June 26, 2009

Mailbag: Scheduling a matter of perspective

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Like beauty, strength of college football schedules is in the eye of the beholder.

Photo Charlie Weis and Notre Dame don't play FBS opponents.
(Jeff Gross / Getty Images)
A team's schedule can appear to be a cakewalk from one perspective and a death march from another. "My team earns its way to a bowl game. Your team practically gets a free pass."

Some fans may add up combined victories of opponents to make a case, but that's not always a true indication of a strong schedule. And while a schedule might be full of bowl-bound opponents, what if those teams were from lesser conferences?

For instance, is a victory over MAC champion Buffalo or Sun Belt champ Troy more impressive than a win over, say, Stanford of the Pac-10 or Auburn of the SEC?

Last season, Stanford went 5-7, beat bowl-bound Oregon State and Arizona, and lost three games by seven or fewer points. Auburn also finished 5-7 and lost four games by five or fewer points.

It's all a matter of perspective.

Notre Dame's schedule seemingly always is under scrutiny. Is Notre Dame's schedule that much easier than that of some of its rivals? We'll take a look at it in this week's mailbag.

Winning perspective

From Misha in Seattle: Ah, yes, stalwart Notre Dame never scheduling a I-AA team. The Irish only play such powerhouses as Purdue, San Diego State, Washington, Syracuse and Stanford. Those teams were a combined 14-46 last season. True, the Irish did play a couple of decent teams and regular power programs, but the overall record of their opponents was 79-86. And their number of wins against teams with a winning record one (Navy). Had it not been for the patsies on their schedule, Notre Dame wouldn't have come close to making a bowl game. Just remember: The Domers don't need to schedule FCS opponents because their schedule is already full of cupcakes.

Photo Rich Rodriguez led Michigan into Notre Dama last season and watched his team lose 35-17.
(Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)
It was pointed out in last week's mailbag that Notre Dame is one of just five major programs (USC, UCLA, Washington and Tennessee are the others) that haven't faced a Football Championship Subdivision opponent since the schedule was expanded to 12 games in 2006.

Although an undeniable fact, the inclusion of Notre Dame sparked a wave of emails discrediting the Irish. Most were sent from readers that like Misha identified themselves as Michigan fans.

That's ironic because Notre Dame's schedule was comparable to Michigan's.

Michigan played Penn State. Notre Dame played USC. Both teams played Michigan State and Purdue. Both beat teams that managed just two victories Notre Dame over San Diego State, Michigan over Miami (Ohio). Michigan did play undefeated Utah, while Notre Dame played winless Washington. Obviously, that's a big difference there. But the remaining teams on Michigan's '08 schedule Northwestern, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State, Toledo and Minnesota were a combined 41-35. The remaining teams on Notre Dame's '08 regular-season schedule Pittsburgh, Navy, Syracuse, Boston College, North Carolina and Stanford were a combined 42-35.

That's 11 games. The 12th? Notre Dame beat Michigan 35-17.

So, when you analyze it further, Notre Dame's schedule wasn't much different than Michigan's.

In fact, Notre Dame's schedule wasn't that easy. Half of the teams the Irish faced last season played in bowl games.

But the repeated criticism against the Irish was that they only beat one team with a winning record (Navy) in the regular season. Some argued that Navy isn't even a quality opponent, even though the Midshipmen have posted at least eight victories in each of the past six seasons.

Yet, there were three bowl teams from the power conferences that had just one regular-season victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision team with a winning record. Minnesota beat Florida Atlantic, Connecticut beat Cincinnati and Arizona beat California.

Kentucky didn't have a regular-season victory over a winning FBS team.

No one questions LSU, but it beat just two winning teams in the regular season 7-6 South Carolina and 8-5 Troy. Wisconsin also beat just two winning FBS teams 7-6 Fresno State and 7-6 Minnesota.

But that's enough looking back.

Notre Dame's '09 schedule again doesn't include any FCS opponents and 10 are major-conference opponents. The other two opponents are Nevada and Navy, both of whom went to bowls last season. The Irish also face Michigan, Michigan State, USC, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Stanford, among others.

That might not be the strongest schedule in the nation, but it's definitely not the easiest.

Heisman surprise?

Photo Colt McCoy won't be the Heisman favorite just because he's not won it.
(Jeff Gross / Getty Images)
From Brian in Roanoke, Va.: Preseason projections are in full swing. Currently, the expectations are for Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy to lead the race for the Heisman, with California's Jahvid Best and one of the offensive stars from Oklahoma State vying for fourth. If the leading trio all have statistically impressive totals, as at the end of last season, do you think Heisman voters will tend to lean toward McCoy because the other two already have won the award?

I am fortunate enough to be among the hundreds of Heisman voters across the country. And though I am acquainted with a large number of voters and am confident they are fair and objective, I can only speak for myself.

If Bradford, Tebow and McCoy have outstanding years again and are the leading candidates again, the decision will be as difficult and the voting as close as it was last season.

I don't think any player will have a sentimental advantage. Skeptics might say voters want a second two-time recipient. But would it be Tebow or Bradford having the edge?

Others might believe as you suggest that McCoy might have an edge because he hasn't won. But I don't think that will be an issue.

I'll consider statistics, consistency, performance in big games and quality of competition to determine whom I truly believe is the "most outstanding" player and vote accordingly. I believe others voters will do the same.


From Greg in Orlando, Fla.: Every poll I look at for the upcoming college football season has USC fourth in the nation. Don't you think that's a little much considering what they lost? Isn't this just a kiss-up to Pete Carroll?

Before I was married and my son was born, I could afford occasional trips to Las Vegas. OK, so it was frequent trips to Vegas but that's not the point. The point is when I played roulette, I'd bet on the black and keep betting it until it didn't pay off. It's the same way with USC.

USC has won at least 11 games in each of the past seven seasons, and the Trojans have finished no lower than fourth in the final Associated Press poll in each of those years. Why expect the bottom to fall out now?

True, Carroll has a new quarterback in Aaron Corp and has to replace eight starters on defense. But the offensive line is arguably the nation's best, Damian Williams is a big-play receiver and the stable of running backs Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson, etc. still is there.

In addition, Carroll has recruited extremely well. USC's past five recruiting classes have been ranked fourth, eighth, second, first and first in the nation, and the Trojans have talented players ready to step in on defense.

And what team is going to beat USC in the Pac-10?

Cal? Perhaps, but the Bears have questions at linebacker, wide receiver and the offensive line and need significant improvement from quarterback Kevin Riley.

Oregon ? The Ducks have to rebuild their offensive line and their defense.

Oregon State? The Beavers also lost eight starters on defense.

Maybe Cal, Oregon or Oregon State will usurp the Trojans' hold on the Pac-10. It's possible. But until USC falters, I'd put my money on the Trojans.

That's not kissing up to Carroll. That's just a smart bet.

Hurricane warning?

From Van in Huntsville, Ala.: Is this the season Miami turns the corner and wins the ACC? If not, what impact will this have on coach Randy Shannon's job security?

Miami, which finished 7-6 last season, should be better. Sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris figures to improve, and there is plenty of talent at running back and receiver. But issues with the offensive line and on defense raise doubts about whether the Hurricanes are legit contenders in the ACC Coastal Division. My pick is Virginia Tech, followed by Georgia Tech. I'd pick the Hurricanes third.

A third-place finish in the Coastal still could translate to a strong season, but the Hurricanes could be better without it showing up in the standings. Their first four games are at Florida State, vs. Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech and vs. Oklahoma, so a 0-4 start isn't out of the question.

Maybe Miami will surprise, win some of those early games and challenge for the ACC title. Nothing is impossible, especially with a roster full of good athletes. If the Hurricanes struggle, though, Shannon will be under a lot of pressure in 2010.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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