DEBATE THIS! Revisted: Notre Dame’s Strength of Schedule

Back in the offseason, the 2012 Notre Dame schedule took center stage in one of our DEBATE THIS! features. It seemed as if the entire HLS staff had a different opinion on this issue. Grantland-X thought it was perfect, Bayou thought it was insanely difficult, and I thought it would end up much like 2011 when it was all said and done.

What we didn’t account for though was just how readily the Irish strength of schedule (SOS) would be dismissed by the very same people that ranked it as the toughest schedule in the nation before the season started.

Granted, I can understand why Notre Dame’s schedule isn’t the toughest in the nation anymore. Michigan and Michigan State are having down seasons along with most of the Big Ten. USC doesn’t look like the preseason juggernaut everyone thought they would be either.

Despite that, the Irish currently being discounted as the “worst” of the four unbeaten favorites for the BCS title is absurd. Any statement that the Irish have played an “easier schedule” have “barely beat anyone” or any other similar statement is simply not true by any stretch of the imagination.

Let’s just look at the raw data. Below, I have listed all five unbeaten teams, their opponents winning percentage, and the SOS ratings from each BCS computer poll that uses them (the only one that doesn’t is Wolfe’s ratings as he uses a win probability rating instead of SOS). Yes, I did include Louisville even though they aren’t in the discussion right now, although you will soon see why:

Team Opp. Win % Anderson/Hester Colley Massey Billingsley Sagarin Avg. SOS Rank
Alabama 0.625 31 16 8 21 17 18.6
Kansas State 0.590 30 40 13 16 33 26.4
Oregon 0.569 58 69 30 44 47 49.6
Notre Dame 0.653 25 8 10 7 16 13.2
Louisville 0.391 111 126 91 111 105 108.8

Feel free to click on the headings to sort each column too. The only times Notre Dame will fail to finish on top are Massey’s SOS rating and alphabetical order.

So if only a single computer ranking has Notre Dame’s SOS just two spots behind current consensus number one, Alabama, how in the world has this “Notre Dame has barely played anyone” narrative popped up again?

Probably the most likely response most Notre Dame fans will have is that their is a clear anti-ND bias holding the Irish back. I can’t blame the reaction either considering how much names like Rick Reilly, Mark May, and Colin Cowherd have popped up all season long.

The ND “hater” crowd will likely have a different response. Their reasoning is that the Irish don’t belong to a conference and hence their schedule is watered down. The Irish have played teams mostly from a weak Big Ten and a weak ACC, they will say. If it weren’t for OU, one of the top Big XII teams, and USC, one of the better Pac 12 teams, the schedule would be worthless. Oh, and don’t forget, Notre Dame hasn’t yet proven itself against the S-E-C, PAWWWWWWWWWWWWL.

However, both of those arguments though hold little to no water.

While there are quite possibly a handful of polls written in by folks knocking ND down an additional peg or two, the volume isn’t enough to outweigh the rest of the ballots being cast. It would be like saying they also had an anti-Oklahoma State agenda last season.

Irish independence isn’t what’s holding this team back either. Sure, lots of teams are helped (or hurt) by their association with their conferences and some lazy pollsters do vote based on that. However not every pollster ignores the fact that ND’s schedule isn’t filled with junk FCS teams or bottom feeders of non-BCS conferences.

No, the root of the problem is far different and actually two-fold. The first was actually something that I complained about when my turn came to debate the ND schedule: our schedule’s strength is front-loaded at the beginning of the season.

Case in point, remember when I said that Michigan is having a “down year”? You probably believed me, right?

Well, in reality they are 6-3 and their loses are #1 Alabama, #4 Notre Dame, and #16 Nebraska. The problem is that we played them so early, that they already had two losses and their luster was immediately gone in the polls. In the minds of the voters, that win was no good. However, when you look at their season again, they are far from awful and could climb their way back into the top 25.

So why didn’t this hurt Alabama as much, especially since they played them earlier than we did?

That’s because Alabama has done a lot more since then. After Michigan, they spent a lot of time dispatching the cupcakes on their schedule and have just now gotten into their schedules true difficulty. In the last two weeks, they played (at the time) #11 Mississippi State and (at the time) #5 LSU. Michigan was a distant memory. What pollsters now remember is that Alabama just beat a top-15 and top-5 and a “down” Michigan to open the season. Then they will play #15 Texas A&M this week, keeping their gauntlet going.

That’s worlds different than Notre Dame leading off with “down” teams, making some noise against (then) #9 Oklahoma and promptly turning around to struggle against Pitt in the mind of a pollster.

The other issue is Notre Dame’s preseason ranking in comparison to every other school now ahead of them in the BCS. Notre Dame started the season unranked in the AP poll and #24 in the coaches’ poll to start the season. In comparison, Alabama was #2/#2, Oregon #5/#5, and Kansas State #22/#21. Teams that don’t lose tend to hold their spots above those below them. This has held true all season, save for week 4 in the AP poll when ND found themselves ranked #11 after beating Michigan, managing to leap-frog Kansas State who sat at #15.

The next week though, ND went on a bye and Kansas State upset OU, launching them back above the Irish and have remained above them ever since.

Alabama, Kansas State, and Oregon have all been able to take advantage of these two issues to stay on top of the Irish. While a computer poll will reanalyze all data every week, the human pollster tends to take the previous week’s rankings and applies the current week’s results to them and adjusts accordingly.  Further, the computers don’t take margin of victory into account by BCS rule and the pollsters are definitely focused on such “style points”. To top it all off, every voter, regardless of how hard they try (and I’ll toss myself in there from doing the HLS top 25 every week), has some amount of bias in their ranking.

To put it simply, our preseason rank hurt us, but, in the end, our front-loaded schedule is killing us. The Irish now have to hope to impress voters with some convincing blowout wins against easy opponents and make a lasting impression against USC that will stay fresh in their minds through the conference championship weeks.

It’s definitely a tall order to say the least.

Here’s hoping that our new partnership with the ACC, and other schedule moves allow for more flexibility, allowing the Irish to balance their schedule’s strength across the season like the rest of the college football world has been able to.

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  • Davie Dave 40

    I believe like everything else in life there is a double standard that applies to ND because it is ND.

    If Alabama beat LSU 52-40 and Florida beat LSU 20-9, there would be a long debate on which team had the better win.  If ND goes in to USC and wins 20-9 it will be considered an inferior win compared to Oregon who scored 62 on them even though USC hung up 50.  All because, well it is ND.

    A Bama team that digs deep and comes back in the final 2 minutes to beat LSU is a gutsy team that did what champions do, they found a way to win.  Win a ND tea comes back in the 4th and beats a Pitt team in overtime, well they were lucky.

    After so many years you just learn to live with it and move on.  We take what we get this year with the BCS and wait for the playoffs to come along and get our shot.

  • Bblack55

    I think you hit the nail on the head here. You could also make the point of ND’s history over the past 15 years of making a strong showing before collapsing late in the season. I think even stalwart fans were holding their breath last week, remembering the recent past. Many voters may be reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. This is clearly a different team, though, and are about to exceed even my lofty expectations. I don’t think we can be disappointed even if we miss out on a title shot. An unbeaten or one- loss season and a solid BCS bowl will line us up nicely for next year.

  • Shotmaker

    Will I do not deny that Alabama is a great football team,I do feel that the SEC is overrated as a conference.The record of the SEC is 78wins and 49 loses.Breakingthat down a little 38 wins have come against cupcakes.The SEC rarely plays anyone out of conference that they can’t beat. They beat up on each and proclaim their superiority.The so called experts at CBS and CBS Sports have been drinking this Kool-Aid.

  • dkazmar

    Doesn’t matter, two of the three teams in front of ND will lose before the end of the season.

    • trey

      Agree with that. ND just needs to win. Handle what you can handle and let the process occur

    • Irish96

      I hope you’re right. At least this way, if we make it to the NC game, nobody will be able to claim that their team “got screwed” because Notre Dame got in and they didn’t. But I agree with everything in the post that we’re getting hurt by our front-loaded schedule and preseason ranking.

    • ndtex

      I believe this as well. I’m just beyond frustrated with the current narrative. It’s not like the beginning of the season was ancient history, yet somehow it is in the voters’ minds.

  • MEX4HOF

    First, I think NDTex’s point that the team’s early season ranking is what has hurt them the most is correct. If polls came out for the first time in week 8, after most teams had played 6 games, then I think only Florida and Kansas State would have been ranked ahead of Notre Dame, and with Florida losing, Notre Dame would be at least #2 now. Then the inertia of the week to week poll would set in in ND’s favor. When the playoff comes that should be moot, as the body of work will be what counts.

    However, there is a risk that as a season plays out teams that were initially perceived to be strong will depreciate in esteem as their season’s don’t play out as expected, and the chance for statement wins declines. This is a problem for ND this season; while the teams which will participate in a conference championship have the chance to make a statement by winning those games.

    ND should retain its independence in the future, but I do think that it ought to try to schedule  a Big-12 or SEC game later in the season – e.g., rather than this current stretch of games against the ACC (yeah I know Pitt’s not in it, yet) – to be able to put some gloss on it. I don’t anticipate Stanford being a perennial top 10 team, and in season’s where they are the last game, a win against them may not carry weight with the selection committee to get a one-loss ND into the playoff.

    • Irish96

      Yes, I’m already worried about next year, where our schedule after the USC game looks like this: Air Force, Navy, Pitt, BYU, Stanford. If Stanford backslides without Taylor, that slate isn’t going to impress anyone down the stretch. (Granted, worrying about this stuff is a nice problem to have. Nobody cares about your strength of schedule when you’re 7-5)

      Where do you guys think we start next season in the rankings? I’m thinking anywhere between 2 and 8, depending how the rest of this season plays out.

      • ndtex

        At this rate, you are looking at a top 5 ranking easy.

        The funny part will be that, thanks to a high preseason ranking, our schedule my actually not hurt us as much as this season. Hold serve at the beginning and it’ll be hard to justify putting the Irish lower in the polls.

        Voters are strange.

  • FightingSonOfNotreDame

    Don’t forget that we don’t pad our schedule with cupcakes between “big” games like everyone else.

    • ndtex

      Once conference play starts for most schools, you don’t really see those cupcake games. There might be one tossed in for homecoming or something along those lines, but because everyone is smack-dab in the middle of their conference games it gets largely ignored.

      • OderName

        Upcoming games still to be played:
        Alabama: Western Carolina
        Georgia: GA Southern
        Florida: LA-Lafayette, Jacksonville St
        South Carolina: Wofford

        Not sayin’, just sayin’. These teams won’t get penalized at all, while we play two BCS-conference teams in BC & WF, and will get hammered by the WWL about these weak games.

        • Irish96

          That’s shameful. The SEC’s out of conference schedule is ridiculous. Then they just beat up on each other while they benefit from this perception that the SEC is head and shoulders above everyone else. SEC teams are 5-4 against other BCS schools this year. Aside from that they’ve played 34 games against mid-majors and FBS schools. (And they’ve even managed to lose some of those) Should we be impressed by that? More than a third of their teams have a losing record. When they lose to each other, the voters only drop them a few spots. How far do you think ND would have dropped if we had lost to Oklahoma?

    • trey

      Actually, we do, and we play vry poorly in them. BYU and Pitt are cupcakes

      • ndtex

        No. Cupcakes are FCS teams and non-BCS bottom-feeders.

  • NDZibby

    The scheduling order idea makes a ton of sense, especially when you consider voter mindset and the fact that we’ve been bad for a long time.

    At the beginning of the year, you can justify keeping your preseason #1 team at #1 whether they’re coming off a bye or a 50 point route of Savannah State. “Their schedule will get tougher later!” they argue (and are right). Scheduling cupcakes (regardless of how difficult) is acceptable in the beginning of the season, and if you add in one real team, even better. If you start low in the polls, winning games, even big ones, still isn’t usually enough to get you to jump anyone unless they look bad. Unfortunatly, that mindset holds for the same approximate amount of time as does the tough part of our schedule. Right around the time we were finished dispatching Stanford or Miami, the other traditional powers were starting their standard run through hard games and fans from around the country are turning up their interest.

    So thinking about this, I came up with analogy:

    For conference teams, those few good September clashes we’ve seen (Oregon-LSU, Bama-Mich, Okla/FSU, etc) are like pre-gaming for a great night out. It’s fun, it sets the tone for the rest of the night, but it’s nothing like showing up and starting the real party. You wait until half way through the night, throw on a decent looking shirt, show up to the bar and fire down a few shots. Something that tastes decent to start: Mississippi St maybe. Then go straight to the hard stuff: LSU, then maybe Texas A+M to wash it down  – Let the party begin!

    Meanwhile, we’re the guy who shows up for beer olympics starting at 5pm. The level of difficulty is higher (as seen by the number of losses we have in early Oct to our 4th real opponent and the number of people passed out on the couch by 10pm watching Netflix) but it’s just as much or more of the fun and booze. The problem is if you even make it to the bar, most likely you’re already sloppy and maybe even working your way into the hangover stage. So you sip on a Wake Forest Lager and catch up with some friends.

    The others that showed up to the bar late doesn’t know or really care about the beer olympics, they just know that half your party never made it out and aren’t any fun. And more importantly, with a few shots down, that group is hitting their stride right when it matters: just before closing time, when it’s time to impress the girl in cocktail dress across the bar or her friend in the miniskirt. You still stand a chance: Maybe the others took a few to many shots tonight, don’t feel good or are falling all over themselves. Hey, it’s happened before. But your fate kinda out of your hands because outside of telling her about the epic flip cup run you were on earlier in the day, you don’t have (m)any moves left.

    So cheers! Here’s hopin Alabama/KSU/Oregon down a few to many shots of Wild Turkey!

    • RUDY-2

      If ND was in the SEC East, undefeated and had played a SOS similar to the one they have, is there any doubt they would be ranked #2 in the BCS and waiting on the Conference championship game vs. Alabama? How else do you explain Georgia at #5 with a blowout loss to South Carolina? The bias is rampant; pro-SEC, coaches’ poll that favors their conferences, anti-ND, and pre-season rankings barriers, on and on. I am sick of it. Let’s just win out and hope two ahead of us lose. We can never again count on fairness from the voters. It’s been that way since 1989. Just ask Lou.   

  • Tnirish

    There is another factor no one is talking about. SOS only looks at averages. Which four game schedule is tougher, two games vs top 10 plus another two in the 80′s (aka cupcake) OR four games vs teams in the 30′s? Math would tell you the latter. I think the first one would be tougher. We (ND) are not getting the human votes because the top end of our schedule has lost its luster. I disagree with the voters who think this way but they ignore the cupcakes and focus on the high profile games.

  • JoeSchu

    Keep in mind that the Irish have won more games against BCS AQ opponents than the ENTIRE SEC has faced in their non-conference schedules.  Don’t let the echo chamber suck you in.

  • NDZibby

    Ok HLS readers, I could use some help. Got into a debate with a friend last night in which I stated that we don’t really know if the top of the SEC is that good. He called me biased (shocking!) and categorically stated that the SEC has dominated non-conference and bowl games over the last 5+ years and thats why we know they’re so dominant.

    I know earlier this year there were multiple articles/blogs with info that pointed to that statement being a fallacy, but I no longer know where those places are. Can someone direct me?

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  • Teo

    I disagree fully with the front-loaded schedule bit. The voters have an anti-ND bias. You could tell as soon as the BCS standings arrived. But even before then, when we were betting up Michigan, MSU, and Stanford, we were looked down upon because we weren’t blowing anyone out.

    I think it will sort itself out – Oregon will lose and we will get our shot against USC – because voters have been wrong all year. First it was USC, then Michigan, MSU, West Virginia and Alabama. My hunch is Stanford’s defense will pull it out. I could be wrong and we could get the shaft, but someone has to lose for us to have a shot. And that’s because the voters have been wrong all year.

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  • ND_IRISH_FAN

    Everyone talks of the tough schedule the SEC faces. Really? Since everyone is assuming a matchup in the BCS Championship game with Alabama, let us look at their tough SEC schedule. Alabama is 11-1. Their 12 opponents so far have a combined record of 70-72 this year and of that their SEC opponents had a combined record of 51-45. They beat one 8-4 Big 10 team. Their two tough Sun Belt teams had a combined record of 10-13. They played a brutal matchup in a FCS Southern conference team (Western Carolina) that ended the season 1-10. Among the SEC opponents that had that 51-45 overall record mentioned above, those SEC teams were only 24-40 within the SEC conference. Although they played eight SEC teams, with two being noteworthy, (LSU & Texas A&M) they were not very good overall.
    Notre Dame on the other hand has an undefeated record at 12-0. Their opponents have a combined record of 79-62 with three Big Ten teams that had a 12-12 combined conference record. They played three ACC teams with a combined conference record of 9-15. They played against two Pac 12 teams that had a combined conference record of 13-5. Their lone game against a Big 12 team was versus Oklahoma who at 9-2 has a 7-1 conference record. They also matched up against only one team from the Big East in Pitt who has a 2-4 conference record. Their other two opponents were Independents in Navy with an overall record of 7-5 and BYU with the same record.
    Touting how much tougher the SEC schedule is and then substantiating this with opponents Alabama played only being 24-40 within SEC… it doesn’t really prove the point. Throw in a Div I-AA team victory as one of their 11 wins and once again, it doesn’t solidify their “tougher SEC schedule” argument.
    For Alabama fans bashing on a Notre Dame team that went undefeated against opponents that even the weakest of which would have no doubt also beaten teams the likes of Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and a FCS team in Western Carolina is comical.

    • Leaping Leprechaun

      I would have to agree with you completely on your points. I live in SEC country and hear the same argument every day about the SOS of the SEC. The one ‘saving grace’ the SEC can hang their hat on is the BCS record they boast…I have faith ND can stop this streak in its tracks..Roll Damn Irish!!!