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  • The Tracks of our Tiers

    by Mike Coffey

    I remember the day I set foot on campus in August of 1987 to begin my freshman year, I received a refrigerator magnet that had the football schedules on it through 1993. Life in the days when ND wasn’t almost the only independent in Division 1 and crazy television contracts didn’t rule the day certainly allowed the Fighting Irish to plan ahead.

    Yesterday, that pendulum swung almost fully back the other way, as just over 253 days before it kicks off, the 2014 Notre Dame football schedule was made official, as were the 2015 and 2016 slates. Along with those announcements, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick discussed the philosophies that will guide his efforts in putting together the 2017 schedule and beyond.

    I’m long on record as a 4-4-4 devotee (see here and here, among other places) when it comes to ND football scheduling, and with the advent of the four-team-playoff-determined-by-committee, adequate strength of schedule is going to become even more of a factor. So as I perused Jack’s offerings, I decided to see how well they stuck to that template.

    Before I start, I’ll be happy to cop to a couple things:

    1) Scheduling as an independent these days isn’t easy. Conferences are starting to pass rules prohibiting playing mid- or late-season games outside the conference. I’m not going to claim Jack’s job is easy in this endeavor, but I’m also not going to downgrade the financial and promotional value of a game against ND for potential opponents either.

    2) The ACC deal combined with current contracts made these three schedules tougher than normal. It’s hard to make room for the new opponents when some of the contracts for the current opponents don’t allow for flexibility. I don’t know who the authors of those contracts were, so I’ll give Jack the benefit of the doubt on this one.

    Let the sport commence:

    2014 Schedule
    August 30 — Rice
    September 6 — Michigan
    September 13 — Purdue (Shamrock Series – LucasOil Stadium)
    September 20 — Off
    September 27 — vs. Syracuse (Meadowlands)
    October 4 — Stanford
    October 11 — North Carolina
    October 18 – at Florida State
    October 25 — Off
    November 1 — vs. Navy (Landover, MD)
    November 8 — at Arizona State
    November 15 — Northwestern
    November 22 — Louisville
    November 29 — at Southern Cal

    Tier 1: Michigan, Florida State, Southern Cal
    Tier 2: Stanford**, North Carolina, Arizona State, Northwestern**, Louisville
    Tier 3: Purdue, Syracuse, Navy
    Tier 4: Rice

    Game order — 4-1-3-x-3-2-2-1-x-3-2-2-1

    This schedule is perfect — exactly the kind of schedule I want Notre Dame to play. Three marquee opponents, spread throughout the year, and good progressions of difficulty leading up to those games. ND is fortunate Stanford and Northwestern are playing above their usual tier level right now, but even if those teams fall back, there are others who potentially can take their spot. I can handle a tier-4 as a body-bag game to open the season. Even the bye weeks are strategically placed.

    But it’s also not the buzzsaw some of the more delicate among us are making it out to be. There are only three true road games — the LucasOil and Meadowlands games are against awful teams and should feature strongly pro-Irish crowds. Stanford may not be the same team we’ve seen the past couple seasons with the number of players who have exhausted their eligibility. If ND can get the job done in Tallahassee, a spot in the playoff bracket is a very reasonable expectation.

    I could see myself at nine of these games. ASU already is circled on the calendar, FSU is doable with enough frequent flyer miles, and I’ll be applying for every game on the home slate for the first time in a while. Maybe I can talk the family into Thanksgiving in LA. An outstanding job by Jack.

    GRADE: A+

    2015 Schedule
    September 5 — Texas
    September 12 — at Virginia
    September 19 — Georgia Tech
    September 26 — Massachusetts
    October 3 — at Clemson
    October 10 — Navy
    October 17 — Southern Cal
    October 24 — Off
    October 31 — at Temple (Philadelphia)
    November 7 — at Pittsburgh
    November 14 — Wake Forest
    November 21 — Boston College (Shamrock Series – Fenway Park)
    November 28 — at Stanford

    Tier 1: Texas, Southern Cal
    Tier 2: Virginia**, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Pittsburgh**, BC**, Stanford**
    Tier 3: Navy, Wake Forest
    Tier 4: UMass, Temple

    Game order — 1-2-2-4-2-3-1-x-4-2-3-2-2

    Decent, but not nearly as good as 2014. The addition of Texas is more than offset by the presence of two Tier 4s, especially when Wake is thisclose to joining them there. I’d almost rather have a bye than play UMass. While Clemson might sneak up to Tier 1, you could easily drop Virginia, Pitt and BC into Tier 3 if they continue to play poorly. And whoever had the idea to play a game at 37.5k-seat Fenway Park needs to be checked for a severe brain injury, especially when the location makes it a de facto road game.

    If I go to Temple or Pitt, it’s because I have family there. Texas is not to be missed, and I may see what Clemson has to offer. I’ve heard good things about Virginia. But there’s no way in hell I’m going to watch Wake Forest in South Bend in November. If they could have swapped that one with GaTech….

    GRADE: B- (would be higher without UMass).

    2016 Schedule
    September 3 — at Texas
    September 10 — Nevada
    September 17 — Michigan State
    September 24 — Duke
    October 1 — vs. Syracuse (Meadowlands)
    October 8 — at North Carolina State
    October 15 — Stanford
    October 22 — off
    October 29 — Miami
    November 5 — at Navy (site TBD)
    November 12 — Army (Shamrock Series — San Antonio)
    November 19 — Virginia Tech
    November 26 — at Southern Cal

    Tier 1: Texas, Miami, Southern Cal
    Tier 2: Michigan State, NC State, Stanford**, VaTech
    Tier 3: Duke, Syracuse, Navy, Army
    Tier 4: Nevada

    Game order — 1-4-2-3-3-2-2-x-1-3-3-2-1

    Bleh. A schedule that has Texas and Miami on it is dragged into the muck with almost half the games featuring four Tier 3′s and Nevada. This is how the Ohio States of the world do things, not us. There is absolutely no reason Army or Nevada have to be on this schedule, and putting the Shamrock game back in Texas when we’re already playing in Austin seems foolish. And if Stanford reverts to form or Frank Beamer retires, we’re boned. If ND doesn’t make the playoff bracket with this tray full of cupcakes, the entire coaching staff should be ridden out of town on a rail. Yes, they should get actual rails and do that.

    I’ll be in Austin and in South Bend on the 29th. But outside of that, this slate has NBC Contract written all over it.

    GRADE: D-

    As I said at the top, I’m sure Jack had his hands tied with some of this, and I’ll be interested to see what happens in 2017 and beyond. Those slates will be governed by the stated Scheduling Philosophy, though, and I’ll address that tomorrow.

    25 Responses to “The Tracks of our Tiers”

    1. Given your preference for 4-4-4 it seems strange that you rank a 3-4-5 schedule far below a 2-6-4.

    2. Agreed with your sentiments. I have NO idea why UMass, Nevada, and Army are on the dockets, especially at the expense of Purdue, BC, and possibly some more Big 12 schools. I’m also discouraged by the amount of one-and-done games instead of home-and-home contracts. I have always wondered why Notre Dame doesn’t essentially challenge the manhood of the SEC in an attempt to get someone besides Tennessee to come to South Bend. Hopefully the program returns to 2012 strength to give ND the necessary leverage to pull that off, because having the AAC and MWC on the schedule should not be happening with any frequency.

      • I hate to say this, but unless you’re talking about the lower rung of the SEC (Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Miss St.), no SEC school really has any thing to gain by playing us up in South Bend. It would only be add to what is already a top flight strength of schedule for any SEC school. I know they always play the Furman’s of the world, but an SEC schedule is more than enough for any team, adding at cold road game just isn’t worth the risk for them. Maybe ND needs to be willing to travel south in September/October…South Carolina or Georgia might be willing participants in my assessment.

    3. Giggity_Giggity says:

      Is Va Tech really tier 2? They’ve had 2 down years but the preceding 15 years were really something, and they’re one of three flagship ACC programs (w/ Miami and FSU). I suppose time will tell what their trajectory will be by 2016.

    4. “I’ve heard good things about Virginia.”

      Charlottesville’s a great little town next to the Blue Ridge mountains. A lot more to do here than in South Bend.

      Sadly the football team doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. 2-10 this year and ten straight losses to VaTech. London should have been fired. They should definitely be tier 3 on your list.

      • Giggity_Giggity says:

        I was at the game this year w/ my VT family/friends. It set college football back a century. But Charlottesville is a fantastic town and I look forward to going to see ND there.

    5. Virginia and Clemson are in the same tier? That’s cute.

      • Mike Coffey says:

        Being in the same tier does not imply equality. Tier 2 is a very wide range. Clemson is pretty close to the top (and could move up into Tier 1 depending on how next season goes), while the Hoos are pretty close to the bottom. That said, they’re still better (or at least more attractive) on the schedule than teams like Wake or Army. Their administration has also shown a willingness to improve things.

        Tiers also have a historical component. The closer in time the game is, the more recent performance is taken into account. But once you’re more than a season out — when you have to account for personnel turnover and potential coaching changes — you have to consider historical mean more closely.

    6. I think it’s a real stretch to put Army in a tier 3 since roughly 1950. They are a 4 if they can even be ranked. I would never suggest scheduling them, but there are several FCS teams that would be better competition than Army. I agree with the above comment by knott6 that Va is a tier 3. They haven’t even been challenging the ACC during my lifetime (I grew up in ACC country). It’s a great college town and I enjoyed my one football experience there several years back, but the football team is a sideshow at best.

    7. No respect for Stanford doesn’t make a lot of sense- they have built a solid program and no reason that should not continue although they will probably have a down year occasionally. Too much respect for Miami putting them a tier above Stanford. They are lucky to still have a football team and no doubt will do something crazy to prompt another investigation before long. Nevada was probably the best they could do to get a one-off home game as Swarbrick explained was needed. Certainly had a responsibility to honor their commitment to Temple. Maybe UMass is there for the same reason as Nevada, but it was tentatively on the schedule for quite a while. The Army game probably has more to do with tradition and the fact that their AD is a Notre Dame graduate. Yes they likely could have found a better neutral site opponent and perhaps a better venue for the “Shamrock” game than going back to the Alamo Dome.

    8. They are crappy and weak schedules!!!!! As for the ACC teams we should play and only play is year in and year out is FSU, Clemson, Miami, VT, and BC/GT (every other year). Then keep SC, MSU, Perdue,Navy, Stanford, Army, Air Force and then an SEC school (LSU, AUBURN, South Carolina, Goergia) because they are the best in the nation. Drop Texas and pick up Texas A&M. This is the only schedule ND should play!!!!!

    9. You have more Tier 4s than you are willing to recognize. Next year Purdue, Syracuse and Northwestern will be Tier 4 teams when the season is done. By the way, Pete, LSU has come to South Bend in November, while I don’t recall an Irish team going to Baton Rouge the Saturday after Labor Day nor to the west coast in September for a 7:30 PST kickoff as some schools in the Eastern Time Zone have done. Maybe another team’s manhood should be challenged.

    10. I disagree. I think all these schedules are intriguing and for some teams the difference between tier one and two are minimal
      these schedules are harder than the vast majority of top 25 team schedules. The real issue right now is not the schedule but whether the coach and program can play up to the competition or whether we will continue to lose to tier 3 and 4 teams and kill BCS opportunities because of poor coaching

    11. The thing I like about the BC game at Fenway Park is that even though it’s in their home town, BC will only be allocated about 5,000 or 10,000 tickets and the rest of the stadium will be decidedly pro-ND. It will be a slap in the face for BC to be drowned out by the other team’s fans in their own hometown.

    12. (FYI you are missing a 2 in the third segment of the 2014 order)

      You should do what you can to get to Clemson. I’ve been to several games there, and it is a great atmosphere. That will only be multiplied with ND. Friendly tailgating, raucous crowd, good sight lines in stadium. Plus they let kids run on the field after the game (mine loved this).

      My away targets:
      Texas – awesome city
      ASU – golf!
      So Cal – TDay trip
      Clemson – see above
      FSU – could be a must see game
      Virginia – relatively close to me

      • What I remember of Clemson stems from the 1977 game, when the Irish converted a 2nd and 40 (or something like that) after the refs called ND for a clipping penalty and an unsportsmanlike conduct on Dan Devine. The same game featured MLB Bob Golic literally throwing the umpire into the Clemson ball carrier after he interfered with Golic for the 3rd time in the game. It didn’t happen a 4th time.

    13. If you’ve never seen a game at Clemson, this will be a must. One of the best atmospheres in college football.

    14. Nice post. Though personally, I prefer to look at a 5-year rolling period for defining tiers. Therefore, I would personally put teams like Stanford in Tier 1, and teams like Miami in Tier 2. Taking a longer-term view makes sense if you are in charge of planning schedules years in advance … but I’m not the person doing the planning. As a result, I tend to look at schedules more from the standpoint of: “How hard do I think this schedule is going to be in the immediate future.” And right now, Stanford is a stronger class of program than Miami (even with Stanford’s attrition this year, and Miami’s allegedly good recruiting).

      FWIW, I would also put teams like Rice and Duke in Tier 3 (nice recent seasons, higher trajectory), and teams like Army in Tier 4 (I view them as the least explosive of the 3 service academies, which are already non-threatening by definition).

    15. As much as I hate to see some of the long time rivalries in the Big 10 go away, the truth is that, right now, the ACC is a superior football conference compared to the Big 10 and that ultimately helps ND’s overall strength of schedule going forward. The bigger issue will be whether or not the coaching on both sides of the ball will be improved enough to give ND a chance to win regardless of the opponent(s).

    16. Martini1990 says:

      Strongly disagree with a D- for 2016. By your own measure there are 7 Tier 1 or 2 opponents, which is very strong and far better than most BCS conference slates + 1 out of conference heavyweight. I also think Stanford has elevated itself to Tier 1 status (but need to question if UM is still there).

    17. I disagree with your assessment of Clemson as a Tier 2 team. They are media darlings and will garner a HUGE TV following for that game.

    18. atlantadomer says:

      We are ND, just win and you’re in because there’s too much money at stake if you leave us out.

      Go IRISH.

    19. I see your point, but I can’t say that I agree with your “tier” judgments. Clemson almost certainly is a Tier 1 school…BCS bowls two of three years, another talented recruiting class coming in…and what makes you believe Stanford will go from two consecutive Rose Bowls to Tier 2 quality? I understand the historical component, but victories over both those schools this year would have impressed the playoff committee quite a bit. All else being equal, give me the team with a better history. But the team that’s better now will do the most for the strength of schedule

    20. It doesn’t matter who they play if they don’t start putting a strong (Yontoish) defense on the field, (and Yes Laz Yonto was defensive coordinator in 1977!!!!!) they will always be mediocre.

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