Notre Dame Football: To Join or Not to Join—Conferences' Strength of Schedules

Michael CollinsAnalyst IJuly 8, 2008

In my previous article, many of Notre Dame’s “conference” of eight current opponents have a longer tradition playing the Irish than most of their conference opponents!


- Michigan State has played only Michigan more than Notre Dame. 

- Navy has played only Army more than the Irish. 

- USC, Pittsburgh, and Purdue have played only two conference opponents more than Notre Dame. 

Should Notre Dame join a conference and end some of these traditional rivalries?  How would ND’s strength of schedule change? 

Strength of Schedule

According to Jeff Sagarin, of the top 15 teams in SOS, the Pac-10 had seven teams, the SEC had six, and the Big 12 had two.

Notre Dame’s strength of schedule was 24th.  Almost every team in the three conferences that the Irish might join—ACC, Big East, Big Ten—have poorer strengths of schedule.


FSU - 22, Maryland - 27, Duke - 28, NC St - 31, NC - 34, Tech - 36, Clemson - 41, GTech - 42, BC - 45, Va - 48, Wake - 49, Miami - 50

Big East

South Florida - 21, Syracuse - 32, West Va - 40, Pitt - 46, Louis - 51, Rutgers - 65, UConn - 61, Cincy - 69

Big Ten

Mich - 37, Ill - 42, MSU - 52, OSU - 53, Minn - 54, Wisc - 57, PSU - 63, NW - 70, Purdue - 71, Iowa - 75, Ind - 82

Only South Florida (21) and Florida State (22) had a slightly stronger schedule than Notre Dame (24) did in 2007—out of the 31 football programs in those three conferences. 

Top to bottom, the ACC wins this comparison hands down—strongest 22, weakest 50.  The Big East is next strongest—strongest 21, five in the top 51, and weakest 69. 

The Big Ten’s strength of schedule is the worst with a strongest of 37, only two teams in the top 51, and weakest 82.    

Competition: How Tough Are the Conference Teams?

Here is each conference team as ranked by Sagarin for 2007.  (I used my definition of Notre Dame’s “conference” from the last article.)

Notre Dame’s top schools, Tier 1—defined for this argument as teams ranked 1-30 on a regular basis—is very comparable with the conferences.  Notre Dame’s top three teams—USC, Mich, and BC—are stronger than those of the Big Ten, ACC, or Big East.

ND’s Tier 2 (31-60) opponents are weaker, including only MSU and Purdue, with Pittsburgh borderline. 

Big Ten                 ACC               Big East              Notre Dame

OSU - 11           V Tech - 9          West Va - 3              USC - 4

Mich - 21         Clemson - 22        Cincy - 19               Mich - 21

PSU - 26              BC - 23           S. Fla - 20               BC - 23

Ill - 30                Wake - 28        Rutgers - 38            MSU - 47

Wisc - 36            Fla St - 40         UConn - 39            Purd - 57

MSU - 47            Virg - 41             Louis - 45              Pitt - 66

Purd - 57             Md - 51              Pitt - 66            Stanford - 70

Indiana - 72       G-Tech - 59      Syracuse - 113          Navy - 74

Iowa - 79            NC - 69                                                            

NW - 86            NC St - 68

Minn - 123         Miami - 75

                        Duke - 109

Notre Dame fans would like to strengthen their Tier 1 and 2 games to get back into the top 15.  Many Irish fans advocate a 4-4-4 distribution of Tier games.  ND fans debate which opponent to play—Texas, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama have all been mentioned.

But few SEC and Big 12 teams will interrupt their conference schedules to play Notre Dame.  Pac-10 teams have been more open to the challenge. 


Overall, only the ACC maintains a relatively stronger non-conference schedule with BCS teams, but plays more Division I-AA teams.  I’ll link a previous article where I covered this more fully.

- The non-conference schedule for 2008 shows that the ACC will play BCS opponents 48 percent of the time.  The ACC will play more Division I-AA teams, though—14 games this year.  

- The Big East plays BCS opponents 39 percent of their non-conference games.  The Big East will play seven I-AA teams. 

- The Big Ten plays BCS opponents 30 percent of the time.  The Big 10 will play nine I-AA teams.  

Notre Dame does not play I-AA teams and played 10 BCS teams last year.  Ten of their opponents went to bowl games in 2007.    

After joining a conference, Notre Dame would keep USC, Michigan (if in the ACC or Big East), Boston College (if in the Big Ten or Big East), and Navy as regular non-conference opponents—arguably a much stronger non-conference schedule than any future conference team.

In conclusion, each conference would boost its schedule strength, as well as add national exposure by adding Notre Dame.  The conferences would gain another Tier 1 program.  Their teams' SOS would benefit from playing an opponent with a strong schedule.

Joining the Big Ten, the ACC, or the Big East would help Notre Dame with schedule strength by adding another Tier 1 & 2 program.  Would they sacrifice a Division I-AA team or one of the BCS teams they currently play? 

Future Schedules

Here’s what an overall future schedule might look like for Notre Dame with each conference, including some traditional opponents of the Irish.

Big Ten

Tier 1 - USC, Michigan, Wisconsin, Boston College, (Ohio State, Penn State)

Tier 2 - Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, Pittsburgh

Tier 3 - Iowa, Navy, Northwestern, Minnesota, (Indiana)

A Big Ten with two divisions—North and South—might leave Notre Dame playing USC, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Boston College in Tier 1 and drop Indiana from Tier 3, leaving a perfect 4-4-4 Tier distribution.  (Potential non-division teams in parentheses.)


Tier 1 - USC, Michigan, Clemson, Boston College, (Virginia Tech)

Tier 2 - Wake, Florida State, Maryland, Pittsburgh, (Virginia, Georgia Tech)

Tier 3 -  NC, NC St, Navy, Duke, (Miami)

ND would most likely join the Atlantic Division and preserve their traditional rivalry with Boston College.  Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia Tech, and Miami would not be in the schedule, leaving a 4-4-4 division.  With twelve teams now in two divisions, the ACC teams only play eight conference opponents.  If Notre Dame joined, the ACC might look for a fourteenth team. 

Big East

Tier 1 – USC, Michigan, West Virginia, Boston College

Tier 2 – Rutgers, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Cincy, S. Florida

Tier 3 – Navy, Syracuse, UConn

The Big East with Notre Dame would allow each school to play eight conference games and four non-conference games instead of the current seven and five.   

In conclusion, none of the proposed conferences’ teams could approach Notre Dame’s future possible schedule in strength.  The ACC non-conference schedules are those most approaching Notre Dame’s in strength.  Joining the Big Ten would most highlight the Irish’s stronger schedule. 

The more reasonable alternative to improving schedule strength for the Irish is adding one or two more Tier 1 or Tier 2 games and keeping their independence, rather than entering into schedules like the above.

But there are other factors that may argue for joining different conferences—geography, previous conference affiliation in other sports, and contract commitments with NBC and other football teams for future games.

Perhaps most important is what Irish fans want.  In one study, 75 percent of them wanted Notre Dame to remain independent. 

What do you think?


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