Notre Dame is having its best season in a generation right now, standing at 9-0 for the first time since 1993, a year when the Fighting Irish came tantalizingly close to the AP National Championship. The Irish finished at 11-1 and No. 2 that season, and many Notre Dame fans still rue the fact that the team came in second to a team the Irish beat in November, Florida State.
Well, that heartache is rather likely to rear its ugly head again, because the math is starting to look a little lean for Notre Dame.
Sure, the computers still like Notre Dame—for now—but the voters have Notre Dame plugged in at No. 4 in every poll, and without some help from the teams ranked higher, it's hard to see how Notre Dame makes up any ground in the championship run.
So while we're not shoveling dirt on Notre Dame's BCS hopes just yet—all three top teams still have games they could lose on their schedules—it is still worth one's time to wonder how an undefeated Notre Dame team can do such a comparatively inferior job of thrilling voters.
The answer is actually pretty clear: It's the Big Ten's fault.
Notre Dame's strength of schedule is, according to the Sagarin ratings, pretty good; Sagarin has Notre Dame at 16th in the nation through Week 10. With Boston College and Wake Forest on deck, that figure is probably going to take a bit of a hit, and we'll have to see where USC is by the end of the season before we get any sense of how much that game will boost Notre Dame's SOS.
And yet, this was supposed to be a monster of a schedule for Notre Dame. Indeed, one look at the Fighting Irish's ESPN.com page shows four games against Top 20 opponents already and a fifth looming with USC to finish off the season.
Funny thing, though—not all of those teams are still in the Top 20. Oh, Stanford is. Oklahoma is. USC likely will be by the time that game rolls around.
Michigan and Michigan State, though? Yeah, about that...
It's a factor that's totally outside Notre Dame's control, but the Big Ten slate that Notre Dame had on its schedule—a group of games that was supposed to kick the Fighting Irish's national standing into overdrive—has since fizzled, and Notre Dame is suffering for it.
Being held to a 20-17 last-minute win by Purdue in South Bend is now Notre Dame's most embarrassing victory—and that includes the near-debacle against Pittsburgh last week.
Michigan State is still a tough, tough opponent, but there's no escaping the Spartans' 5-5 record.
Then there's the Michigan game, which solidified Notre Dame's standing nationally and drove a stake into the heart of Wolverine fans hoping for great things this year.
That's still a significant win for Notre Dame. Yeah, Michigan is 6-3, but very, very few teams would have better records against that schedule—especially with their starting quarterback being lost at the half at Nebraska. No getting around that.
But in terms of the Big Ten making positive contributions to Notre Dame's championship resume, that's about it. And we're not talking about some random group of three opponents on ND's schedule, either. The Notre Dame/Big Ten rivalries are a pretty big deal and one of the yearly highlights of Notre Dame's schedule.
This year, they might as well be just three more games.
Look at it this way: In the aforementioned Sagarin ratings, Michigan is bookended by Nebraska and Clemson. Quality opponents still. Michigan State is between Fresno State and San Jose State. Less quality. Purdue's neighbors in the rankings? Arkansas State and Minnesota.
If Notre Dame's last three games of September had been against Minnesota, San Jose State and Clemson, we wouldn't be falling all over ourselves about that scheduling. But that's all Notre Dame's actual Big Ten opponents this year have brought to the table.
Again, by the time the dust settles on the regular season, this still might all be enough for Notre Dame if it goes undefeated and a couple of other teams don't. But we're at the point where Notre Dame needs help—primarily because it didn't get any from the Big Ten this year.