Notre Dame Football: Schedule Points to Improved Irish in 2008 (Part 1)

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Notre Dame Football: Schedule Points to Improved Irish in 2008 (Part 1)

I know that just a few days ago I was whining about how boring the summer is for college football bloggers ("summer" being defined as the period between the end of spring football and the beginning of fall practice).  That's still true.

But this being a three-day holiday weekend dedicated to honoring those brave souls who choose to forge their own destinies without the safety net of an empire or a conference (Happy Independents' Day!), I had a little time on my hands to look forward to the 2008 college football season, particularly the prospects for the 2008 Fighting Irish.  I decided to start with the 2008 schedule.

In my view, the schedule in 2008 should be a significant source of optimism and hope for Irish fans this year.  There's a lot to write about, so this short post will be just the first of at least two preseason looks at the schedule with the OC Domer wide-angle lens.

What I mean is that these posts will be some rough-cut, big picture thoughts about our 2008 opponents, without getting into a lot of detail about matchups or in-depth opponent previews.  Those will come as we get closer to kick-off.  The most basic information provided by the schedule is (a) who we play, and (b) when we play them.

Today's post looks at who we play.

The 2008 schedule includes 12 opponents.  Seven teams are squads the Irish played last year, and five teams were not on the 2007 schedule.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the Irish?  I think it is a very, very good thing.

A quick comparison of the five 2007 opponents we dropped versus the five new opponents in 2008 reveals that the schedule changes are very favorable to Irish fortunes.

For the purposes of this quick-and-dirty review, I'm basing all comparisons on the final Jeff Sagarin rankings for the 2007 college football season, and I'm using Sagarin's "predictor" ranking (last column on his charts) because they factor in margin of victory and are therefore more accurate (if less politically correct).

The teams we played in 2007 but won't play in 2008 are Georgia Tech (L 33-3), Penn State (L 31-10), UCLA (W 20-6), Air Force (L 41-24), and Duke (W 28-7).  The teams we pick up 2008 are San Diego State, North Carolina, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse.

If each of these groups of five teams are listed from best to worst using the latest Sagarin ratings, and the two lists are compared side-by-side, you get this:

1. Drop: Penn State (25), Gain: Washington (44)

2. Drop: UCLA (27), Gain: Pittsburgh (61)

3. Drop: USAFA (51), Gain: North Carolina (65)

4. Drop: G-Tech (57), Gain: SDSU (89)

5. Drop: Duke (105), Gain: Syracuse (125)

Crunching some numbers, you see right away that Notre Dame is losing from its schedule five teams with an average final 2007 Sagarin rating of 53, while picking up for 2008 five teams with an average 2007 Sagarin rating of 76.8 (let's call it 77).

Thus, on average, the new opponents for 2008 are ranked 24 spots lower than the 2007 teams they replace.

Now I will admit there is a part of me, as a very proud Irish fan, that is mildly ashamed to be analyzing how much easier our 2008 schedule is than our 2007 schedule.  Tradition dictates that Notre Dame should be playing one of the toughest schedules in the country every year, taking on all comers.

The fact that I even researched how Duke stacks up against Syracuse as an opponent pains me a bit.  But Notre Dame lost nine games last year, and those nine losses were not even close (except for Navy).  The average margin of defeat in those nine games was 21 points.

Desperate times calling for desperate measures, I do care that Syracuse ended 2007 ranked No. 125 to Duke's No. 105.

But the bigger news is at the top of the lists.  Instead of playing a 25th-ranked Penn State team that beat the Irish by 21 points last season, Notre Dame plays the Washington Huskies, ranked No. 44.  That's a nice trade, and one that you have to feel gives the Irish a chance to pick up a win based on scheduling alone.

Likewise, the Irish drop the 27th-ranked UCLA Bruins and instead pick up the 61st-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers.  Yes, Notre Dame beat the Bruins last year, but UCLA had some significant injury problems (especially at QB) that greatly aided the Irish cause.  You have to believe that playing Pitt provides a better chance of victory than would playing UCLA again.

Losing USAFA and picking up UNC is basically a wash, except that Air Force's option offense has long given the Irish defense fits, and playing San Diego State is a huge "upgrade" over playing Georgia Tech.

Notre Dame notched two wins and three losses against the five listed 2007 opponents.  It would be bitterly disappointing if an Irish squad that is even moderately better in 2008 doesn't go 5-0 against the five new teams on the schedule.

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