teams later in the year should spare us from exposure to the curious early-season SEC sweat patterns.

It's disappointing to see that the Big XII largely disappears from future schedules. Despite playing six Big XII teams during this period, Oklahoma appears to be the only Big XII team scheduled to make an appearance in the coming years. We've also previously registered our distaste for the upcoming Nevada and San Diego State dates Ty Willingham left us, and I'm less than thrilled about our commitment to play every team in the Big East at some point.

Despite these complaints, it's clear how much remaining independent has added to the experience of following Notre Dame football.