Notre Dame fans are used to hearing it. Notre Dame critics are used to leveling it. Notre Dame schedules a weak set of opponents, and thus they need to join a conference in order to face real competition. Is this true, however?
This year's schedule includes Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa, Utah, Army and USC. All of the AQ teams on this list are generally considered solid opponents, and Utah has been finding itself in the top 10 on a regular basis this year.
Up until a weak ago, Michigan State stood at No. 5 and was enjoying an undefeated season. Stanford has likewise been enjoying a tremendous season and cracked the top 10 before running into the leviathan, AKA, Oregon.
Utah is currently nipping on the heels of Alabama with a No. 6 ranking, and Pitt started the season in the top 15 before having an inexplicable meltdown. USC is having a down year and has lost some close games, but by no means are they a cupcake.
One might look at the rankings of these teams and see a deficiency but football seasons cannot be scheduled at the beginning of the season; athletic departments plan years in advance and try to base their choices on historical trends. USC and Michigan are normally two of the best teams in the country.
Utah has consistently ranked in the top 10, and ND only started scheduling that at that point. Michigan St., Pittsburgh and Purdue are generally solid teams, while Stanford and Boston College have both been known for putting together really good seasons. None of these teams should be considered cupcakes, though yes they will have down years from time to time, but how can we blame Notre Dame for that?
Other big teams have found their way onto the Notre Dame schedule over the last decade, like Florida State, Tennessee and Penn State. Further, Notre Dame didn't start playing Utah a few years ago when the team suddenly became really good. Each year Notre Dame plays five or six good teams, three or four decent teams, and a few cupcakes which sounds about the same as most teams playing in the Big Six conferences.
Even the “lesser” opponents Notre Dame schedules are generally decent for their level of play. Navy is no Alabama, but they are usually a respectable team. Army has been going through some tough times, but historically they are another decent team. Tulsa and Western Michigan are considered cupcakes, though both of them usually compete well within their conferences.
This year Tulsa is having a solid season, and Notre Dame paid the price for it. Point is, Notre Dame schedules tough opponents, often times selecting the best teams from across conferences. Yes, they do need to get more SEC teams on their schedule, and undoubtedly that will come when room opens up on the schedule. Don't forget that these schedules are made years in advance, and it takes time to adjust them.
This is not to say that Notre Dame should, or should not, join a conference, but that decision need not be made solely for scheduling tougher opponents.