The complaints are rolling in from Notre Dame fans upset about the Irish’s #16 ranking in the initial BCS standings, which is primarily the result of their #23 ranking in the computer polls. This low ranking is the result of Notre Dame’s unexpectedly weak strength of schedule — supposedly ND’s strong suit, but not this year. With the exception of USC, pretty much all of ND’s opponents thus far are having off-years. Michigan, a Top 10 team in the preseason, is 4-3. Pittsburgh, which went to a BCS bowl last year, is 3-4. Purdue is 2-4. Washington is 1-5. The only Irish opponent besides the Trojans doing relatively well is Michigan State, and even the Spartans are just 4-2 after a 4-0 start. It remains to be seen whether the Spartans are about to go into free-fall, but it’s certainly possible.
And Notre Dame’s schedule doesn’t get any stronger from here on out. They’ve got BYU (3-3), Tennessee (a disappointing 3-2), Navy (3-2), Syracuse (1-5, including losses to UConn and Rutgers, with their only win coming against lowly Buffalo), and Stanford (3-2, and likely to lose most, if not all, of their remaining 5 conference games against the meat of the Pac-10).
In comments on another post, an ND fan writes: “Sure, certain teams we play may have up years and down years. Go ahead and try to design a tougher schedule for 8 years down the road.” That commenter is exactly right. BYU, Navy and Stanford are about where you’d expect them to be, but who knew Pittsburgh, Michigan, Purdue, Washington, Syracuse, and even Tennessee and quite possibly Michigan State would all have sub-par years, all at once? The Irish couldn’t possibly have predicted that when they made up their schedule.
The thing is, though, we USC fans made the exact same argument two years ago, when the Trojans were denied a spot in the Sugar Bowl because of our “weak” schedule… and I don’t recall getting much sympathy from Irish fans back then. Indeed, it seems to be an annual pastime for Notre Dame fans to crow about how much stronger their schedule is than USC’s (and everyone else’s). Now that the tables have turned, perhaps they’ll take a more reasonable view of things?
In 2003, USC’s opponents included Auburn, a preseason Top 10 team that finished 7-5, and, ahem, Notre Dame, a traditional powerhouse that went 5-7. Our conference schedule was also unusually weak, since it so happened that the one team we didn’t play in conference that year was the Pac-10’s second-best team, 8-4 Oregon. And on top of it, the whole Pac-10 was “down” that year. Was any of that USC’s fault? No, but we got tarred with the “lousy schedule” moniker anyway, and we got punished by the computers for it. As a result, we had to share our national championship with LSU, even though the human pollsters thought we were #1 in the country.
The moral of the story? The BCS sucks, and we should decide the champion on the field from a group that includes all the major conference champions, if not all Division 1-A conference champions, plus a few at-large teams. Conference standings are (for the most part) a fair barometer of a team’s strength; national rankings that attempt to compare apples to oranges using things like strength of schedule, which are entirely out of a team’s control, are not.