What a Difference a Schedule Can Make

Notre Dame, IN (UHND.com) – Most Notre Dame fans think back to the now infamous “What a difference a coach makes” Sports Illustrated cover headline three games into the Tyrone Willingham Era and laugh, but heading into the 2008 season; the same principles apply to the Irish schedule. A year ago Notre Dame faced a poorly designed scheduled against 10 teams that ended their seasons in a bowl game – 2008 won’t pose such a challenge for the Irish.

Last year’s schedule was brutal not just for the quality of the opponents the Irish faced, but the order in which they faced them. The young and inexperienced 2007 Notre Dame squad played road games at two of the biggest and loudest stadiums in all of college football just within their first three games. In fact, four of the first six games of the year were on the road last year for the Irish.

Compare Notre Dame’s distribution of home games to say Michigan for instance and the disparities are apparent. By the time Notre Dame was kicking off its third home game of the season against Boston College on October 13, the Wolverines were well in command of their contest with the Boilermakers of Purdue – their SIXTH home game of the season.

Because of the way Notre Dame’s long standing series with Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue have fallen, this home and away game distribution in the early season has been a problem for years. In odd numbered years, such as 2007, Notre Dame’s had killer early season schedules packed full of road games. In even numbered years, such as 2008, the Irish have had the luxury of starting seasons with a plethora of home games.

A quick glance at the 2008 schedule makes this point abundantly clear. Instead of making road trips on 4 of the first six weekends of the year, the Irish will be playing within the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium four out of the first five weekends.

The layout of the Notre Dame schedule in 2008 isn’t the only factor making it less daunting for the Irish though. The quality of the opponents and when in the season they are played will also be very much in Notre Dame’s favor this fall.

Last year the Irish opened with a home game against a very solid Georgia Tech team. The Yellow Jackets were coming off a pretty good 2006 season, but were not by any means considered an elite team heading into the ’07 season. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Georgia Tech posed one of the worst possible matchups for a team breaking in three very green offensive linemen, a new quarterback, a new running back, and two new wide receivers. Tech’s blitz happy defense, led by current Notre Dame assistant Jon Tenuta, ate the young Notre Dame offense alive to the tune of a 38-3 drubbing.

Now, contrast last season’s opener against Tech with this season’s opener against San Diego State. Many people have criticized former athletic director Kevin White for the San Diego State and Nevada (2009) games, but facing the Aztecs with a still very young offense could do wonders for the Irish. An opponent like San Diego State should give the Irish offense the opportunity to get its footing without having to face one of the most complicated blitz schemes in the NCAA like they did a year ago against Tech .How would the Irish offense had fared a year ago if they had a much more manageable first opponent?

Gone from the 2007 schedule are Georgia Tech, Penn State, UCLA, Air Force, and Duke. They have been replaced by San Diego State, North Carolina, Washington, Pitt, and Syracuse – a group of five teams in which only one, Pitt, has a reasonable chance of sniffing the top 25 this season. Not a bad trade off. Granted Duke and Air Force were not exactly top 25 teams either a year ago, but even if you remove the two worst teams from both schedules, it is certainly nice to replace Georgia Tech, Penn State, and UCLA with North Carolina, Washington, and Pitt.

Overall the Irish faced an opponent that ended its season in a bowl game 10 out of 12 times last year. The number should probably be reduced to 7 or 8 this year with all but Syracuse, Washington, North Carolina, San Diego State, and maybe Purdue ending their seasons in at least some sort of bowl game.

Last year Notre Dame had two sets of back to back road games – Penn State and Michigan back to back weekends in September and Purdue and UCLA back to back weekends in October. In 2008 the Irish will once again have two sets of back to back roads games, but they will also be a bit more manageable.

The Irish will travel to North Carolina to take on the Tar Heels on October 11 and will then have an off week before traveling to Seattle to square off against the Washington Huskies and former head coach Tyrone Willingham. If these trips were back to back weekends they would be very rough on the players, but the off week in between should make that issue a non factor. The other set of back to back road contests will come a few weeks later when the Irish make trips to Boston and Maryland to face Boston College and Navy on consecutive weekends – neither trip should be too long for Notre Dame and neither opponent should be ranked at the time.

The only downside to the schedule this year is that the Irish have just one off week again this year. Having that one off week in between the trips to North Carolina and Washington though, is a major benefit.
Still, the 2008 schedule is built to be MUCH friendlier towards a Notre Dame revival this fall than the 2007 version; and a quick peek at the 2009 schedule shows that the early season road game frenzy won’t be an issue again.

While the schedule was far from Notre Dame’s biggest problem in 2007, it also didn’t do anything to help a team which was replacing so much talent on the offensive side of the ball. As we’ve seen though, this simply won’t be the case in 2008.

Obviously just having an easier schedule alone doesn’t automatically guarantee that we’ll see a resurgence on the field this fall. There are still many questions surrounding the Irish entering the fall that have been well documented on this website as well as all of the other Notre Dame sites out there, but the chances of seeing such a resurgence are monumentally higher with this year’s schedule as opposed to facing another slate of games like the Irish saw a year ago.

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