The 2012 Notre Dame football schedule is, for now, described as potentially one of the more difficult ones in school history.
Head coach Brian Kelly's Irish face what on paper appears to be a treacherous schedule.
It includes road games at Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC, which hasn’t occurred since 1966 (when the Irish actually won the national title), who each won at least 10 games last season.
In fact, in one six-game stretch from Sept. 15 through Oct. 27, the Irish will confront five teams that won at least 10 games in 2011, which might be unprecedented in college football, mainly because 12 or 13 games are played now as opposed to nine to 11 in days of yore: Michigan State (11-3), Michigan (11-2), Stanford (11-2), BYU (10-3) and Oklahoma (10-3), with 6-6 Miami sandwiched in-between.
Then in the first three games of November, the Irish play consecutive games against teams that took them to the wall last year before falling: Pittsburgh (15-12), Boston College (16-14) and Wake Forest (24-17). Cap it off with a trip to Notre Dame’s version of the Wailing Wall, the Los Angeles Coliseum, against a USC program that is a popular pre-season pick to play in the national title game, if not win it.
That’s the glass-is-half-empty side. Conversely, here’s a different way to look at it:
• The first three opponents — Navy, Purdue and Michigan State — lost by 42, 28 and 18 points, respectively, last year to the Irish.
• In its first seven games, Notre Dame plays on only one on its opponents' home turf (Michigan State, Sept. 15). That’s unique in Notre Dame’s history, plus there is a Sept. 29 bye, meaning there is just one “hostile” atmosphere the program will face through the first eight weeks of the season.
• Head coach Brian Kelly is 0-4 versus Michigan and Stanford, and those home games on Sept. 22 and Oct. 13, respectively, will be primary litmus tests of the program’s trajectory in his third season. Notre Dame has led the Wolverines entering the final 30 seconds each of the last three season but has been unable to close. Stanford lost its centerpiece of 23 victories the past two years, No. 1 NFL pick/quarterback Andrew Luck.
• Miami is a reeling program right now with NCAA sanctions looming, and six talented underclassmen left the program early for the NFL Draft, including their top three playmakers on offense.
• Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest all lost at least seven games last season.
• Even with Oklahoma and USC, maybe the two games that even the most ardent Notre Dame zealot might acknowledge as probable defeats, one can give a positive spin. The Irish are an amazing 4-0 in Norman, Okla., (sort of like being 4-0 against Alabama going into the dreaded 1986 game), and they also won in their most recent appearance in The Coliseum (20-16 in 2010).
The point is that rating or fretting about schedules even before they are played is wasted energy because one never knows how a season will shake out either for an opponent or inside Notre Dame’s walls.
In Charlie Weis’ first season (2005) there were pre-season projections of 1-5 and maybe even 0-6 because of a supposed murder’s row for the Irish in the first half of the season:
• Pitt was the defending Big East champion and a favorite to repeat with 18 returning starters, led by quarterback Tyler Palko (a record five TD passes versus the Irish in a 41-38 victory the previous year). Instead, the Irish easily won on the road, 42-21. Pitt lost the next week to Ohio University and would finish 5-6.
• No. 3 Michigan was the pre-season Big Ten favorite, had won three straight at home versus the Irish and was bent on revenge after losing to a down Notre Dame team the previous year. Yet the Irish won, 17-10, and Michigan finished 7-5, ending its distinction as the lone school the previous 20 years (1985-2004) to win at least eight games each season.
• Purdue was the pre-season No. 1 in the Orlando Sentinel with the return of all 11 starters on defense and a typically potent offense that had romped at Notre Dame, 41-16, the previous year. This time on the road, the Irish were up 28-0 by halftime en route to 49-28 rout — and Purdue finished 5-6.
• Tennessee was No. 2 in the Sporting News’ pre-season national poll and No. 3 in Athlon, and 14th-year head coach Phil Fulmer had won 80 percent of his games. Notre Dame won, 41-21 — and the Vols finished 5-6.
So when the Irish were 9-2 at the end of the regular season and in the top 5, popular opinion was they were pretty good but “hadn’t really beaten anybody.”
It’s amazing how much easier schedules become when you evolve into a better team than your opponent, and how they always look tough when you are floundering.
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