Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Case for Hope (Part 2)

The first post in this series examined the 2008 Notre Dame football schedule with a focus on new opponents for this season, and how they compared to the 2007 opponents that they replace. To recap, the money paragraph in Part 1 was:

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, and is 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.
Today's post takes a very rough look at the remaining teams on the Irish schedule - those teams that Notre Dame played in 2007 that they will also play in 2008. The goal is to get some idea about the relative strength of these "continuity" games in 2008 versus in 2007. The basic method of comparison will be final 2007 rankings versus pre-season 2008 rankings, although I may throw in some comments on an opponent's pre-season 2007 rank or even rankings at the time they played the Irish when it seems especially pertinent. The giant caveat of course is that comparing pre-season predictions to end-of-year polling is a bit of an apples-to-oranges situation. Lesser caveats (I wish I could use footnotes for all the caveats!) include the facts that (a) not all the pre-season predictions are in yet; (b) those predictions that are available don't necessarily agree with one another; (c) post season polls don't always agree with each other (for example, polls and computer rankings aren't always in sync, and even the various computer rankings can be wildly divergent).

I will be relying primarily on Athlon Sports for my 2008 pre-season rankings. I like Athlon because they have a good reputation as being among the most accurate of the pre-season magazines, and because they do us all the favor of ranking all the teams from 1 through 119. (Apologies to Michigan and Ohio State fans because Athlon doesn't include the Division 1-AA teams in the National rankings). Services which offer only a "Top 25" ranking are not only lazy, but not very helpful in looking at strength of schedule. Also, my local Barnes & Noble had the Athlon National Edition on sale when I went shopping yesterday. I also picked up a copy of 2008 College Preview magazine from & I'll note the CFN rankings when they vary significantly from the Athlon predictions.

For the 2007 Final rankings my primary resource is Jeff Sagarin's final 2007 computer rankings, using his "predictor" column which accounts for margin of victory. I've relied on Sagarin for years and I think his is the best computer model available. These rankings also have have the benefit of ranking all the teams, not just the Top 25 or so that we get from the AP or BCS polls. (Note to Michigan and Ohio State fans: Sagarin's rankings do include Div. 1-AA teams, so you can track the strength of all your opponents).

That's enough of the introduction already! How does the schedule look?

Michigan. The Wolverines are a bit of a mystery coming out of the blocks this season. They have lost nearly every skill position player of note on offense (including their top 2 quarterbacks), they lost their head coach, and the new coach had a rough go of it in recruiting this season and is installing an entirely new offensive system. Rakes of Mallow has a very nice post on the parallels between the 2008 Wolverines and the 2007 Irish in this regard. Added to all the turmoil is that in 2007 Michigan, even WITH all their vaunted senior leadership (Hart, Henne, etc...), was a team that started the year 0-2 with an embarrassing loss to Div. 1-AA Appalachian State (34-32) and a humbling beat-down by the Oregon Ducks (39-7), before whipping the Irish 38-0 to start an eight game winning streak and eventually defeating a strong Florida team in the Capital One Bowl, 41-35. One has to figure that Michigan will start very slowly this season. But Notre Dame doesn't catch them until UM's third game of the year (which is exactly when the Wolverines got themselves straightened out last season). As far as the numbers go, Michigan finished 2007 at #18 in the AP Poll, and #24 in Sagarin's rankings. Athlon predicts them at #28 for 2008. Michigan has a lot of talent on the roster, and they may be at #28 by the end of the season, but they probably won't be even that good on September 13th. In any case, a 28th-ranked Wolverine squad has to be considered a "down" year and a nice break for Notre Dame. By contrast UM was ranked #5 in both the AP and USA Today pre-season polls last year.

Michigan State. Because of the general disdain that the entire staff here at OC Domer feels for the Spartans, I won't spend much time on them. In 2007, MSU finished up at #39 in the Sagarin rankings, while Athlon has them at #49 in their pre-season list. (Note that the Sporting News does have Sparty at #27, and CFN has them at #41). Expect Sparty to play over their heads as usual against the Irish, but 2008 doesn't look like an "up" year for MSU. Another break for ND.

Purdue. Despite flirting with greatness last season by starting the year 5-0 (capped by a win over ND 33-19), Purdue struggled down the stretch and finished 8-5 and #54 in the Sagarin rankings. With experienced QB Curtis Painter returning, Athlon has them picking up right where they left off at pre-season #54. Basically, Purdue looks to be Purdue again this year and not cause the Irish any more trouble than usual. Given that Notre Dame actually outplayed the Boilermakers in the second half last year and had a serious chance to win that game despite some sloppy play, you have to like the Irish chances this year against PU.

Stanford. In what has to rank as one of the ugliest college football games ever played, Notre Dame beat Stanford 21-14 to close out their historically bad 2007 season. Stanford finished 2007 at #69 in Sagarin, and opens 2008 at #74 in Athlon. Bottom line is Stanford doesn't figure to be much better in '08, and the Irish do figure to be better. Advantage Notre Dame.

Boston College. I have a theory about sports. I call it the Cinderella theory. The OC Domer Cinderella Theory holds that teams can't have two "Cinderella" seasons in a row. The clock has struck 12 on the Cinderella story of 2007. The Eagles had a nice run last year, starting 8-0, finishing 11-3, coming close to both an appearance in the BCS Championship and a Heisman trophy. But the star QB (and almost everyone else on offense) is gone. BC finished 2007 at #10 in the AP Poll and #30 in Sagarin. Athlon puts them at #44 for 2008. Clearly a step back for BC in '08, and a break for Notre Dame.

Navy. The Midshipmen made some history last year by defeating Notre Dame for the first time in my life. So what are they going to play for next year? Navy finished 2007 at #77 in Sagarin, and open 2008 at #72 in Athlon. Notre Dame should avenge last year's loss and start another streak against the Middies this year.

Southern Cal. Notre Dame doesn't catch any breaks in this one. The Trojans have owned the Irish the past two seasons, and this year we play at their house, following a BYE for USC. USC finished 2007 at #3 in the AP and #4 in Sagarin. They open 2008 at #4 in Athlon's rankings. The biggest issue for USC is at QB, where new starter Mark Sanchez is unproven. But even if he stinks it up early in the year, the Trojans will have plenty of time to switch to former Arkansas QB Mitch Mustain and get him rolling before the match-up with the Irish in late November. USC will be very good. The question is whether the Irish will have grown up enough by then to make a game of it.

Conclusion. Notre Dame's schedule looks very favorable for 2008. The new teams on the schedule for '08 are significantly weaker as a group than the teams they replace from the '07 schedule. Opponents that appear on both the '07 and '08 schedules as a group are expected to take a step back this year. With the exception of USC, the teams that can usually be counted on to present the biggest challenges for Notre Dame (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Boston College) all are widely expected to have "down" years in 2008. As a young Irish team looks to take the step up to respectability in 2008, having a schedule that is much more manageable than last year's gives me some real hope.


Elkona said...

The Big 10 stretch is the meat of the schedule. If ND can make it 2-1 or even 3-0 against these three teams, then we have hope.
I'm not as positive about this outcome as you are, though.
So many unknowns until we see how Clausen performs in the first couple games. Michigan could suck but if we still can't score, it doesn't matter.
I'm worried about MSU cause they've got Ringer back at RB. And Purdue has Painter back for, like, his 7th year. That team can score.
The BC and USC games are lost causes. BC lost its QB but they are a good program now, they won't fall flat on their back like we did after losing Brady.
As for the new teams on the schedule, they mostly stink, although one or two of em could surprise you with a decent season. I'm thinking Pitt because Wannstadt's ass is on the line.
So I'm hopeful -- that ND can go 8-4, especially if we get to BC with only 2 losses. If we've got only one loss at that point, maybe 9-3. Now I've just jinxed myself so I'll leave it there.

OC Domer said...

Elkona - Please don't read this as a "predictions" post (yet). This is just meant as an evaluation of how the Irish schedule compares to last years', and to point out that it is much more friendly. The Irish still have a lot of work to do to win these games.

Alces said...

I think the rhythm and timing of the opponents this year is a big improvement for ND.

In 2007, ND faced hearty lineup of might-lose games, with no early bye week or true cupcake in there. This year, ND at least has a true cupcake in SDSU to work out the kinks. (At least on paper - I'm sure SDSU will play their asses off)

Then, after a stretch of might-lose games (UM, MSU, Purdue) they'll hopefully have a bit of break in Stanford, and even if UNC winds up being a challenge this year, at least they'll have a bye week afterwards so they won't be looking too far ahead.

However, even if the remaining games prior to USC seem softer, I worry that BC or Syracuse will play perfectly make ND look sloppy.

Jack said...

Mark May was on ESPN this afternoon (7/25/2008) & his ND forecast was like 6 ? wins, against teams ND should be favored to win.