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Why Are We Still Playing Notre Dame?

The NCAA throws together a wonderful statistics database here that is worth checking out if you're ever bored, or in the mood to supplement an argument with lies, damn lies, and statistics...  Throw me in the bored category today, but I was looking at schedule strength for whatever reason and happened upon something that was unexpected.

The following is schedule strength based upon past opponents' records (in other words, this does not include the upcoming bowl opponent's record):

1. Oklahoma - 79-46 (0.632)

4. Florida - 76-48 (0.612)

7. Ohio State - 68-45 (.601)

9. Purdue - 68-46 (.596)

11. Illinois - 66-47 (.584)

17. Indiana - 62-48 (.563)

31. Michigan - 67-56 (.544)

34. Michigan State - 67-57 (.540)

41. Wisconsin - 60-54 (.526)

44. Iowa - 59-54 (.522)

68. Penn State - 57-57 (.500)

80. Minnesota - 54-59 (.477)

82. Notre Dame - 60-67 (.472)

108. Northwestern - 48-64 (.428)

First off...  seeing Florida and Oklahoma in the Top 4 is... well surprising.

Also intriguing is that the two Big Ten teams who had the biggest "turnaround" type of years, Minnesota and Northwestern, played weak schedules.  Don't overlook Penn State either, whose 11-1 campaign certainly wasn't harmed by playing a slate of opponents that managed .500 ball.  

I find all of this interesting in part because back in the beginning of the year I discussed the follies of Michigan's scheduling tactics in recent years and how we could learn from the likes of our foes in Columbus...

Michigan, on the other hand, could stand to take a tactic from its arch rival in this regard. The Buckeyes have upped their OOC schedule in a very cunning way. Yes OSU plays USC this year, yes they’ve played Texas the past few years, and if you look ahead you’ll see a marquee matchup each season for the foreseeable future. What is hidden by these contests is a laughable remainder to the OOC schedule! OSU gets to play a big time game against a big time opponent (something most lay people would call a "high risk" game, but in fact is exactly the opposite), where a loss will NOT derail a season or a BCS hope (see: LSU vs. OSU last year), and where a win will scream "LEGITIMACY!" from the highest of peaks. All while having what amounts to exhibition games for the remainder of the OOC schedule.

Looking back... here's OSU's OOC slate:

Youngstown State: 4-8

Ohio: 4-8

Troy: 8-4 (!!)

So was Ohio State out of the MNC race following an absolutely HORRIFIC showing at USC?  No, they were still very much part of the discussion until the Nittany Lions ended their hopes later on in the year.  All this despite playing three teams that wouldn't so much as have raised an eyebrow from anyone glancing over the schedule in the preseason.  Oh, and there's a nice BCS trip waiting for them in January.

Michigan should've been asking the following questions when the past contract with ND ran its course: why are we still playing Notre Dame?  How does it benefit us?  Could we gain more out of looking elsewhere?  Rather than asking those questions, they went ahead and locked themselves into Notre Dame for the rest of eternity*.  This is a problem on a number of fronts.  First and foremost, it is that we currently gain little from the matchup, and stand to lose lots... Notre Dame is 107-73-1 since 1994, and with the exception of 2006, has not entered the contest ranked in the Top 10 at any other time since 1994.  Rivalry and tradition aside, this has not been a "big matchup" for quite a while.

For the time being, it also completely blocks the Wolverines from engaging in the kind of scheduling strategy that the Buckeyes have used so well the past few seasons.   Unfortunately, while we all appreciate the rivalry with those from South Bend, a win over the Irish does nothing for us in terms of the polls.  Even a blowout win over the #2 ranked Irish in '06 was mostly unmentioned in the debate at the end of the season.  A loss?  Well a loss is KILLER for any sort of national aspirations.  Right now, ND occupies a spot on Michigan's schedule that should feature a big time program.

So where does that leave Michigan scheduling wise?  Well if they intend to honor the new contract, they have to hope that ND manages to become a marquee opponent again (it's been about 15 years) and they have to schedule the other OOC games as though ND is their "big game" and line up three nice fluffy cupcakes... Michigan has done an incredibly poor job of this recently.  See Utah or any trip to the West coast in the first month of the season.  I said back in August:

I think it illuminates two things that Michigan has either looked at and passed on or failed to realize altogether: that scheduling a big time tough opponent early in the year is not as damaging as the prevailing notion makes it seem, and secondly, scheduling good teams that are not widely recognized as such poses the problem of large risk with little benefit.

Yes I'm rehashing seriously old news here, but this is a frustrating failure in strategy on both ends of the spectrum: our seeming lack of understanding of how to work the system to our advantage, and our willingness to shoot ourselves in the foot by bringing in "sleepers" like Utah rather than automatic wins.  Unfortunately, the options right now are limited: we could break our new contract with ND and look to start scheduling short-term matchups with other big-time programs, or we need to bite the bullet and schedule the Coast Guard for our 4th OOC slot (right after they play ND naturally) for the foreseeable future.  With a slot still open in next season's schedule, I think it's vital that Bill Martin et al bring in a cupcake and avoid another sleeper at all costs.

*or longer


Total non-sequiteur stat:

Total attendance for 2008:

1. Michigan 759,997

2. Penn State 757,775

HA...  yes, when you go 3-9, you get to celebrate attendence stats...