June 25, 2010

Michigan Man: Thoughts on Rich Rodriguez, Michigan's future, Les Miles and the LSU Tigers, and why Jim Harbaugh might be next line in Ann Arbor.

Mojo is a weird thing in sports. One minute, you might be on top of the world, and the next minute you can't do anything right. Look at Rick Pitino. Two years ago, he was on top of the basketball world with maybe the #1 ranked team in America going into an Elite Eight game against Michigan State in Indianapolis. The man literally walked into the stadium to the sounds of “The Godfather” from the Louisville pep band. Since that date, the following has happened:

Got spanked by Michigan State
Major adultery scandal
Kentucky rises back to the top of the basketball world under John Calipari
Mediocre 20-13 season with a first round BET loss and first round NCAA Tournament exit
Loses highly-touted Brandon Teague to Kentucky

In the span of 16 months, Louisville basketball has become an afterthought. Unranked with no buzz and a coach who is licking his wounds after his personal business came out. Kentucky has blown past them as the king of the state once again, and there are even some whispers that folks in The ‘Ville want to make a change at the head coaching spot (if so, Swarbrick should be on the next flight to Louisville).

Add it up, and it’s just bad mojo. Once you start getting that bad mojo, it’s really hard to turn it around. Even if Pitino rights the ship to some degree with a good recruiting class in 2011, it’s hard not to feel like the aura of Rick Pitino might be over.

Anyway, that’s how I feel about Rich Rodriguez right now. I think Rich Rodriguez is a good football coach. I watched his teams at West Virginia, and always was extremely impressed with how they played. He had a reputation as an innovator, and people whose opinion I trust about football have always raved about him as a coach going all the way back to his days as an offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson.

If I had to put a number on it, I would have said I was about 80% confident that Rich Rodriguez would be a big star at Michigan when he was hired. I bought into all the stuff about him bringing the spread to the Big Ten and how he would bring the Michigan program into the modern world of college football with innovative offensive schemes and weight training and all that. If he could win at West Virginia, wouldn’t he inevitably produce top 10 teams at Michigan??

For whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out. It’s undeniable that he has been a complete disaster at Michigan, and I’m starting to buy into the idea that 2010 might be his last year in Ann Arbor.

Quick tangent here. If you think Rich Rodriguez hasn’t been a complete disaster thus far, I don’t know what to tell you. He took over a fairly solid and stable Michigan program and immediately ran them into the ground. 8-16 (3-13 in Big Ten play and 1-6 in November) in two years at a place that has cranked out 8-10 wins a year for about 100 years. Look at some of the losses they’ve had in the last two seasons:

Outscored by Illinois 83-33 in back to back losses
Outscored by Penn State 81-27 in back to back losses
Home loss to Toledo 13-10
Back to back losses to Purdue
Back to back losses to Michigan State
Outscored 63-17 by Ohio State in back to back losses

I mean, not only have they been losing games, they’ve generally been destroyed by teams. Losing to Illinois by 25 points in back to back years?? Seriously?? That’s not a complete disaster?? Ron Zook is hanging onto his job by a thread (and really should have been fired this past season when his team completely quit on him), and he looked like Bear Bryant against Rich Rodriguez. How does happen?? It’s Michigan! I don’t care if Desmond Howard was coaching them. You figure Michigan could be competitive during a transition period on pride and tradition and talent alone.

Michigan has been hands down the worst team in the Big Ten the last two seasons, and I don’t really see it getting any better for Michigan this season. From what I’ve read about their spring game, it sounds like their defense looked awful again. What is their identity now?? Try to outscore teams 45-42?? That’s not going to work in the Big Ten. You can’t win if you play zero defense.

Just looking at their schedule in 2010:

September 4, 2010 Connecticut
September 11, 2010 at Notre Dame
September 18, 2010 Massachusetts
September 25, 2010 Bowling Green
October 2, 2010 at Indiana
October 9, 2010 Michigan State
October 16, 2010 Iowa
October 30, 2010 at Penn State
November 6, 2010 Illinois
November 13, 2010 at Purdue
November 20, 2010 Wisconsin
November 27, 2010 at Ohio State

Do you see 7-8 wins on that schedule?? I’m not sure I do. Games against Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, and Illinois really don’t look like lock wins based on what they have done the last couple years.

Besides, is 7-5/8-4 really considered progress for a Michigan coach?? Really??? I keep hearing that Michigan fans would be satisfied with 7-5, but I must have missed the memo that Michigan is now Minnesota. A good Michigan team would go minimum 9-3 against that schedule and probably be disappointed about losing 3 games. And even with those tough road games at Ohio State, Penn State, and Notre Dame, the goal before the season would have been to win the Big Ten title and play in the Rose Bowl. Instead, it seems like Michigan fans would be thrilled with an Alamo Bowl appearance this year. Strange stuff. What happened to the expectations at Michigan?? Games like Indiana and Purdue should not be intimidating for a Michigan fan.

It’s also starting to look like things are drying up a little bit on the recruiting trail for Rich Rodriguez. Coming off a year when he had all kinds of early playing time to sell to recruits (especially on defense), Michigan had the #20 recruiting class in 2010. Right now, they only have 5 commits in their 2011 class. Compare that to some of the other big name schools out there:

Notre Dame – 10
Alabama – 14
Texas – 21 (absurd!!!!!!!!!!)
USC – 8 (every guy but one is a 4 or 5 star and they always close late)
LSU – 11
Oklahoma – 16
Ohio State – 15

In other words, the big boys out there are sealing the deal early and often with the top talent. Doesn’t seem like Michigan is a player for the same caliber of guys right now.

Why has Rodriguez been such a bust at Michigan thus far?? I think it comes back to the mojo thing. For whatever reason, the fans and media and ex-players and current players haven’t seemed to buy in. It seems like every week there is some former player taking a shot at Rich Rodriguez. I don’t know what it is, but he doesn’t seem to be embraced with that whole “Michigan Man” aura that Carr and Schembechler had.

Doesn’t that eventually carry down to the current players?? If they don’t respect the coach, maybe they won’t put in that extra rep at the squat rack in the offseason. Or sell out to make that open field tackle. Or they maybe they aren’t concentrating on their assignments and make a mental error. All in all, it adds up to losing football, which has been very rare at Michigan in the last 100 years.

It reminds me a lot of the Billy Gillespie saga down in Lexington. By all accounts, Billy Gillespie is a good basketball coach who took over two programs that had been down in the dumps (UTEP and A&M) and won almost immediately. He was even recruiting well in the earlygoing at Kentucky (landing Daniel Orton). But as soon as they got blown out in that game at home by Gardner-Webb, I don’t think he ever recovered. Just bad mojo right from the start that snowballed over the next couple years. Even though he was still a good coach, he lost the fans and the players and couldn’t get rid of the cloud hanging over the program. I don't know if his personality was a bad fit or if it was some other reason, but Gillespie and Kentucky never clicked.

Rich Rodriguez needs to change the mojo this year to become more of a “Michigan Man”, or I think he’s done. Forget the wins and losses for a second. He needs to put teams out on the field that look like Michigan teams. Hard-nosed, tough, solid backbone on defense, good line play. I don’t see how getting blown out 3-4 times and going 7-5 with a lousy defense is progress, and I would imagine that new AD David Brandon feels the same way behind the scenes. If they don't pass the look test, I think he'll be gone.

Is Les Miles the answer at Michigan??

The interesting thing about the Michigan coaching situation is how things would proceed if Rich Rodriguez did get fired. The obvious name that will come up is Leslie Edwin Miles. You don’t get more “Michigan Man” than “Have a GREAT day.”

But here’s my question. Is Les Miles even going to be employed when Michigan tries to contact him??

Check out LSU’s schedule this year:

September 4 – North Carolina (Georgia Dome)
September 11 – at Vanderbilt
September 18 – Mississippi State
September 25 – West Virginia
October 2 – Tennessee
October 9 – at Florida
October 16 – McNeese State
October 23 – at Auburn
November 6 – Alabama
November 13 – Louisiana-Monroe
November 20 – Mississippi
November 27 – at Arkansas

(Pretty solid nonconference scheduling by the way – UNC and West Virginia. Impressive considering what they also have in conference play. Get on the horn, Swarbrick. We know LSU will play people).

Anyway, barring some sort of substantial improvement, I see a MINIMUM of 4 losses on that schedule (Florida, Auburn, Bama, Arkansas) with maybe a random Tennessee or West Virginia or someone else sprinkled in. I’d guess 7-5 or 8-4.

Keep in mind that LSU has gone 8-5 and 9-4 in back to back years. Not bad in the grand scheme of things, but LSU fans expect to compete for SEC titles not Capital One bowls. With the talent they have on the roster every year, there’s no reason LSU isn’t right there neck and neck with Bama in the SEC West and looking dominant for most of the year. Instead, they looked downright lackluster in 2009 and really played poorly down the stretch. They came within an eyelash of going 0-5 down the stretch, including a near loss at home to Louisiana-Monroe.

LSU fans also see what Nick Saban is doing at Alabama, and it’s quickly becoming clear that Les Miles does not even sniff Saban in terms of running a program. Miles took over a loaded situation at LSU, won a title, and has steadily declined ever since. Meanwhile, Saban shows up at a downtrodden Alabama, and already has won 2 SEC West titles and a national championship. It doesn’t make things any easier for Les Miles that Nick Saban is dominating the same division of the same conference that LSU is in.

Miles is still getting it done on the recruiting trail, but isn’t that job sort of on autopilot in terms of recruiting?? He has insane talent right in his backyard every year and can get a top 5-10 class with Louisiana and east Texas talent alone. Couldn’t just about any coach pull in a top 10 class at LSU??

I’m not privy to any insider info on LSU football, but I gotta think the locals are getting a little tense about the current state of LSU football. They have national championship type talent, but seem to have underachieved the last couple years. Maybe Les Miles bounces back with a vengeance in 2010 and wins the SEC West title (or at least wins double digit games and comes within an eyelash of beating Alabama), but I really don’t see it happening.

If LSU goes 7-5 this year, would they fire Les Miles?? Would it even remotely shock anyone?? I know he won a national title, but the trend downward would be pretty apparent by that point. I could definitely see it happening, especially if there was an obvious candidate for the job out there (Will Muschamp, etc) who wanted the job.

How funny would it be if LSU fired Les Miles and then Michigan hired him as their “Michigan Man” savior?? Would there be any better example of how much Michigan’s stature has diminished in the college football world?? They’d be taking the scraps of a guy who couldn’t hack it in the SEC.

I think there’s like a 40-50% chance that this scenario plays out. Maybe higher. Either LSU fires Miles, or he gets so uncomfortable that he bolts for Ann Arbor. I think that would be a disastrous hire for Michigan. Sure he’d get them back to playing “Michigan football” with more of a hard-nosed approach, but would he win Big Ten titles?? Probably not. I’d guess you could pencil him in for a series of 8-4/9-3 type years at Michigan with top 20ish recruiting. Sure, it would be “improvement,” but is that all Michigan fans want?? Outback Bowls???

Will Jim Harbaugh work his way into the Michigan mix??

There’s another name that will inevitably come up, and this name scares me as an ND fan:

James Joseph Harbaugh

Heck, I wrote like a 5,000 word post on this site wanting Harbaugh hired at Notre Dame.

I don’t care if he’s the biggest jerk on the planet. The guy can coach, and he prefers a style of ball that is made for a Big Ten type job. Smashmouth, physical football with good line play and a good running game. When I watch Stanford play, it is how Michigan used to play in the old days. We're running the ball down your throat, and there's nothing you can do about it. And if you want to cheat up in the box, we'll kill you with play action from our big armed QB. No matter how old school that formula is, it can still work if you have a coach who knows how to implement it. Control the lines and grind out wins. That’s Michigan football circa 1968-2007. Harbaugh is doing it with Stanford talent. If you gave him Michigan’s resources, I would be shocked if he wasn’t successful.

Plus, he has the larger than life type personality that you need on the recruiting trail, and I would guess that his “mojo score” would be off the charts. He’d show up and call out Ohio State at his first press conference and probably predict a win. Maybe that stuff is a little brash, but it works.

Look at what Harbaugh is doing in recruiting this year. He’s already brought in 18 guys with 7 four stars. It’s your classic Michigan style recruiting class too with big linemen, front 7 guys, multiple running backs, and a big pro style QB. He’s blowing Rich Rodriguez out of the water at a school that has substantially more rigid academic standards and far less commitment to football excellence than Michigan.

The other thing is that Harbaugh really hits it hard nationally in recruiting with guys from Texas and New Jersey and Indiana and Georgia. At a place like Michigan that needs to get out to California and other places nationally to recruit, they are going to need a coach who can come in right away and hit the ground running all over the country for talent.

Rich Rodriguez seems to want to lower expectations every time he opens his mouth. Harbaugh would be talking about winning a Big Ten title in his first year. Is he a loose cannon?? Yes, no question. But would he win at Michigan?? Ummm, yes.

Stanford doesn't have an easy schedule this year, but with Andrew Luck back, you have to figure they'll be an 8-9ish win team and probably a contender in the Pac 10. If they do that, Harbaugh is going to be an extremely hot commodity in the 2011 offseason. I don’t think there’s any question that an NFL team is going to come hard after him considering what his brother has done with the Ravens. If the 49ers go into the tank this year with Mike Singletary (and keep in mind that their QB is Alex Smith), why wouldn’t they want to talk to Jim Harbaugh??

If Michigan wants to get him on board and keep him from going to the NFL, they'll probably have to pull the trigger on him in 2011. Heck, I'd be talking to his agent right now to gauge his interest.

Is Michigan football capable of bouncing back??

Michigan didn’t have a broken formula when Lloyd Carr left. They were cranking out top 10 recruiting classes every year, and here were Lloyd Carr’s last five seasons:

2003 – 10-3 (Rose Bowl – lost to USC)
2004 – 9-3 (Rose Bowl – lost to Texas in the VY coming out party game)
2005 – 7-5 (lost to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl)
2006 – 11-2 (Rose Bowl – lost to USC)
2007 – 9-4 (Capital One Bowl – beat Florida)

I mean, that’s not stellar or anything, but that’s like .750 football or something along those lines. 46-17 with 3 Rose Bowl appearances. And that was with an older Lloyd Carr who probably wasn’t as hungry as he was early in his head coaching career.

The point is that the Michigan brand was strong when Lloyd Carr left. They always recruited some big armed QB, good linemen, good skill guys, a stable of running backs, and quality front seven guys. They’d build their classes around Michigan and Ohio guys but also dipped into California and other places for skill players and high end guys.

In retrospect, they didn’t need to change the way they did things. They just needed to find a younger, hungrier Lloyd Carr who could continue the legacy of doing things “The Michigan Way,” but also bring some new energy and attitude to the program.

If I was David Brandon, that guy would be Jim Harbaugh.

Should be a fascinating season in Ann Arbor. As a Notre Dame fan, I can't help but pay attention to what is going on up there. Even though I have enjoyed watching Michigan go into the tank the last couple years, college football is not the same when schools like Michigan and ND are down. ND-Michigan should be a monster game every year instead of an afterthought game on the college football schedule. If we are going to play them every year as one of our "big games," beating them is more significant when Michigan is ranked and a contender in the Big Ten.

Can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

June 24, 2010

A Midsummer Day's Dream

Who knew the 4th Wednesday of June could deliver an action-packed sports buffet on par with the first round of March Madness? Riding the train into the city, my morning work load was poised to be neglected with U.S. vs. Algeria getting underway at 9am Chicago time. The fate of advancing past the Group Stage (accomplished twice since 1930) rested squarely on the shoulders of Team USA. ESPN3 bore witness to a scoreless first half with a couple excellent opportunities. The drama meter rose a tad with England taking an early lead. An England win and US tie meant Sam's Army was coming home early.

While the nil-nil score was frustrating, the Americans were outplaying their counterparts and a goal seemed inevitable. Hearts skipped a few beats after Clint Dempsey's golden chance in the 57th minute hit the far post and bounced back to him. But the forward sailed the open net rebound attempt wide. Tension continued to mount as two quality free kicks just outside the box came up short. Time was running out.

All of a sudden, in the 91st minute, Algeria broke free inside the American box. Settling for a rushed header attempt that keeper Tim Howard easily snared, the U.S. released immediately on the counter-attack thanks to a beautiful throw out to Donovan, who pushed the ball swiftly into Algerian territory. He set up Jozy Altidore, whose cross rolled five feet in front of the goal. Dempsey tried to punch it past the goalie, but it ricocheted back to a closing Donovan who struck clean and pure into the net. Bars and offices across the country erupted in cathartic relief.

By gaining the top seed out of Group C, a perfect draw unfolds with the next match versus Ghana (Saturday 1:30 EST), followed by another desirable matchup against the winner of Uruguay and South Korea. A trip to the semis would have the country bracing for an "anything can happen" scenario that would generate loads of media attention, enough to put the NBA Finals ratings to shame. This defining moment sending the U.S. to the next round is what the sport sorely needed to gain some traction. Coach Bob Bradley need only keep his team focused on execution and they should be able to ride this momentum for another week.

In the aftermath of this excitement, my stomach reminded me it was time for food. Grabbing a quick bite, I returned to my desk and scrolled through the Wimbledon scores. No shocking upsets, except for one interesting score - a 5th set knotted at 30-30. Not 30-30 as a game score. 30-30 as the SET score. I cued up ESPN3 again to see this unfathomable score with my own eyes. Lo and behold, UGA grad and 4-time All-American John Isner (always a welcome sight to see college players achieve pro success) and French journeyman Nicolas Mahut (pronounced like Matthew if you took out the t's) were locked in a match for the ages, stubbornly refusing to relinquish their serve. For the next 2+ hours, I watched this battle of wills unfold, transfixed by the bionic arm of the 6'9'' Isner and the incredible conditioning of Mahut. Hold after hold, some easier than others, these guys duked it out, answering the bell every changeover with a boxer's mentality.

To put this in a little perspective, a normal tennis match is played best 2 out of 3 sets. The Grand Slam tournaments play best 3 out of 5 sets. Wimbledon, the Australian and French Open are unique in that they play out the 5th set instead of a tiebreaker, playing until someone wins by two games. Last year's Wimbledon final witnessed the longest 5th set in Finals history as King Roger edged Andy Roddick 16-14. Roddick took part in the longest 5th set ever played in Australian Open history, holding on 21-19 over Younes El Aynaoui.

Today, I watched until the officials decided it was too dark to play and they would pick up where they left off the next day. Mind you, this match was already on its 2nd day of play. When they start again on day 3, the longest match in the history of tennis is tied 59-59 in the 5th set. You read that correctly, 59-59.

The match is already 10 hours long, topping the previous longest match ever by 3 and a half hours (the length of a quite long match itself). Both Isner (98) and Mahut (95) have shattered the previous record for aces in a match (78). The 118 games played in the 5th set alone is more than the previous record number of games for a Wimbledon match (112 games, in 1969). If you were to count the number of sets the two have played, 118 games is almost equivalent to 10 sets of 7-5 scores. So Isner and Mahut are technically in their 14th set of play. That's pure bonkers.

The mental fortitude of these men is off the charts. At one point in the 40's (or was it the 50's?), Mahut chased down what looked like a winner, forcing Isner to hit a short volley, which Mahut rabidly sprinted and full-out dove in vain for, Boris Becker style, throwing his racket and every ounce of determination onto the court. It wouldn't have surprised me if he'd remained on the court, his appendages entering a full body cramp. But he rose and played the next point, and the next, and another 20+ games.

Even more remarkable about Mahut is the fact that he had to qualify to get into the main draw of the tournament. He played two matches last week, one of which he won the deciding set 24-22. Little did he know that "marathon" set would be little more than 1/3 of today's ultra-marathon. And there's still tennis to play.

If I were handicapping this outcome, I like Isner, given some needed rest. Mahut's chance for the upset was today. If he couldn't find any chinks in Isner's serve with the big guy at his most dog-tired, I don't think he'll stand much better of a chance against a "full-strength" Isner. I use quotes because either guy could wake up tomorrow with significant soreness, cramping, dehydration or any other problems stemming from 7 straight hours of exercise. I don't see the match lasting much more than 6-8 games. Isner will take some chances on Mahut's serve with a little more mobility in his legs. He'll reach a couple more balls that he wasn't even bothering to chase at 37-37. But the big fella won't last much longer in the tournament, even though his huge serve is tailor-made for the All-England Club's fast grass (think Greg Rusedski with a little more polish). Expect a deep run from Isner in years to come. For now, he'll be content to be on the winning end of this historically epic match.

Quite a day for sports with contests referred to as "matches." If only more work Wednesdays could be as deliciously captivating.

June 18, 2010

Conference Expansion: Thoughts on Texas, the weakened Big 12, Nebraska in the Big Ten, the Pac 10, and why I'm happy Notre Dame remains independent.

So much going on in college football in the last week, so here are some big picture thoughts on college football expansion.

(1) How will Nebraska fare in the Big Ten??

I've said since the first day this was announced that Nebraska was the perfect addition for the Big Ten, and I personally think Jim Delany should just stand pat from here.

The Big East schools don't have the regional brand name cache to really make it worthwhile for the Big Ten. Nebraska adds an entire state of diehard fans who will rprsent the Big Ten well in bowl game trips, tv ratings, and brand loyalty. Not a lot of fairweather Cornhusker fans in that state.

Nebraska passes the "are you really excited to see _________ coming to town?" test for the rest of the Big Ten fans. If you're a Wisconsin fan, do you get fired up just seeing "October 13 NEBRASKA" in your upcoming schedule?? The answer to that question is yes. Living here in Columbus, I am looking forward to Nebraska's first trip to the Horseshoe as a member of the Big Ten. I'm sure I'll be up in South Bend for some random ND-UConn game, but still. That's a marquee, big event kinda game that will be going for twice the face value on Stubhub.

Rutgers and Missouri and Syracuse don't have that same appeal for me. I wouldn't even bat an eye if any of those teams was in town. Maybe the Cuse for hoops, but that's it.

So we know that Nebraska is a big coup for the Big Ten. Only one question pops up for me when I think about this Nebraska move. Why are their fans so enthused about it?? I guess you could say money and academics, but what fan really cares that much about either thing?? Won't Nebraska fans miss some of the Big 12 rivalries?? And is playing Iowa and Michigan really that much more exciting for them than playing Texas and Missouri??

My best guess is that Nebraska fans think they are going to clean up in the Big Ten. They've been beaten down by that Texas/OU juggernaut in the Big 12, and they probably think they are going to waltz through the Big Ten. Sort of a fresh start on life. They know where they stand in the Big 12. Third. In the Big Ten, it's a clean slate. I can understand that position.

Here's the only think that I would note about Nebraska's move to the Big Ten. Is this move going to have a negative effect on their recruiting?? Nebraska has made a living recruiting guys from Texas and California. Here are their last four classes:

2010 class - 22 commits -- 5 from Texas, 2 from California
2009 class - 20 commits -- 7 from Texas, 5 from California
2008 class - 28 commits -- 8 from Texas, 3 from California
2007 class - 27 commits -- 7 from Texas, 4 from California

Maybe they'll still be able to attract all those Texas and California guys in the Big Ten, but what other Big Ten school is doing that?? Why would a kid from Texas want to play in the Big Ten?? At least Nebraska could sell a Texas player on staying in the Big 12 footprint by playing at Nebraska, but I have to think it's going to be a lot harder down there now.

If Nebraska suddenly can't get all these California and Texas recruits, will they be the same program that they are now?? Will they suddenly morph into Iowa West?? More of a good program than an elite program. Tough to say.

And by giving up their presence in other traditional recruiting areas, such as Kansas City and St. Louis, will they be able to make up for it by going into traditional Big Ten markets in Chicago and Cleveland and Pittsburgh for players?? Squeezing more talent out of the Midwest is like squeezing blood out of a turnip.

As of right now, here's how I'd rank the 12 programs in the new Big Ten in terms of strength (tradition, recent history, coaching, program commitment, recruiting base, etc).

(1) Ohio State
(2) Penn State
(3) Nebraska
(4) Michigan
(5) Wisconsin
(6) Iowa
(7) Michigan State
(8) Illinois
(9) Northwestern
(10) Purdue
(11) Minnesota
(12) Indiana

#2 and #3 are pretty much interchangeable, but I give the edge to Penn State purely because of their in-state recruiting base. Penn State has a stable of players in PA and Jersey that will probably always keep them health as a program.

Nebraska's future as a dominant force in the Big Ten comes down to one name: Bo Pelini. I'm as big of a Pelini fan as anyone and think he's as good a coach as there is in the country right now. With him running the show, it really feels like Nebraska is back. By the end of last yaer, they were playing like a top 10 team, and this year's team coul be better. What if Nebraska won the national title this year?? Would the Big 12 commissioner even congratulate them?? Awkward.

(2) What does this expansion mean for the future of the Big Ten??

For a traditional league like the Big Ten, this has been quite a bit of change. Some questions:

(1) Are people really excited about a conference championship game??

This is sort of funny. For all the talk about how the Big Ten can finally have a conference championship game, has anyone stopped to talk to the member schools to see how they feel about it??

Do fans actually like these conference championship games or do they just view them as another obstacle to an undefeated season?? Did Texas fans really enjoy that Nebraska game last year?? That was a no-win situation.

Locally in Columbus, Ohio State fans have become accustomed to a certain path to an undefeated season. 1 big OOC game, 2 big conference matchups (PSU, Michigan), and typically 1-2 other tricky road games at night somewhere. The schedule is usually going to have 2-3 "big games" that are going to make or break the season. I would imagine that Penn State and Wisconsin and Even Michigan fans feel the same way going into every season.

Are these fanbases even excited about a conference championship game?? Wouldn't a championship game just be another opportunity to lose?? Just curious about that.

One propsoal for Jim Delany. I know we'll be getting a majority of these games in Indy/Detroit/Minnesota and maybe even St. Louis, but what about the occasional outdoor game?? It's the Big Ten!! Shouldn't a rough and tumble Midwestern league lke the Big Ten play the occasional outdoor title game?? It's not like these games are in January.

A Big Ten title game would be a week after the regular season. If a Nebraska fan can watch Nebraska-Wisconsin outdoors on November 27, why can't they watch Nebraska-Ohio State a week later outside at Soldier Field or Lambeau?? How great would that be??

(2) The two division breakdown

Here's how the divisions might break down if the Big Ten splits geographically:

Western Division

Eastern Division
Ohio State
Penn State
Michigan State

Umm, is it safe to say that these divisions are wildly unbalanced?? No wonder Nebraska is so excited about joining the Big Ten.

I almost think the Big Ten would have to do some sort of different alignment for the divisions. How are you going to have the three current kingpins of the conference in the same division??

Even on the basketball side, the dispartiy there would be laughable. In terms of historic power, that Eastern Division with Indiana, Purdue, MSU, Ohio State, and Michigan would blow the other division out of the water.

I think they would have to come up with something different. Maybe one of these "Plains" and "Lakes" alignments that has been discussed.

(3) How strong is the Big Ten now??

I almost think people are underrating this addition for the Big Ten. People have been so obsessed with Texas and Notre Dame and Texas A&M and a Pac 10 superconference, but none of that stuff ended up happening. Here's what we ended up with:

Colorado and Utah to the Pac 10
Nebraska to the Big Ten

Who got the better end of that deal?? The Big Ten added one of the top 10 football programs of all time with a fanbase that is as passionate as any in the country. The Pac 10 added two more Arizonas.

The Big Ten has emerged from this chaos as the clear cut second best conference in America. The Big 12 has been weakened, and the Pac 10 is a disaster right now. Who is going to carry the torch for the Pac 10 in the next five years?? A probation-ravaged USC?? Utah??

(3) Is Texas a winner or a loser here??

On the surface, Texas is a major winner in the sense that they are going to be printing money down in Austin and might be getting a Longhorn Sports Network in the near future. They are basically the undisputed king of the Big 12 now, and control all aspects of the league from finances to the power structure.

But I don't really care about the money issues. What about on the field?? And more importantly, what about their brand? Is Texas in a better position today than they were at this time last year??

At this time last year, the Big 12 was considered by the majority of college football fans to be the 2nd best conference in America. You had three major powers (Texas, OU, Nebraska), several other solid mid-level programs (Mizzou, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech), a conference championship game, and only a couple real clunker programs (Iowa State, Baylor, maybe Kansas State).

Now?? Think about what has changed in the Big 12 in the last week:

--The league has gone from three heavyweights to two. Texas now is basically playing one heavyweight a year (Oklahoma). The Big Ten now has four heavyweights, and the SEC has six.

--No more conference championship game. The Big 12 championship game was another opportunity for a big game/win on the schedule. The Big 12 has become more like the Big Ten now with no conference championship game. Isn't the Big 12 going to get lose in the shuffle here??

Think about your Big 12 viewing habits. How many Big 12 games do you really watch?? I watch bits and pieces of maybe 4-5 Big 12 regular season games a year (OU-Texas, the 8pm ABC games, Bedlam, maybe a Nebraska game) and the Big 12 championship game. With this newly formed Big 12, I'll probably watch Texas-OU and maybe one other game. That's a 50% reduction in nationally relevant games.

Doesn't that hurt the league's brand in some ways??

--No more Nebraska and no more Colorado for tv viewing purposes -- As if the Big 12 wasn't already Texas-oriented, it has somehow become even more regionalized. The Denver market is done, and the Nebraska markets are out. The Big 12 is basically down to the Texas cities, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Oklahoma City.

And if Missouri leaves for the Big Ten someday...

--Only ten members. Here are your remaining Big 12 schools:

Oklahoma State
Texas A&M
Texas Tech
Iowa State
Kansas State

The top is strong, but what about the rest of the league?? Iowa State, Baylor, and Kansas State are clunkers, and now they make up 30% of the league.

Here is Texas' 2010 football schedule:

09/04 2:30p ESPN at Rice (Reliant Stadium)
09/11 6:00p FSN Wyoming
09/18 7:00p ABC at Texas Tech
09/25 2:30p/7:00p ABC UCLA
10/02 at Oklahoma (Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TX)
10/16 at Nebraska
10/23 Iowa State
10/30 Baylor
11/06 at Kansas State
11/13 Oklahoma State
11/20 Florida Atlantic
11/25 7:00p ESPN Texas A&M

Imagine that schedule with no Nebraska. Their nonconference schedule is Rice, Wyoming, Florida Atlantic, and UCLA.

When this new Big 12 starts up next year, how could Texas possibly justify a spot in the title game ahead of an undefeated SEC, ACC, Big Ten, or even Pac 10 team?? They are basically playing one elite team, 2-3 decent teams, and a bunch of duds after that. And no conference championship game.

Texas is notorious for playing cupcake nonconference schedules. If they don't step it up and start playing better competition in the nonconference, I don't see how their new overall schedules will justify a spot in the title game for them.

Don't get me wrong, Texas is the elite of the elite these days in college football. Probably in the top 3 in terms of their strength in the overall college football world along with Alabama and Florida. They have the talent and coaching staff to be play in the title game every single year.

But their schedules are about to become a joke. If ND ever goes undefeated and gets left out by an undefeated Texas team that beats one good team (Oklahoma), it would be a travesty.

(4) Biggest star of the "conference expansion" week

How about Chip Brown of Orangebloods.com?? Biggest breakout media star since Chad Millman at the 2010 NCAA Tournament?? How could he not be?? I've never even heard of this guy, and now suddenly he's the go-to guy for all things conference expansion. Considering all the information he had, why would you go anywhere else for news on expansion??

Speaking of information, what exactly does ESPN do anymore in terms of reporting?? Has Joe Schad ever broken a story in his entire career?? Going to ESPN for breaking college football news is completely worthless. The best you are getting is Joe Schad quoting someone from Yahoo or Rivals or one of these local insider sites (i.e. Orangebloods.com). Whatever ESPN pays Joe Schad is about ten times too much.

ESPN might have the best NFL beat guys out there with Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, but their college department is an abomination. It's basically Joe Schad and a bunch of columnists who disappear from January to mid-August. Whoops, I forgot Bruce Feldman. Yippee.

(5) Can the Pac 10 be called anything but a loser here??

I'm not really sure I understand what the Pac 10 has accomplished. They're like an NBA team that had $30 million in cap room and decided to blow it all on Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon (whoops, sorry Detroit).

What was the rush to add Colorado and Utah?? Just seems strange that the Pac 10 has waited 30 years to expand and then just decides to throw caution to the wind and jump in headfirst with Colorado and Utah.

What do either of these schools add to the Pac 10 in terms of dollars or championship programs?? Utah is a nice program in a decent sized metro market (Salt Lake City), but it's not exactly a heavyweight. I happened to be in Salt Lake City a couple weeks ago and checked out Rice-Eccles Stadium on the Utah campus, and it's a 45,000 stadium. Spectacular setting and all, but not exactly screaming out big time college football. They've had great success in the MWC the last few years, but I expect them to settle into the middle of the Pac 10.

And Colorado?? Really?? When was the last time they've even been relevant in college football?? The Rashaan Salaam era?? I'm not sure I've watched a Colorado game in ten years if not longer.

People talk about Colorado and this supposedly rabid Denver market, but why is Folsom Field (which admittedly looks very cool) only holding 53,000 fans if these Denver fans are such Colorado Buffs diehards?? I mean, come on. Wake me up when you're bringing in 80,000 fans for home games.

Plus, Colorado baskeball is a complete joke. Maybe the worst college hoops program in the Big 12.

Is Fox/ESPN going to shell out a bunch of dollars to the Pac 10 now because they've added Colorado and Utah?? I don't see it. Instead of splitting the pie between ten schools, now they are splitting it between 12.

The other thing is that this expansion destroys what has made the Pac 10 a unique entity in college football: the round robin. I loved that the Pac 10 stuck with 9 conference games to ensure that every team played each other. With twelve teams, the round robin is over unless they go to 11 conference games (highly unlikely).

Finally, what if the Big 12 collapses in the next couple years under this new arrangement?? Isn't that easily a possibility?? For all we know, Missouri might start up some "Marshall Plan" to ramp up their sports programs, and try to parlay that into a spot in the Big Ten. Or maybe the numbers drop off for Big 12 viewership, and Texas starts looking round.

If that happens, how foolish is the Pac 10 going to look?? Texas and Oklahoma would be out there looking around, but the Pac 10 is already boxed in with Utah and Colorado. That would be a disaster.

(6) How has this worked out for Notre Dame?

I'm not sure this could have worked out any better for Notre Dame. The more I hear about conferences and the "landscape," the more convinced I am that independence is still far and away the best path for Notre Dame. Even with all our struggles, we remain big time brand in college football.

This Jerry Jones story says it all. He wants Notre Dame in the Big 12 with Arkansas. Of course he does. Even if the Big 12 doesn't really make sense for our fanbase or our programs, we are the only school in the country that could pull that off. We're still the only nationwide brand out there.

I have heard very few compelling reason for Notre Dame to join a conference. It is certainly not money. ND is making money hand over fist, and it appears that the Big Ten numbers about Indiana and Northwestern making more money than ND have been debunked.

Exposure?? Please. NBC and nationwide coverage every week.

Recruiting?? How would joining the Big Ten help our recruiting?? If anything, it would destroy our recruiting. Our only edge in recruiting right now is that we have a nationwide schedule and a national tv deal. If we are suddenly playing noon Big Ten games on the Big Ten Network against Minnesota and the occasional ESPN game again Illinois with Pam Ward broadcasting live from Champaign, does anyone really think that is going to help our recruiting?? How??

People want to come to ND because we have a national presence. If we move to the Big Ten, we basically become Northwestern 2.0. We have no in-state recruiting base, so we'd be going into Michigan/Ohio State/Penn State's territory to go after players. And we'd have nothing unique to offer these guys because we'd be playing the same Big Ten schedule that those teams play. Why go to ND and play in the Big Ten when you can just stay in state and play at Penn State against the same schools??

The "Landscape"?? - I guess there is a scenario out there that will create 4 superconferences that would leave us high and dry, but I see no reason to rush into anything until that actually happens. How do we even know this four superconference thing is even going down?? If it was ever going to happen, it would have happened this offseason. Instead, teams like Texas realized that the superconference model of 16 team leagues is a flawed model and completely unworkable. I think it will be a long time before we ever see something like that.

And even if we do, ND still has options:

(1) Roll the dice and stay independent and hope that teams will stay play us
(2) Join a different league -- If the Big Ten decides to "bypass" us and move on to other teams, big whoop. That doesn't even slightly concern me. We can join the ACC the next day. Or the Pac 10 for that matter.

Scheduling?? Ok, this might be the one issue that would cause some problems for us. If USC someday has to play 11-12 conference games and can no longer play us, that's a problem. Same with Michigan. If the choice is playing a schedule filled with cupcakes and midmajors and Big East schools versus playing a conference schedule of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, then sign me up for a league. If we want to remain a big time football program, we have to be able to play the types of schedules that will attract recruits and get us respect in the college football world. If everyone else is playing conference games every week and we're playing Army and Rice, we're in trouble.

How can we combat that potential problem?? Bold and aggressive scheduling. I think Jack Swarbrick might be working on that as we speak. The Miami series should get locked down to give us another anchor tenant on the schedule.

Other moves I would make:

1) Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma -- I'd sign up home and homes with all three of those schools. The Big 12 is scaling back to ten teams, and all these teams are going to need more marquee games on the schedule to remain competitive for BCS spots and also for tv ratings. If ND could get a home and home with Big 12 teams on a regular basis, that would be an attractive package for ESPN in the next bidding.

Heck, we should be looking at deals with everyone in the Big 12 for that matter. Sign up Texas Tech. Or Oklahoma State. I would love to go to Stillwater and party it up at Eskimo Joes.

The Big 12 is a big opportunity for us to make some splashes on the scheduling front. We already have Oklahoma for 2012-13. An ND-Texas series should be on the top priority list for Swarbrick.

2) Tell Purdue and Michigan State to stuff it -- I would tell Purdue and Sparty that they need to move to November or they're off the "permanent" list on the schedule. If they don't do it, they're gone. I'm tired of freaking Purdue telling us that they'll only play ND in September. They charge double for the ND home game that they do for every other game, and they're controlling the terms?? Please.

It doesn't even need to be both teams. Just moving one of them to November every year would alleviate a lot of our scheduling problems. Instead of playing Tulsa in November, we'd at least have a couple respectable Big Ten teams there. And then we could use those September spots for some different schools.

I don't mind playing Purdue and Michigan State. We have history with those schools. But the terms of our current relationship are very one-sided. We are a huge rivalry game for both teams that their fans get fired up for, and yet we allow them to control when the games are played. If we're going to agree to play them every single year, I think we should demand that the games get played in November. If not, we'll just move on and find somebody from the ACC or Big 12 or SEC to play instead.

The other thing is that it creates less dependency on the Big Ten from our side. If we can establish some relationships with other schools outside of the Big Ten, it would help strengthen our independence and national brand.

I am extremely pleased that we are remaining independent, but now comes the toughest part: protecting that independence. We need to be forward-thinking and aggressive to ensure that we have a place at the table with the power brokers in college football. In order for us to stay relevant, quality scheduling is more important than ever.

The status quo is a perfect scenario for ND. Independent in football and Big East hoops. I can't really think of a better scenario. It is the best of both worlds, and we are very fortunate to have two great situations. Hopefully we can start fresh in this new decade by actually accomplishing some things on the field now that our off-the-field questions have been answered for awhile.

June 10, 2010

The World's Greatest Sporting Event

World Cup 2010

2010 sees the world’s game host its first ever World Cup on the African continent in South Africa. I hoped to put together a detailed group by group analysis, but unfortunately the time got away and now the tournament begins tomorrow. Given that, we’ll keep this to a brief analysis of the favorites, some dark horses, and a few brief thoughts on the U.S.


Spain - If you had to pick one team to win, it has to be Spain. La Furia Roja has been one an epic run. From February of 2007 through June of 2009, the team did not lose a match in 35 played (winning 32 including 15 in a row), tying the record held by Brazil. Of course, that loss came at the hands of the U.S. at the Confederations cup last summer. Since losing that match, they’ve rattled off another 12 straight wins making them 44-1-3 over the last 3 years. Not only are they good, but they play the most exciting football of any team on the planet. When Spain is hitting on all cylinders, it is as beautiful as the game gets. If you haven’t seen Spain's second goal from the warm up earlier this week against Poland you should (all goals here):

Many people consider Brazil to be a close second (if not a co-favorite), particularly given Spain’s penchant for failing to live up to expectations in big tournaments. But this team has enough experience and got over the hump with its 2008 Euro victory to be the single favorite for the World cup.

Brazil – While Spain could be characterized as playing the traditional South American style of beautiful, flowing soccer, Brazil, once the epitome of that style, has converted to a tougher, defensive minded, win at all costs European style of football under Dunga. I think the biggest piece of news most Americans saw about Brazil was the choice to leave former stars Ronaldo and RonaldiƱho off the squad. But they are old (Ronaldo) and out of shape (RonaldiƱho), and the team will be better off for it. In fact, Brazil fans are probably more upset about the lack of some of the younger up and coming talent playing in Brazil.

But, there are concerns with the Brazil. Is Kaka in form? Is he healthy? He had a poor season with Real Madrid. How much is this team relying on Robinho to score goals (who had a very hard time even seeing the field this year with his club team)? They have a fairly difficult draw (Portugal and Ivory Coast), particularly if Drogba is able to play for IC as reports are now indicating. There is now even a recent scare over the health of their goalie.

But, as with any other sport, defense wins championships and their defense is solid. And while their group draw is tough, they are still head and shoulders above Portugal and the Ivory Coast. If Kaka can find his form and Robinho and Fabiano can find the net, Brazil is certainly the team most likely to challenge the Spanish ascendancy.

England, Argentina, and Netherlands
– Based on the bookies’ estimates, England and Argentina are the next two favorites, but I’m not buying it. Beyond Spain and Brazil, I can’t see another “favorite”. And if I did, it would be The Netherlands, not the England or Argentina.

England has significant question marks. How is team chemistry? You don’t have your team captain get his teammate’s (now ex-teammate) girlfriend pregnant without some sort of lingering chemistry concern. Their second captain has now been ruled out of the Cup. Can Gerrard step up and wear the band? Is Rooney healthy? He’s been carrying lingering injuries since February. If Garreth Barry is banged up, who steps into the defensive midfield position? That is the underrated key to England’s success. Barry has the discipline to hang back in the defensive midfield allowing both Lampard and Gerrard to rift more forward into attacking positions. The other key questions to the Three Lions’ success are for more obvious: Can Rooney go at 100% and can Ledley King/Michael Dawson/or someone else pair with John Terry at the back for a strong central defense. Luckily, England has an almost free pass into the round of 16 given their easy group draw (more on that later).

Argentina also got lucky with an incredibly easy group (Greece, South Korea, and Nigeria). Under the legendary Diego Maradona, Argentina almost didn’t qualify. He’s failed to figure out how to use arguably the best player in the world (Lionel Messi) effectively. He also made some questionable selections in his team selection. I think based on their easy draw and lucky group line-up (their round of 16 opponent should also be fairly weak), they can easily make the round of 8. While anything can happen at that point, I would not feel comfortable placing the money on Argentina.

The Netherlands may very well be the 2nd most fun team to watch (see below) in the tournament after Spain. While they have some question marks at the back, no one can question their ability to score goals. The key question with the Dutch is if they can get over their own hump of failing in big tournaments. They blew through the so-called “group of Death in Euro 2008 at a combined score of 9-1 only to lose in the quarters. But their easy group draw and the ability of many players to score at any time makes the Dutch fully capable of winning the Cup. In fact, I like Dutch as a slight sleeper pick right behind Spain.

Dark Horses

It is very difficult to identify dark horses in this tournament because after the couple favorites (and the Dutch in my book), many of the teams are fairly equal. Additionally, the lack of a real Group of Death and really only one group where there are 3 world class teams, it is difficult to identify the teams to get over that group stage and make a run. Additionally, one of the most overplayed angles of the tournament leading up to the draw was the likely success of the African teams given the home continent advantage. However, I don’t see that happening. A combination of bad draws, injuries, and the fact that many countries just aren’t that close geographically means it is unlikely that more than a team or two from Africa (if that) will advance. Given that, here are a few teams that are probably not in the top two in their group but could still advance:

Ivory Coast – This is the easy one. If they were in any group, and maybe even if Drogba were even 100% healthy, the IC would not qualify for a dark horse. The IC is actually not even the African team with the highest FIFA ranking (goes to Cameroon), but if Drogba can play, the IC has at least a chance against anyone. If he plays, I like them to advance over Portugal, and even if he doesn’t, I think they still have a chance to take 2nd from the Portuguese. In fact, if Drogba can get to 100%, I think they are the “dark horse” for the title.

Serbia – They have a strong back line pairing with Premier League standouts Vidic and Ivanovic and an all name team candidate in Stankovic to manage the midfield. Group D (Germany, Serbia, Ghana, Australia) is a tight race for 2nd. Ghana advanced in the previous World Cup and Serbia has a reputation for failing under pressure. But I like Serbia as a team to advance and possibly even sneak a win in the round of 16.

How about U.S.A?

The U.S. lucked out with Slovenia and Algeria. In fact, I’d even say we lucked out with England as the premier team in the group and playing England first. England has a history of starting tournaments slowly. Combined with the issued I mentioned above, they are a beatable (or drawable) team. I still expect the U.S. to lose on Saturday, but think that advancing is still a probable outcome, though I will certainly be hoping for a 0-0 draw in the other match. If we do advance in 2nd, we have the benefit of playing the winner of group D (likely a beatable Germany team). Given that, I think the U.S. has a legitimate chance to match the 2002 quarterfinals performance. The key match will be the match against Slovenia. This match is a must win. Since Slovenia plays England last, and England may have clinched qualifying already, they will get an easier match against England. They also open with a likely win against Algeria. It makes the match against Slovenia an absolute must win.

Most people in the U.S. have heard of Landon Donovan. But here are a few other players to watch:

Tim Howard (GK) – Likely the best player on the team. Howard continues the tradition of true world class goalkeepers from the U.S. Goalkeeper is the only position where the U.S. has consistently produced world class talent over the past 15 – 20 years.

Clint Dempsey – The other most media targeted player on the team, Clint had a great season for Fulham and has had good performances for the national team lately. His (somewhat deserved) reputation is that he can get lazy at time and then produce moments of brilliance. I think the key to keeping Dempsey focused and in the game is actually to play him up front (he usually plays in the midfield), where he may see fewer balls, but have more scoring opportunities.

Ideal Line-up:

GK: Howard
Defenders: Cherundolo, DeMerit, Onyewu, Bocanegra
Midfielders: Donovan, Bradley, Edu, Feilhaber
Forwards: Altidore, Dempsey

This linep-up is dependent on Gooch’s (Onyewu’s) health. If he really isn’t at 100%, you’re left with Goodson at the other centerback, but that doesn’t bring me nearly as much comfort as a healthy Onyewu. It also contains 3 central midfielders, but I would envision more of a 4-5-1 with Dempsey playing forward on the wing behind Altidore. Edu and Feilhaber and can interchange between playing back in a central defensive position and pushing a little more forward to create opportunities for Dempsey and Altidore.

Other thoughts

Interesting games to watch, particularly on the weekends, in the group stage:

U.S. v. England (Saturday, June 12) – Dominance of the English speaking world
Argentia v. Nigeria (Saturday, June 12) – Can Argentina gel or will Africa claim a major victory?
Ivory Coast v. Portugal (Tuesday, June 15) – Key match for 2nd place in the toughest group
Netherlands v. Japan (Saturday, June 19) – Watch beautiful being played on the weekend
Brazil v. Ivory Coast (Sunday, June 20) – One of the best matches of the opening round

Players to Watch For

Messi (Argentina) – Widely considered the best player in the world based on his club performance for Barcelona. Has yet to live up to potential for the national team.
Ronaldo (Portugal) – Probably the world’s most famous player in the tournament. Biggest challenger to Messi in the media based on club performance
Xavi (Spain) – The underrated component of Barcelona’s fearsome attack, he makes both his club team and his national team tick.
Sneijder, Robben, and Van Persie (Netherlands) – When all are healthy, they make up an incredible attacking trio
Kaka (Brazil) – When in form, one of the most exciting counter-attacking players in the world.

Group Stage Picks:

Group A – France, Mexico
Group B – Argentina, Nigeria
Group C – England, U.S.A.
Group D – Serbia, Germany
Group E – Netherlands, Denmark
Group F – Italy, Paraguay
Group G – Brazil, Ivory Coast
Group H – Spain, Chile

June 09, 2010

Catholics vs. Catholics: Thoughts on Notre Dame and Boston College extending their series through 2019.

Good news coming out of South Bend this week with the announcement that Notre Dame has extended our series with Boston College by adding six games between 2011 and 2019. Looks like Boston College is coming to Notre Dame in 2011, 2016, and 2018, and Notre Dame will be going to Boston College in 2012.

I know Notre Dame fans are complaining about so many games with BC, but I don’t have a problem with a longer series with BC (and I’m not generally a fan of the long series and was a huge critic of the long extension with Purdue). Whether people want to admit or not, BC is a good series. The games are meaningful, BC plays good football and helps our schedule strength, it’s a good game for east coast exposure, and BC is ALWAYS willing to play us in October and November.

Question for you critics of this series. Would you rather see us play more Tulsas and Western Michigans in November than BC?? Didn’t think so.

Maybe it’s an uncomfortable thing to acknowledge (especially since they’ve built things up while we have floundered in the last 15 years), but BC has a quality football program. Since they joined the ACC in 2005, here’s what they’ve done:

2005 – 9-3 (5-3)
2006 – 10-3 (5-3)
2007 – 11-3 (6-2)
2008 – 9-5 (5-3)
2009 – 8-5 (5-3)

I mean, that’s pretty darn good and they’ve done it in the ACC. If you can win 8-9 games a year playing in the ACC, you’re a pretty strong program. No one is going to question whether Boston College is any good like they would with UConn or even a team like Utah because at least BC has to play some quality competition in the ACC.

If you schedule BC, you’re probably going to play a borderline top 25 team that wins 8-9 games. Heck, other than Michigan and USC, BC is probably the third strongest program on our 2009-2011 schedules. Maybe Pitt instead, but we’re splitting hairs there.

Boston College has found a niche as a blue collar, hard-nosed team that recruits a lot of undervalued 2 and 3 star guys who buy in to the system and contribute by their senior year (or sometimes not until their 5th year). It doesn’t seem to matter who is on the roster. They’ll play good defense, not beat themselves, and try to win the line of scrimmage. I’ve said multiple times on this site that I wish ND play more like BC plays.

Plus, they have sort of an “Anytime, Anywhere” philosophy when it comes to playing ND, so they’ll always play us in October and November if we want. They are one of the few schools outside of the Big East who has actually shown a willingness to play us later in the year.

We bend over backwards to let Purdue dictate the terms on when we play them (even though they jack up the prices for that game) and yet people can’t stand the thought of six games with BC in nine years?? That makes no sense to me.

Purdue is a complete joke program, we already play two other Big Ten team a year, and they play in the same state where we already play 7-8 games a year. If we took a ten year break from Purdue, I wouldn’t slightly miss it. And yet we let them demand a September date on our schedule every year. If you’re mad about playing somebody, be mad about paying Purdue.

Plus, does it get any better than a road trip to Boston for an ND game?? You get to visit a world class city, stay down by the park, walk around downtown, hit up some great Irish bars, and then head over to Chestnut Hill. If I have a choice between going to Boston for a game or freaking West Lafayette, I’m going to Boston. Sure the stadium stinks and the tailgating is weak and they have piped in crowd noise and a microphone on their band, but it’s still a good place to visit for an ND game.

Now I realize that I’m presenting somewhat of a Kevin White-esque false choice between BC and Tulsa/Western Michigan, and I do agree that it would be great for variety purposes to get someone else form the ACC besides Boston College. I would love a November home and home with Clemson or Georgia Tech or maybe an SEC team like South Carolina or Arkansas. If we could replace BC in 2014-2015 with one of those schools, I would do it in a second.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon. Schools don’t seem to want to play us late in the conference season.

Considering all of our late problems scheduling quality competition in November, we should be welcoming this game. When pundits look at an ND-BC matchup, they aren’t pooh-poohing it like they would if we’re playing Navy or Army or some other “buy game.” This is a legitimate home and home series.

One other thing to address: the rivalry aspect. Let’s be honest, Boston College has become a rivalry game. For the most part, I consider BC to be a big game on our schedule. Two Catholic schools, similar student bodies, always a big road trip for the BC students, generally competitive games, lots of ND fans in New England, lost of back and forth between the fan bases, and lots of guys on both rosters who seem to know each other off the field. Maybe we didn’t recruit any of the BC guys, but there are always a bunch of BC guys from the same Catholic schools (e.g. St. Xavier, St. Ignatius, Moeller in Ohio) where we recruit. It’s a bigger game for BC and probably always will be, but it’s been a fairly big game on our end as well. That goal line stand in the 1998 game was one of our more memorable wins in recent memory. And even though we lost both games, the 2002 and 1993 games were big games on our schedule with big time crowds.

In addition, can we stop with the "Boston College fans are classless" nonsense?? There's that word again. CLASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSY. CLASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My least favorite word associated with ND sports. Classy=6-6 and home losses to Navy and tickets lying on the ground for November home games and tee times on Saturday afternoon at Warren. Classy is a word for losers. I'll be the first to admit that I have family with Boston College ties, and the word "classless" is not something I would associate with them. Every fanbase has clown fans (including our own), so painting with the broad brush is a little much. Instead of whining about Boston College fans being classless after beating us, how about we go out and beat them four or five times in a row?? That will quiet them down in a hurry.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the 2011 and 2012 schedules with BC in there. I added BC to the open October 8 spot in 2011 and October 13 in 2012.


S10 @ Michigan
S24 @ Pittsburgh
O01 @ Purdue
O08 Boston College
O15 Army (neutral site)
N26 @ Stanford
One game TBD

That’s not great by any stretch, but it’s certainly better than the 2010 schedule and actually has a surprisingly decent slate of mid-level teams. Instead of playing all these chump mid-majors like Tulsa/Western Michigan/Army, we’re only playing one real laugher game in 2011 (Army) at a neutral site so far. Here’s how it compares to 2010 right now (still one game to add)

2010 2011
Michigan @Michigan
@Boston College BOSTON COLLEGE
PITTSBURGH @Pittsburgh
@Michigan State MICHIGAN STATE
ARMY (neutral) ARMY (neutral)
@Navy NAVY
STANFORD @Stanford
PURDUE @Purdue

We’re trading South Florida and Maryland for Tulsa and Utah, and we still have another game to schedule to replace the Western Michigan game. Assuming Swarbrick can find a half-decent team for that spot, this schedule will be better than 2010. At least we’re making more of an effort. The neutral site game is better, South Florida is a pretty good “buy game,” and BC adds another solid name.

Would it be great if that 12th team was a quality program or a heavyweight?? Sure, I’d love to see it. Put a big game in there for November against someone new and fresh (Wisconsin, Clemson, Tennessee, Oklahoma State), and it would be a great capper on the schedule. But even if the game is somebody like TCU or Syracuse, I could live with that. How about West Virginia?? That would be a nice game.


09/01 - @Navy (Dublin, Ireland)
09/08 - PURDUE
09/15 - at Michigan State
09/22 - MICHIGAN
09/29 - STANFORD
10/06 - Miami (Soldier Field) (not confirmed)
10/13 - @Boston College
10/27 - @ Oklahoma
11/10 - ARMY
11/24 - @ Southern Cal

2012 looks fantastic if the Miami game actually goes down. Best schedule we’ve had in a long time. 3 really strong road games (BC, OU, USC), a great neutral site game (Miami), only one real breather game (Army), and 4 heavyweights (USC, Miami, OU, Michigan). That might be the toughest schedule in the nation in 2012, but I don’t mind it. We’re Notre Dame. We should occasionally play a top 5 type schedule. The fact that Michigan is our 4th biggest game on that schedule is a sign that we are playing some serious competition that year. Plus, BC, Pitt, Sparty, and Stanford in the middle.

Honestly, this is how an ND schedule should look like. I’m ok with toning it down to only play 3 powers a year, but the schedule should always pass the eyeball test. That’s a phenomenal schedule on paper, and no one could possibly question our schedule in 2012. If we go 10-2 that year, we’re going to get a lot of respect from the college football world. Ultimately, that’s what I want.

Anyway, save your complaining about other things with regards to Notre Dame football. BC is a good addition to the schedule, and I’m happy to play them.

June 04, 2010

White Kinda Guys: A concerning early trend for Brian Kelly's recruiting at Notre Dame?? Are we becoming the rich man's Stanford???

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. What about nine pictures??

I don't want to raise any red flags here, but is that a collage of our current lacrosse recruits or the football recruits?? I know every team is going to have some white guys, but even BYU would be impressed with our early returns.

I realize it's very early in the recruiting game of course (and we could be hearing from some "athletes" in the very near future who could change the face (literally) of this recruiting class), but it almost feels like the elephant in the room right now regarding Coach Kelly's recruits is that we are loading up on white guys by the truckload. 7 out of 8 from last year and 8 out of 9 so far this year.

Some things to keep in mind though. Seems like the guys who commit early to a place like ND tend to be more self-selector types who know they fit in academically and culturally, and that leads to....well....more white guys. For the most part, our early commits are guys who "get" ND so to speak, and several probably always dreamed of going to ND. Guys like Carrico and Grace and Springmann don't really need a coach to talk to them about the weather in South Bend. They already know what it's like to live in the Midwest.

So in some sense, it's probably unfair to judge Brian Kelly at this point because we're mainly judging him on the sure thing types who might not be the big fish that Kelly is targeting later in this class (guys like Lynch and French, etc). I actually like how Brian Kelly approaches recruiting, so I don't want to minimize the work he's already done on the trail. I have mentioned on this blog several times since he was hired that Coach Kelly would prove to be a more effective recruiter than Charlie Weis. Kelly is targeting specific body types, skill sets, and character traits to find guys he can mold into good football players instead of going after guys who peak in their junior year of high school.

Just looking at the guys we have brought in thus far in terms of size:

Brad Carrico - 6'6", 255
Jarrett Grace - 6'4, 235
Conor Hanratty - 6'4, 305
Matthew Hegarty - 6'5", 265
Ben Koyack - 6'5", 230
Jordan Prestwood - 6'6", 280
Tony Springmann - 6'6", 257"
Mathias Farley - 6'2", 197
Kyle Brindza - 6'2", 195 (he's a kicker....what do you expect?)

That's a bunch of big rangy guys. Maybe not the most athletic group right there, but quality size and depth is something that we need going forward. I watched Ohio State go 9-10 deep last year on the defensive line, and it made a dramatic difference in their defense. And not every guy in that rotation was some stud. They had a few Tony Springmann types in there, but those guys came in for short stints and contributed.

The other obstacle that Brian Kelly is facing is what I've been calling "Rich Man's Stanford syndrome." If you think of Stanford football, what do you think of?? Offensive players, cerebral guys, good QB, good TE, a bunch of a smart, hardnosed white guys on the OL, 1-2 quality pass catching options, but not a ton of athleticism or nasty defensive players. Stanford trots out like 8 white starters on defense (or so it seems). Add it all up, and it translates to decent teams that win a lot of shootouts.

Isn't that kind of what we have been trending towards on the recruiting trail in the last decade or so?? We still get elite players at the following positions:


Why?? It's tough to say, but two theories:

1) It seems like the more cerebral types tend to come from the offensive side of the ball.

2) We still have the national cache of being Notre Dame, so offensive recruits are still attracted to the idea of putting up numbers on national tv every week. Plus, having Willingham (people forget that everyone was excited about the west coast offense at first) and Weis as head coaches helped us with offensive recruits.

If you look back at those five positions, it seems like we attract elite talent for the most part. We get a top QB recruit about three out of every five years (e.g. Crist, Clausen, Quinn from 2003-2008) and a top TE recruit virtually every year (Koyack, Rudolph, Ragone, Reuland, Fauria, etc). We typically get a good OL recruiting haul (generally 4 stars and up for everyone), and always get 1-2 blockbuster WR/RB recruits every year (Floyd, Julius Jones, Golden Tate, etc).

For the most part, the success we've had recruiting those positions has shown up on NFL Draft day. Our last two starting QBs (Quinn and Clausen) were both 1st and 2nd rounders. Fasano and Carlson were 2nd rounders, and Rudolph will probably be a 1st or 2nd rounder. Tate was a 2nd rounder. Floyd will be a 1st or 2nd round guy.

Add up our strength at those positions, and it's a borderline top 10 recruiting class just about every year for us. But look between the lines for a bit, and it's easy to wonder if our recruiting classes are really producing the balance and depth that you need to be a great football team. As important as it is to recruit QBs, only one guy is playing. Bringing in a 4/5 star QB every year and having two on the bench with another one transferring doesn't really do much for the football team. Same with TE. We bring in a top 5 TE every year, but the majority of these guys transfer. So looking back at our classes from the past few years, they are littered with high-profile QB and TE recruits who never sniffed the field (Demetrius Jones, Reuland, Frazer, Fauria, etc).

I am all for getting o-line recruits, but OL recruiting seems like a giant crapshoot unless you are a talking about the elite of the elites like a Seantrel Henderson/Michael Oher type. You see a lot of OL who were 2 star TEs who suddenly fill out and turn into All-Americans in college. And you see an equal number of 4 stars who never blocked a guy their size until they got to college and couldn't handle it.

So our natural strengths at certain positions on the recruiting trail sort of works against us in terms of producing quality football teams. Kelly would probably gladly trade our strengths at OL and TE to grab up 6 super stud defensive players, but right now he's gotta take what he can get. And that typically means highly-ranked OL/QB/TE/WR/RB recruits, white guys, and kids with 3.8 grade point averages.

Let's start looking at some other positions on the football field. How many times have we had a player from the following positions drafted in the first couple rounds in recent history??

Off the top of my head:

DL - Abiamiri, Weaver, Tuck
DT - Laws
LB - Courtney Watson?
C - Jeff Burris? (yikes)
S - (crickets chirping)

I mean, that's going back 10-15 years there, and the list is pretty paltry. We haven't had an elite corner or safety or linebacker on our roster in almost two decades (Te'o is probably the first since....well....Demetrius Dubose?). I don't care what the recruiting rankings say. I'm judging it by what we see on the field. We don't have a ton of athleticism on our roster and haven't in a long time. If you think we have big time athleticism, turn on an SEC game. The difference is noticeable. Or watch Texas' defensive players. It's jawdropping. We all love Te'o (and rightfully so), but all the players on Texas' defense are Te'o types. The kinda guys who can get sideline to sideline and make big sticks and super athletic plays.

Hence the rich man's Stanford comparisons. We might get more higher-caliber guys than Stanford and a few athletes that they wouldn't get, but it's hard to be an elite team when the only real elite guys we have on the roster are offensive skill guys and the occasional offensive linemen.

Brian Kelly has to fight that perception for now. He has an easy sell for QBs, WRs, TE, OL, but the only way to start pulling in Texas type depth and talent on defense is for Kelly to win. Big. And get some help from admissions. If Kelly does that, he has the type of personality to really get something going at ND. But it's an uphill battle on the trail right now.

Recruiting rankings can't be taken at face value sometimes. Lots of these stud SEC players were non-qualifiers or hidden gems because of a lack of exposure in high school. Doesn't mean they can't play. If you watched us play LSU in the Sugar Bowl or USC during these last eight years, you can see that coaching was not the only problem. To play with the big boys, we need more big time athletes.

The good news is that Brian Kelly seems like one of those coaches who can win with anyone's players. Cincinnati was not exctly stacked with talent, and he found a way to go 34-6 in three years. He took 2 stars and moved them around and coached them up, and it worked. He might be able to take ND's roster strengths to produce great offensive teams and coach up defense and special teams with projects and overachievers.

In fact, that's probably a model for success at ND these days. Score a lot of points with great offensive recruits and then take a chance on big rangy guys who could grow into productive defensive players and linemen with proper coaching. Sound familiar to what a certain coach is already doing??

And the recruiting season is far from over. We have 9 commits, and I would expect to add another 10-11 more guys (maybe more with Spencer Boyd transferring). Plenty of time to reel in some highly-regarded guys. Heck, Michigan only has 4 recruits right now. If Kelly can start out the 2010 season strong, that might give us a big boost on the trail going into the homestretch for the 2011 class.

Just a guess, but I'd say we add 1 QB, 3 RB/WR athletes, 1 OL, 3-4 DL/DE/OLB types, and 3-4 DBs. Really need DBs, and hopefully one of them breaks that streak of seasons since we've had a corner/safety go in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. And hopefully we get at least one stud athlete in the front seven like a Justin Tuck type.

Add it all up, and it's probably a top 10-15 class on paper. Looks like the makings of a rich man's Stanford class if I've ever seen one, but hopefully we have the right coach now to get the most out of that roster.