November 02, 2009

Deep in the Heart of Texas: Thoughts on Notre Dame, "Barnstorming," Jumbotrons, schedule strength,Dayne Crist, Dr. Kenneth Dye, San Antonio, and more

Some thoughts on my “Barnstorming” adventure to San Antonio to watch Notre Dame take on Washington State:

15)
I’m kind of torn on how to walk away from this experience. Part of me wants to say that this game was a legitimate success in a surprisingly fertile ND territory (more on that later) in a fun city, but another part of me wants to say that the game was a little bit too gimmicky and more of a marketing opportunity than a football event. As always, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. I think there were some positives and some negatives to the experience:

Positives:

First of all, I really don’t think I can do justice to how big of a deal this game was for ND fans from Texas. Put it this way. If you were an ND fan from the state of Texas, I think you were obligated by law to attend this game. They’ve been waiting for this game for two years, and I think they took a lot of pride in the fact that ND entrusted them to fill the stadium with 50,000+ ND fans for our first neutral site “home” game.

It was definitely a different type of crowd than you would typically see at a Notre Dame home game in South Bend. Most of the people who go to ND home games are alums, and the majority are Midwesterners. Chicago, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. You get some other pockets of fans of course, but the vast majority of the people who fill up the seats week in and week out at ND home games are people within a 4-5 hour driving radius of the campus. And I think our fans take the experience for granted a little bit (I'm including myself in that category without question). ND home crowds are usually great in the beginning of the year when the weather is good, but fans tend to start going through the motions later in the year and maybe aren’t quite as enthused to be in the stadium. Me included. Maybe we’re a spoiled group, but our fans tend to get a little stale as the season goes along.

This thing was like a completely different scene. I got the impression that most of the people at this game were not alums. Big subway alumni crowd who were just excited to be there. There were certainly lots of alums from San Antonio and Texas and other folks who flew in from out of town, but it seemed like there were a lot of people who fit into one of three categories: 1) parents or siblings of ND students/alums 2) families who grew up as huge ND fans 3) other random ND fans. Everyone just seemed happy to be there and happy to see those gold helmets and the band and the players and the whole show. Heck, there was more excitement in the building prior to the game than there was for Notre Dame-USC. I'm not even joking about that. People were literally on their feet cheering for just about everything. I thought it was great and somewhat refreshing to see people so excited to be there. I'm so used to the jaded ND crowd (and Buckeye crowds for that matter) that don't really get it going for more than a handful of plays that it was a little shocking to see people cheering like crazy on every play.

I also think there were a lot of people there who rooted for Notre Dame but didn’t necessarily consider them to be their favorite team. Case in point: Mike Collins announced the score of the Texas-Oklahoma State game at one point in the game, and the place went ballistic. People erupted with cheers when they heard the score. I was taken aback. I think there were a lot of Texas fans there who consider ND their second favorite team and just wanted to go to an ND game within driving distance of their hometown. They were excited to have ND in town and cheered like crazy for the Irish. Good enough for me.

Another thing that SHOCKED me is how many Latino ND fans there are!! My god, I had no idea. If you took a snapshot of the crowd, I honestly would say something like 1 out of every 3 people there was a Latino ND fan. Who knew?? I know San Antonio is only an hour or two from the Mexican border, but I did not expect to see such a diverse fanbase at an ND “home” game. People were yelling random things in Spanish and waving flags and stuff. It was very cool. I think it’s a great indicator of the diverse interest in this program, and ND should absolutely continue to harvest that portion of our fanbase. Someday, these guys and gals might be popping out Division I football players, so anything we can do to expand the brand is a good thing.

Sometimes I forget how big the ND brand is on a national level. If you’re just some dude who grew up in San Antonio and liked college football, why would you not root for Notre Dame?? We’re on national tv every week. ND is a team that you can follow from just about any part of the country.

The whole “Southern ND fan” thing is just funny to me. I know some ND alums who grew up in the south, but I never knew ND had so many fans with thick southern accents. Seems like we met a lot of people from Atlanta, Alabama, Louisiana, etc down there. And of course Texas. Where do all these southern ND fans come from?? How are they not sporting Georgia and Bama and LSU sweatshirts instead??

Anyway, I thought that was cool. Good to see a little spice into our fanbase. The people at the Alamodome were FIRED UP to be there even though it was Washington State, and I think the team appreciated it. Hopefully it puts a little pep in their step the rest of the way.

One final note on how much this game meant to the people down there in Texas. When we were going through security before the flight home to Columbus, the guy running the airport security area was literally humming the ND Fight Song. People down there were really drinking the kool-aid all weekend. That could pay off down the road in terms of recruiting and exposure.

14) ND pulled out all the stops to make this game as close to an ND home game experience as possible. Mike Collins handled the PA work, they painted the end zones like the ND end zone, they had a big hologram of Touchdown Jesus on the mini-scoreboards, they had the full ND band, and they even played a tape-recording of Sgt. McCarthy doing his thing in the fourth quarter. In terms of recreating a home game atmosphere, they did everything they could.

Was it cheesy?? No doubt, but the fans were eating it up. The people who went to this game for the most part are people who don’t have a chance to get up to South Bend for a home game. If you live in Texas/Lousiana/Oklahoma and have a family or don’t have the time or money to get up South Bend for a game, this was a chance to go somewhere close and see the Irish in action and soak up all the charms of going to an ND game.

13) Great performance out of the Notre Dame Marching Band on Friday night at the pep rally and on Saturday at the game. They busted out a great rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” several times, and the crowd was loving it. There were literally people with tears in their eyes singing that song. Lots of pride down there in Texas. I really enjoy the whole Texas scene. They sell shirts down there with a big gun on the front that say "We don't dial 911 in Texas." Good times!! Pretty sure 50% of Texans think George W. Bush is still the President.

If I was Dr. Kenneth Dye, I would just have the band work on various “state pride” songs and bust those things out all the time. Who doesn’t love these songs?? Heck, I was singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” when the band was playing it, and I have zero connection to the state. Maybe it would be weird to hear the ND band randomly playing “Rocky Top,” “New York, New York,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “Hang on Sloopy” etc, but I think ND could pull it off. We are a national school. Every person from any of those states would go nuts, and pretty soon, everyone would get into it. What would you rather hear: another rendition of that song where everyone pumps their arms up and down 50 times or something like Rocky Top??

One other request out of the ND band. After the game, we were walking out of the stadium, and the ND band spontaneously broke out into Lady Gaga “Poker Face” on the street. Whoa!! I didn’t know they had that in them. I love Dr. Kenneth Dye, but why not bust that one out during the game?? I think the crowd would love it.

Speaking of Dr. Kenneth Dye, he was staying on our floor at the Marriot, and we ran into him at the elevator an hour or so before the pep rally. The man had his game face on! I don’t think anything was going to faze him even if I had started cursing him out in the line for the elevator. Sort of a stoic intensity reminiscent of Tom Landry. How could you let that man down?? Kenneth Dye is building a dynasty up there in South Bend.

12) Couldn’t have been more impressed with San Antonio as a venue for a big time sporting event. WOW. San Antonio almost singlehandedly made this thing worthwhile. I feel like I’ve been to just about every major city in America for some sort of football game or bowl game or other major sporting event, and I think San Antonio might be the best setup I’ve seen. The weather is perfect, all the action is located within a 3-4 block radius, the fans all congregate in that Riverwalk scene, and the Alamodome was right there within walking distance. The only city that is comparable in terms of having everything centrally located might be Indianapolis, and Indy doesn’t have the weather that you have down there in Texas. It’s kind of strange how San Antonio is nothing above ground, but has this thriving underground city scene with the Riverwalk.

Really impressed with how they ran things down there. The city rolled out the red carpet for ND fans, the Riverwalk was great, all the fans stayed downtown, and it wasn’t as shady as the New Orleans scene where you feel like you’re going to get robbed if you take one step off the main path (although nothing matches up with Bourbon Street as far as a pregame and postgame scene is concerned). You could walk wherever you wanted downtown and run into a festive and safe atmosphere.

The Alamodome is nothing special, but it’s serviceable for a bowl game or a Final Four. It doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles that you’d see at a newer dome like the Lucas Oil Dome or the new stadium in Glendale, but it was fine.

Even though San Antonio is sort of a random location for an ND game, I think it’s gotta be on the shortlist for all of these neutral site games in the future. It’s got everything you would want, and you don’t even need to leave a 3-4 block area the entire weekend. The only place that would be better in my mind would probably be Tempe (which is still the best in terms of location, weather, stadium venue, setting, entertainment options), but even that option has been neutered now that they have a dome in Glendale. If ND goes to Phoenix, the game would probably be in Glendale instead of Tempe. Too many other big event cities have made the mistake of building their primary venue too far from downtown. Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, etc.

I kept thinking about how great San Antonio would be for a Final Four. You could pack in four different fanbases down there on the Riverwalk, and it would be phenomenal.

Nothing against Dallas, but there’s no way that ND-Arizona State game in Dallas in 2012 will work as well as this game did in San Antonio. The Cowboys Stadium is like 30 minutes from downtown!! How are people going to get out there?? You’ll be dealing with transportation headaches all weekend.

New York City is always a good option for an ND game of course, and I think they should consider Atlanta, Washington DC, New Orleans, and maybe 1-2 others. Mike Collins said after the game that “we hope to back,” and I think he meant it. If this barnstorming tradition continues, I think San Antonio will be in the mix again for another game.

11) Very impressive turnout for the Washington State fans. I couldn’t believe how many Cougars fans there were downtown partying it up and shouting “Go Cougs!!” left and right. They took over the city on Friday, and still had a pretty good representation all day on Saturday. Think about how bad they’ve been the last five years:

2009: 1-7
2008: 2-11
2007: 5-7
2006: 6-6
2005: 4-7

I’d say there were a good 5,000 Wazzou fans down there. Imagine how many fans they’d have brought in if they weren’t one of the worst teams in the country this year. If they ever get it going again, I wouldn’t be opposed to a little home and home action with the Cougs.

One other thing the Cougs fans did is give the game a little energy. With the Cougs fans all over the Riverwalk, it had a little bit of a bowl game feel to it. Deep down, we all knew that WSU stunk, but at least they were feisty enough to add a little excitement to the weekend. I'll be honest in saying that I even got a little worried about the game when I saw how exuberant the Wazzou fans were on Friday.

10) As far as the overall crowd is concerned, I actually thought the crowd was good on Saturday. The Dome was pretty much full in the lower half and about half full in the upper deck. I never saw how we were going to sell 65,000 tickets exclusively to ND fans, but I thought it was a pretty good crowd overall. I'd say there were about 45,000 people in the stadium, and that dropped to about 30,000 by the 4th quarter. It certainly didn't feel empty though, which was my biggest fear, and I was pretty impressed at how many people were sitting in the upper deck. Pretty amazing that ND can bring 45,000-50,000 people to San Antonio for a random game against Washington State.

I don't want to sugarcoat the thing, but I'll admit that it sucked me in to some degree. I think you can make a legitimate argument that it was a successful event. The crowd was pretty good, the city was a great host, and I think the fans all had a good time seeing an Irish victory. I've been as outspoken in criticizing the "Barnstorming" concept as anyone, but I do get it. ND is a national school with a national fanbase, and it's kind of hard to appease all these factions. Having a game every year in a different location does make sense to some degree.

9) With that said, there were some things about the event that really never won me over.

The biggest problem with this game from my perspective is that it just felt sort of gimmicky. I can't really explain it, but something about the game just didn't work. The whole thing felt surreal. What are we doing playing this game?? It felt like an exhibition. I guess it just depends on where you're coming from as ND fan. If you were a casual fan or someone who doesn't get to go to an ND game more than once or twice every 5-10 years or so and just wanted to see the team, it was great. For a diehard, it felt a little watered-down. It was like they were trying to sell this "ND experience" concept instead of just trying to sell us on an actual good football game. The whole game was one big ND promotional vehicle. Every commercial break, there was some hokey ND video trying to sell us on life at Notre Dame.

That stuff is fine and I understand the need to market the school, but I still get the feeling that there are too many people in the administration at ND who worship at the marketing altar and see ND football purely as an opportunity to make money for the school. Whatever happened to the idea of actually using the football team for what it is....a football team!! I'm all for attracting recruits from Texas and diversifying the campus with more Latino students, but the game felt more like an admissions event than a football game. I don't really need to get the ND informercial at all times. Sometimes I just want to watch football.

I don't know, I can't really explain it, but the game itself just felt a little weird. You can do everything you want to dress thing up, but it is what it is. A bad football game. While watching the game, I kept thinking to myself "Is this really what ND football has become??" We're playing an awful Washington State team in the middle of Texas, and the school is trying to sell me on this game like it's some marquee event. Would USC play in a game like this?? The answer is no. USC might play a neutral site game, but it's a true neutral site game. Not this half-baked "home" game where we line up some tomato can and take control of all revenue and ticket sales. I hate repeating this a million times, but USC is now the gold standard when it comes to scheduling. We should be looking to join them on that pedestal instead of associating ourselves with the Penn States of the world.

I think the neutral site thing can work, and I do get the appeal for it now that I've seen how much that game meant to San Antonio and the people down there. But why not try to make it a big time FOOTBALL GAME and not just an opportunity to market the school?? Why not play a big time game where we have an even split of fans in the stadium?? Imagine if ND had played somebody like Nebraska in San Antonio. You'd have half the stadium with ND fans and half the stadium with Nebraska fans. How great would that have been?? We've seen Alabama do this in recent years with neutral site games against Florida State and Virginia Tech. Why can't we do something like that instead of this fluffed-up "buy game" stuff??

Going forward, that's the only way to do it. We got the first one out of our system, and I can live with the Army game next year. But after that, if we're going to do these games, let's go out and get some better opponents. The only way to do that is to split the gate. My fear is that ND is so obsessed with the dollar signs that they'll never agree to a big time neutral site game.

All you need to do is look at the recent story in the Miami Herald about a proposed Miami-Notre Dame series. Apparently, Jack Swarbrick is not returning Miami's calls about a proposed ND-Miami series. Awesome. That is all you need to know about ND these days. We've lost our backbone. We've basically turned into a marketing gimmick instead of a college football program. Unless you want to play us only at ND Stadium or some neutral site venue where we get all the money, we're not interested. Meanwhile, Miami is out there looking for home and homes and interesting games. Why are we not doing the same?? We used to play 3 heavyweights all the time. Why is that no longer the case??

Any hopes that Swarbrick was going to change ND's scheduling philosophy are officially out the door. I think Swarbrick might be an even weaker AD than Kevin White. And mark this down as a prediction, there will be a snafu on that ND-Oklahoma game. I really would not be shocked if that game ends up getting canned. It still has not been signed. Swarbrick is probably looking for any way possible to get out from under that one.

I'm really beginning to wonder if ND's relationship with NBC is worth it. Even though I love the certainty of knowing that ND will be on NBC for every home game, it almost feels like NBC is more trouble than it is worth. NBC's whole mantra as a network is "quantity over quality" and low cost production, but it has killed their brand. NBC is a meaningless 3rd rate network that is only relevant for 3-4 big NFL games a year and once every two years at the Olympics. That's pretty much it. I think NBC's mantra has snuck into the ND mindset as well. The people running ND are focused on playing more games and selling phony "ND experiences" to squeeze every last dollar out of the program, but all that is doing is hurting the overall brand.

NBC had a primetime ND broadcast for the first time in its history, and NO ONE cared nationally. The ratings were awful as predicted. That's sad to me. Even our much-hyped home game against USC game had a middling rating on NBC. What does that say to the people running ND?? We're hurting the brand. If you don't think that matters, I don't know what to say. It does.

8) The other thing is that there's just no way to replicate the ND home game experience. You can bring Mike Collins down there and bring the band and all that, but there's nothing like going to ND to watch a game. You just can't bottle that up and bring it down to San Antonio. I thought a lot of the ND "traditions" that they tried (especially the Sgt McCarthy thing) were just awkward and completely fell flat.

The game was certainly not a disaster at all, but also not a major success. It was somewhere in the middle. Would I go to another "Barnstorming" event?? Sure, why not. If it's in a city that I want to visit, I'll go. But personally, I'd rather use the spot for a big time home and home. Late October/early November is when we used to play a big home and home series with a heavyweight. Instead of playing this barnstorming game, we should be lining that up instead. Put it this way. I'd have MUCH rather gone down to Austin this weekend to watch ND play at Texas. Now that's football.

7) Another scary prediction. The Jumbotron. It's COMING. ND went crazy with the Alamodome Jumbotron on Saturday night. It was like they had been waiting for years to try out all these gimmicks. They had ND trivia, crowd shots, promotional videos. You name it. I really think ND is going to use these neutral site home games as a test market for a jumbotron, partially to see if fans like it and also to work out the kinks and see what works. I'm going to predict that there will be a Jumbotron at Notre Dame Stadium some time in the next 10 years.

And as we've seen a million times, it KILLED the crowd. Just killed it. Before the game, the crowd was jacked up. But within five minutes of the game, everyone's attention immediately went to the Jumbotron. It's impossible to avoid it. It just sucks all the energy in the building toward it. You look around the crowd, and everyone is staring at the Jumbotron.

Jumbotrons are crowd killers. It's undeniable. Having replay was fine, but I'd really rather just talk to the people around me about the play rather than watch the replay on the big screen. The reason I go to a game is to WATCH THE GAME. Not a big screen. If I wanted to watch a screen, I'd just stay home and watch on tv.

Now I know the proper response is "dude, you don't have to watch the Jumbotron!" Fair enough, but it's impossible to avoid it. And even if I'm not watching, the people around me are. It takes the communal experience of attending a football game, and turns it into an individual experience of watching a play and then watching the replay screen without interacting with the people around me.

I feel like a liberal with all this communal talk, but jumbotrons are bad.

6) Some other thoughts on the game

--Golden Tate -- AMAZING. That Hail Mary catch was one of the greatest plays I've ever seen. I don't think an ND player has ever had a stretch of games as good as Golden Tate has had in the last 6-7 weeks. His body control, hands, and explosiveness are remarkable.

Credit to Charlie Weis for continuing to find ways to get the ball in this guy's hands. When Floyd went down, we shifted the focus of this offense over to Tate. It is going to be pretty darn exciting to see Floyd and Tate back out on the field together with Jimmy Clausen throwing them the ball.

5) No need to comment on Jimmy Clausen other than saying that he played another spectacular game, but I wanted to mention how much it seems like he is enjoying this season. Our seats were right behind the Notre Dame bench, and I spent most of the second half watching Clausen and seeing how he interacted with his teammates. It really does seem like he's having a blast out there. He was hamming it up with Michael Floyd and Crist for most of the second half, and he was the first guy out there to hug Crist when he threw that touchdown pass to John Goodman.

As Clausen was walking off the field after the game, the people in the crowd started chanting "one more year! one more year!" at him. He just smiled and kind of egged it on. There are so many issues at hand when it comes to making that decision whether or not to declare for the NFL Draft, but for one night, it really felt like he was having a great time playing college football and would love nothing more than to come back and play another season for the Irish.

4) Two young guns who are going to be dynamite someday:

Theo Riddick -- WOW. Riddick is going to be a stud someday. He runs with speed and power and has moves. Riddick looks like the type of guy who could rip off a 40 yard run if you give him a hole, and he also is the type of player who might turn nothing into something on occasion. That's the kind of running back we've been missing for years. We need a Golden Tate type guy who just refuses to go down and will do anything to make something out of nothing. Riddick could be that guy.

John Goodman -- That touchdown catch and run was EXPLOSIVE!! He caught that thing in stride and accelerated to the end zone. Goodman is a serious athlete. Everyone wants to compare him to Jeff Samardzija, but I think he's more like a Jordan Shipley guy. Goodman has a little more burst than Samardzija did. I don't know if anyone will ever have the Shark's instincts for the ball, but Goodman is on his way to being a great player at ND someday.

In 2011, I don't see any reason why Goodman can't be a feature receiver in the Charlie Weis offense after we lose Tate and Floyd. And even if Tate decides to go pro after this year, I'd be comfortable with Goodman starting at WR next year.

3) (Note: I'm putting this post up with no knowledge of whether Dayne Crist busted up his knee. If he tore his ACL and Clausen leaves, we've got big problems heading into 2010. Maybe Crist will be back by the start of the season, but will he be ready to play after missing all of the offseason workouts and spring practices?? And if he's not ready to start, what are we going to do at quarterback?? Andrew Hendrix?? Nate Montana?? Yikes. It's just one of those perfect storm situations that teams have to deal with at times. Sort of like what USC had to deal with this year. Sometimes you are going to have roster problems that are unavoidable. Either way, lots of uncertainty for this team in 2010. Hopefully Crist just has a sprain).

Some thoughts on Dayne Crist. I have no doubt that Dayne Crist is going to be a great player at ND someday as long as Charlie Weis is coaching him up, but he's a work in progress right now. If Clausen goes to the NFL, there are going to be some major growing pains for Crist next year. This team would really need him to play at a high level to have a chance at a big season in 2010, but we saw how long it took for Jimmy Clausen to really put it together. The offense is so dependent on getting great play out of the quarterback, but is Crist going to be able to give us Clausen type production right out of the chute against Michigan and Michigan State?? Nothing Dayne Crist can do about it of course if he's forced into the starting role, but it would be really nice not to have to rely on him next year.

Crist showed off that big arm with that great throw to Goodman, but he's raw. He threw a couple balls in the dirt, he's not as comfortable in the pocket, has some trouble with making all the reads, and he's just not as fluid or crisp with his mechanics as Clausen. Don't misconstrue this as me thinking that Crist is going to be a bust or something like that. I don't think that at all, and I expect him to thrive over the course of his career at ND. But he is not as polished as Clausen was coming out of high school. Crist is more athletic, but we don't really run an "athletic QB" type offense. Weis expects his QBs to almost exclusively work within the confines of the pocket. If Crist is going to be successful next year at ND, he'll have to become substantially more comfortable in the pocket.

One thing I think we're all realizing is that guys like Jimmy Clausen don't grow on trees. Clausen is a superstar quarterback with deadly accuracy and great intangibles and understanding of how to run an offense. He has been a work in progress as well, but he's also an incredible talent. There's a reason why Jimmy Clausen was the #1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school.

If I was Charlie Weis, I'd be doing two things this offseason:

1) Begging Jimmy C every day to come back for his senior year. Seriously, just offer him half your salary in deferred compensation or something. It's not like he wouldn't deserve it since he's been carrying this team all year. I don't care what you have to do. Try to get him back for one more year, so that the program can continue to stabilize.

and if (1) doesn't work,

2) Figuring out a way to make this offense work with an inexperienced quarterback. We are losing three offensive linemen after this year, and we can't afford to have Crist running for his life back there next year if the pocket breaks down. If he turns into a turnover machine and can't keep the offense moving, we'll revert right back to 6-6 next year. If I was Weis, I would be doing everything possible in the offseason to figure out a safe, controlled offense that lets Crist make quick reads to get the ball into the hands of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph. Once he gets more comfortable, you open it up later in the year like USC has done with Matt Barkley. I'd also continue to develop the running game to complement the passing game. We might have to play a little more conservatively next year with Crist, but that's just the nature of being a college football head coach. You're almost always going to be inexperienced at one position or another. You have to work through it and not let it bring your whole team down. Crist will have a great supporting cast to work with, but the QB is the guy who makes it all go in the Weis offense.

Weis has been in this job for five years now, and it does seem like he's slowly figuring out what works and what doesn't in college football. If he can continue to move this program forward, my hope is that the transition to Crist will we go a little more smoothly than the last quarterback transition we had.

2) Not a good day for our opponents this weekend. Here were their results:

Nevada beat Hawaii 31-21
Michigan lost at Illinois 38-13
Michigan State lost at Minnesota 42-34
Purdue lost at Wisconsin 37-0
USC lost to Oregon 47-20
Boston College beat Central Michigan 31-10
Navy lost to Temple 27-24
UConn lost to Rutgers

Yikes, not a good weekend for our opponents. Even though I was happy as all get out to see them lose, the USC score was sort of depressing at the same time. What does it say about our program that Oregon beat USC by 27 and we were fortunate just to be in the game with USC?? I'll admit that I was buying in on USC after watching them against us, but it turns out that they just aren't that good this year. The one year that we really had a great chance to beat them, we come up small at home. Meanwhile, Oregon runs them off the field. Just goes to show how far away we are right now from being an elite program. I think we're a good team this year, but there's a huge difference between being a good team and a great team. If our goal is to get to that level, we have quite a ways to go. Kind of depressing when you consider all of the experienced talent we have right now on the roster.

Oregon is a program that has gone all-in to become a big time football program. Nike has helped, but everything about Oregon football is designed toward becoming a major power. They are spending the money, the facilities are first class, their recruiting budget is big, they are willing to take on some academic risks, and the #1 focus is on winning football games. It's an institutional commitment from top to bottom. They aren't looking to showcase the "Oregon experience" or worrying about all this other fuss. The only thing that matters is what happens on the field. I wish Charlie Weis would get more of a commitment like that from the higher-ups within our administration. If we were as committed to being an elite program as Oregon is, I have a feeling Charlie would have us right up there with them.

1) One final note on the schedule strength.

I read an outstanding post on NDNation about schedule strength that is one of the best illustrations of how perception is more important than your computer rankings and why it is so important to have truly big time programs and teams on the schedule. Here's the example.

LSU and ND's November schedules:

LSU:

Alabama (#2 Sagarin)
Louisiana Tech (103)
Mississippi (27)
Arkansas (31)
Average: 40.75

ND:

Navy (45)
Pitt (18)
UConn (52)
Stanford (23)
Average: 34.5

This is really a great example and one that I wish I had thought of years ago. If you look at the computer rankings (which don't really take the "eyeball test" into account), ND is playing a tougher November schedule. But which of these two teams has a better opportunity to grab some statement wins down the stretch?? LSU of course. LSU plays freaking Alabama. If they win that game (obviously a huge if and not likely to happen but let's just say that it did), it would be a MONSTER win for LSU that would turn all kinds of heads out there. Beating Alabama is the type of win that you build your whole season around because Alabama is an elite program with elite talent and elite tradition and an elite coach. Alabama is as big of a HEAVYWEIGHT as anyone out there.

Even though our schedule is considered tougher by the computer rankings, LSU's schedule is tougher in reality. It's inarguable. Take any college football fan out there and point to those two schedules and ask them who has the tougher road in November. The answer would be LSU for one reason and one reason only: ALABAMA. Alabama is a brutal game in a brutal environment. Arkansas and Ole Miss are no cupcakes either, but it's going to be virtually impossible for LSU to go undefeated down the stretch because of that one game against Bama. But IF they do, they will get the admiration of the college football world.

This is why marquee games are what it's all about in college football. The big games are the games that matter. This is why I've been standing on a mountain top demanding another game or two against heavyweights. We don't have enough opportunities for statement wins on our current and future schedules. We don't have enough Alabamas on the schedule. No one cares if you beat Pitt or Stanford even if they have good computer rankings. Pitt and Stanford are mid-level programs with mid-level 3 star talent, mid-level tradition, and mediocre fanbases. Those kinds of wins are not going to really change the public perception of our program. Pointing to the freaking computer rankings of our opponents is meaningless. Beat Alabama or someone with a big name, and people will sing our praises. Beat Stanford or Pitt, and no one cares.

This is why the Sagarin ratings don't have a ton of merit when it comes to schedule strength. It's like the RPI ratings and all the Missouri Valley Conference teams that pile up great RPIs without beating anyone good. How many times have we seen teams like Wichita State end up with an RPI in the 20s even though their best win was over somebody like Northern Iowa?? It's because they rig their rating to find the best "low majors" and "midmajors" out there to boost up their overall rating. I'm not suggesting that ND is doing something like that at all, but computers can only take you so far when evaluating a schedule.

I'm a believer in the Jay Bilas Model--who did you play, where did you play them, and who did you beat?? Can we really answer any of those questions with a lot of pride?? We've played one ranked team, we've beaten no one, and we've only played two road games so far. Beating mediocre BC and MCU at home is like a Chris Rock special, "You're SUPPOSED to beat MSU and BC at home!! What do you want, a cookie?!?"

Anyway, I thought that was an outstanding post and one of the best explanations I've seen of why it is so important to have more heavyweights on the schedule. It is amazing how quickly most ND fans have become experts on the big issues in scheduling. There's still some dopes out there who just don't get it, but a lot of ND fans are really educating themselves on how important scheduling really is and how much it means for this program. There's some very thought-provoking stuff out there these days, and I'm glad to see it.

10 comments:

INCITEmarsh/Mike Marchand '01 said...

Re: Dallas — I have friends who live there, and trust me when I say that the traffic situation is at least as good now around Cowboys Stadium than it ever was around Texas Stadium. From Dallas, Arlington is a straight shot west on I-30 (the Tom Landry Freeway), while the routes to Irving are a spaghetti bowl of Texas state highways made worse by the fact it's so close to the DFW Airport.

It being "30 minutes from downtown!" is irrelevant, because it's been 30 minutes from downtown for more than 30 years. Besides, the balance of population in the DFW Metroplex is tipping away from downtown Dallas, and rapidly — the "Mid-Cities" in between Dallas and Fort Worth (which include Arlington) now have a bigger population than Dallas itself.

(Also, Arlington is just a nicer area than Irving. MUCH nicer.)


Re: schedule strength — an eyepopping opponent is just that: eyepopping. I suppose LSU's schedule ranks as harder amongst the pollsters and they comprise 2/3rds of the BCS vote. But the pollsters are the very reason LSU plays LaTech: when six wins put you in a bowl and ten put you in the BCS — irrespective of who they're against — stacking your schedule with creampuffs makes perfect sense. Hence, ND's slate is stronger because outside of Washington State, we don't have any sub-100 Sagarin teams. We have one, perhaps two absolute ironclad stake-the-house guaranteed wins on our schedule, and the rest can go either way (as they have).

Which brings us to USC, the "gold standard" for scheduling. Admittedly, you don't see them playing a 7-4-1 like us or the SEC powerhouses, nor the ridiculous 8-4 abominations Big Ten schools somehow get away with. But one of the reasons is that the Pac-10 forces its members to play all nine of its conference foes every year. USC has a tenth game with us, freeing only two weeks on its schedule. To their credit, one of those games is Ohio State; however, the other is against brutally awful San Jose State. If USC had the power to turn one of their conference games into a non-conference game, do you think they'd pick another powerhouse, or another patsy?

This is the part of the problem I've been having with this blog recently: you seem to advocate aping other programs on occasion (even to the point of having Dr. Kenneth Dye swiping their signature songs), but not all the time. And the one thing ND is doing to be unique doesn't get an ounce of credit from you despite you agreeing that it was nowhere near the trainwreck you expected.

What gives?

Craig said...

Doug, I think you're being unfair to Sagarin with respect to schedule strength. In general, when people cite Sagarin for strength of schedule, they're not referring to a simple average of the ratings of opponents, they're referring to Sagarin's own strength of schedule metric. I don't think the guy is necessarily infallible, but I would bet he's put a lot more thought and effort into producing a good strength of schedule number than you have. (And, to put it mildly, it's really not a simple problem.)

Furthermore, the discussion is usually relative to the pre-season assumptions about our schedule, which were that just about everyone we played last year was significantly weaker this year; one of the things that repeated reference to high Sagarin ratings shows is that's not the case at all.

That's not to say that you're wrong about our perception problems, just that Sagarin's strength of schedule is highly unlikely to be nearly as contrived as when the MVC conspired to game the social-engineered (and eminently gameable) RPI.

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