Playing Down: Defending Notre Dame’s 2005 Schedule

Pop quiz: name the mascot for the following universities: Nicholls State, Sam Houston State, Appalachian State, The Citadel, and Northwestern State? You know why you probably can’t? Because these Division I-AA schools do not play Division I-A football. Frankly, you “shouldn’t” know their nicknames unless you went there, are a fan, or are phenomenal at sports trivia. Unfortunately, these days, far too many Division I-A schools know exactly who these teams are. They just happen to be the most scheduled Division I-AA teams in 2005. Each D-I-AA university I mentioned is playing not one, but two games against Division I-A opponents this season–largely, if not exclusively, on the road.

In light of this phenomenon of Division I-A teams playing host to Division I-AA cupcakes, it strikes me as odd how so many college football fans seem to think it justified to be critical of the “soft” schedule Notre Dame is playing this year. Granted, what seemed like a grueling slate in the pre-season has become less impressive as teams such as Purdue, Tennessee, Michigan State, and Pitt have fallen off a cliff.

Still, while the 2005 run might end up being more of a 10K than a marathon, some of these fans are being a wee bit hypocritical. Of the current top 25 BCS teams, seven have played a Division I-AA team this year, and many others have scheduled Mid-Major bottom feeders. Texas Tech, the worst offender, has played two I-AA teams, and a third opponent, Florida International, jumped to I-A this season. But, our schedule is weak because a few of the teams we scheduled have slid.

Uh, okay.

By the way, here’s a list of the current Top 25 teams in the BCS, and the Division I-AA teams they have “faced.”

#7 LSU-Appalachian State
#10 Oregon-Montana
#12 Texas Tech-Indiana State, Sam Houston State
#14 West Virginia-Wofford
#19 Florida State-The Citadel
#20 Auburn-Western Kentucky
#22 Fresno State-Weber State

You’ll notice two of these teams, LSU and Oregon, are ranked ahead of the Irish (we are currently ranked #11). Subtract their Division I-AA wins, and Notre Dame is currently sitting at #9, and waiting to climb even higher. Since these wins count, though, the Tigers and Ducks are able to say that playing Appalachian State or Montana is the same as playing, say, Syracuse–the weakest team on ND’s slate.

Clearly, this is not the case.

Now, seven out of twenty-five does not seem like a huge number, but consider that it is, as a percentage, just a hair under one third (actually, 28%). These are not struggling programs like Temple, Buffalo, Florida International, or Arkansas State trying to get some wins (still no excuse in my book). These are the upper tier of teams in college football, folks. And, still, a team such as LSU “only” beats Appalachian State, 24-0.

How jacked must the Tiger players have been to battle the Mountaineers (not to be confused with the West Virginia Mountaineers)?

And, that’s just the Top 25 teams in the BCS. Take a look at the rest of these riot-inducing match-ups:

Alabama-Birmingham-Jacksonville State
Arizona-Northern Arizona
Arkansas State-Tennessee-Martin
Arkansas-Missouri State
Army-University of Massachusetts
Boise State-Portland State
BYU-Eastern Illinois
California-Sacramento State
Connecticut-Western Carolina
Duke-Virginia Military Institute
Florida International-Western Kentucky, Florida A&M
Houston-Sam Houston State
Indiana-Nicholls State
Iowa State-Illinois State
Iowa-Northern Iowa
Kansas-Appalachian State
Kent State-Southeast Missouri State
Kentucky-Idaho State
Louisiana-Lafayette-Northwestern State
Louisiana-Monroe-Northwestern State
Marshall-William & Mary
Memphis-University of Tennessee-Chattanooga
Mississippi State-Murray State
Mississippi-The Citadel
North Carolina State-Eastern Kentucky
Northern Illinois-Tennessee Tech
Oklahoma State-Montana State
Oregon State-Portland State
Pittsburgh-Youngstown State
San Jose State-Eastern Washington
South Florida-Florida A&M
Southern Mississippi-McNeese State
Stanford-U.C. Davis
Texas A&M-Texas State
Toledo-Western Illinois
Troy-Cal Poly
Tulane-Southeastern Louisiana
Utah State-Nicholls State
UTEP-Texas Southern
Washington State-Grambling
Western Michigan-Southern Illinois

(Here is the breakdown of BCS and Mid-Major conferences, and Independents, as a percentage, “squaring off” against I-AA foes):

BCS 46%
M-M 42%
IND. 25%

Is this an epidemic? Some might say so. But, to me, it’s not quite that serious. In fact, if you can see the humor in it, it is a very hilarious joke.

The BCS made a huge mistake in my opinion when they changed the rule that would not count wins against I-AA teams as I-A victories. And, rightly so. Teams “playing down” and scheduling I-AA teams are essentially setting up glorified scrimmages. In my mind, if I-A schools would like to play these contests, more power to them, but they should not count toward BCS wins. Why? Many reasons, but the most important is that there are supposed to be 119 teams trying to prove they are deserving of playing in a national title game. Considering 67 teams choose not to schedule these gimmes, it’s both pathetic and unfair.

There must be a standard. And, that standard should be: play teams only on one level, your own.

Now dissenters might point to Rutgers’ loss to New Hampshire or Mississippi State’s loss to Maine last year (or Stanford’s loss to U.C. Davis this year) as evidence that these contests are worthy of distinction. I disagree. These kinds of triumphs by D-I-AA teams are very rare, and typically occur against BCS conference bottom feeders having an atrocious day. They are not beating the top teams.

When was the last time a Division I-AA school beat a top 25 team? A top 50 team?

Division I-A teams “playing down” also takes money away from struggling Division I-A schools and conferences who need every penny they can get to upgrade facilities for all their athletic programs–not just football. Some would also argue that these games are great for the Division I-AA teams, and they certainly are. But, shouldn’t the needs of Division I-A schools, come first?

I think so.

Parity could also be a reason a lot of Division I-A schools are shying away from playing “weaker” Division I-A teams. Match-ups against most MAC, Mountain West, WAC, and Sun Belt teams have ceased to be “guaranteed” wins for lower and mid-level schools from BCS conferences. How many times have we seen a Division I-A BCS conference school cancel a game against a “scary” Mid-Major program and schedule, say, a Western Illinois (are you listening Nebraska?)?

To be fair, many I-A teams have always scheduled these match-ups. What is interesting, though, is how they seemed to largely disappear when the BCS determined they did not count.

Some might also argue that there is a benefit to playing I-AA teams because they typically result in a timely blow out that allows coaches to play their reserves. But, are the game reps your second and third string players getting against these teams really that valuable? Meaningful? I’m not so sure. Certainly there is this notion that your team is working the “kinks out.” But, sometimes playing down results in sloppy performance, and can be counter productive, particularly when these games are later in the season, as opposed to an opener. One need look no further than the Stan
ford-U.C. Davis match-up this season for evidence. What benefit did the Cardinal really receive from playing, and losing to the Aggies (yes, that is U.C. Davis’s nick name)? I would argue none, save the motivation derived from the embarrassment.

What’s next, teams like Stanford and Nebraska lining up Division II teams?

In closing, it is simply not fair for the BCS to count a Division I-AA win as a “win.” These are nothing more than sanctioned pre-season games. And it needs to end. With the NCAA allowing 12 games in the future, it is bound to only get worse unless something is done.

Perhaps college football fans have every right to criticize Notre Dame’s schedule and label it, in hindsight, as softer than anticipated. But, I can think of about 52 teams whose fans should just keep their trap shut about Notre Dame’s slate. Or, at least, wait until we schedule the Maine Black Bears before they start complaining.

That’s right, the Black Bears. Of Maine.

You can ask 5-4 Nebraska for the scouting report. The Cornhuskers were able to tough out a 25-7 victory over them back in September.

Please send questions or comments for Todd Carr to [email protected]

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