Parts 1 and 2 of this series examined the "who we play" aspects of Notre Dame's 2008 football schedule. Part 1 focused on the five new opponents on the 2008 schedule and compared them to the five teams from 2007 that they replace. Part 2 was a look at the common opponents on the 2007 and 2008 schedules, examining the (expected) relative strengths of those teams in 2008 versus last season. At the end of Part 2 I concluded:
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.In this final wide-angle look at Notre Dame's 2008 schedule the focus shifts from "who we play" to "when do we play them?" On top of all the other problems the Irish faced last year, their schedule did them no favors. In addition to playing a very strong slate of opponents, the sequencing of the 2007 schedule was awful. Essentially Notre Dame's eight most difficult games were bunched into eight straight weeks at the start of the season, the "bye" came only after the USC game in week 8, and then the season concluded with four straight games against what would generally be considered the four weakest teams on the schedule. Surely 2007 would have been a disaster in any case, but I believe the Irish would have had a chance at pulling out one or two more wins if the sequencing of the schedule had been more reasonable.
To help us in looking at the sequencing of the 2008 Irish schedule, I have prepared a chart that compares the pre-season rankings of Notre Dame's opponents in 2007 and 2008. I have used the rankings from AthlonSports.com for 2007 and 2008 because (a) they are readily available, (b) Athlon ranks all teams 1 through 119 (not just the Top 25), and (c) Athlon is among the most accurate of the pre-season rankings over the past several seasons. (Click on the chart for a larger version).
Look at the opening of the 2007 season. A very young Notre Dame team playing with a new quarterback opened up with three straight games against pre-season Top-20 teams (Georgia Tech, Penn State and Michigan). A slight break in week 4 against Michigan State preceded four straight games against increasingly more difficult opponents (Purdue, UCLA, Boston College, USC), the last three of which were Top-20 caliber teams, including the week 8 game against one of the elite teams in the country (USC).
Now compare the 2007 sequencing to the 2008 schedule. 2008 opens with a nice "warm up" game against a San Diego State team ranked at a pre-season #104, followed by one of the "peaks" on the schedule, the Michigan Wolverines. It's something of a coaching axiom that teams improve the most between week 1 and week 2, so it works out well that we catch Michigan after working the kinks out versus the Aztecs. The "peak" at Michigan is followed by a string of three games in a row against progressively weaker teams (MSU, PU, Stanford) which allows the Irish to recover from the UM contest and gather themselves before the next "peak" game against pre-season #37 North Carolina.
Following UNC in week 6, the Irish get a "bye" week to catch a breather at the season midway point and prepare for an emotional game against Washington followed by the third "peak" game on the schedule, against what is expected to be a resurgent Pitt Panther squad (pre-season #27). The Pitt game is followed in week 10 by the rebuilding Boston College Eagles. Believe it or not, this three-week stretch following the "bye," against teams ranked in the pre-season at 50, 27, and 44, is clearly the toughest stretch on the 2008 schedule.
Coming off the three-game tester, Notre Dame has two weeks against Navy (#72) and Syracuse (#90) to regroup, get healthy, and get their heads right for the regular season finale against Southern Cal (Pre-season #4).
Looking at the chart of the 2008 season, Notre Dame has four "peak"games against teams with pre-season rankings in the Athlon Top 40 (UM, UNC, Pitt, USC). Each of those four "peak" games is perfectly set up for the Irish, as the games immediately preceding each of them features an opponent ranked at or below #50 by Athlon (SDSU, Stanford, Washington, and Syracuse). Likewise, each of the four "peak" games is followed by either (a) a significantly easier game, (b) a "bye", or (c) the end of the season. This setup will hopefully lessen the possibility of Notre Dame getting caught in a "letdown" loss following one of the peaks. The toughest spot is the week 8-9-10 stretch. Pitt will surely be ready for the Irish coming off an emotional game against Ty Willingham's Huskies, and Boston College lurks after Pitt.
Comparing the sequencing of the 2008 Notre Dame football schedule to the horrible setup of the 2007 schedule has to give Irish fans some hope that 2008 will be a much better campaign. Combine the favorable schedule sequencing with a slate of opponents which the experts project to be much less imposing than the 2007 season could cause the faithful to get downright optimistic. My 2008 season preview post is yet to come, but I will give you a hint. Las Vegas has put the line on Notre Dame's win total at 7 games. IF I were a betting blogger, let's just say I'd be taking the over.
Note: I used the Athlon pre-season rankings in the chart above because it allows me to compare apples-to-apples with this season's pre-season predictions and also because it makes my point about schedule sequencing most dramatically. Of course, the teams we played didn't all play exactly to their pre-season rankings. Georgia Tech ended 2007 well below expectations, Michigan had an off year, and Michigan State surprised to the upside. Likewise, pre-season and post-season rankings don't necessarily correlate with where teams were ranked when we played them. Penn State was #14 in the AP Poll when we played them, and Boston College was flirting with #1 in the country. For the sake of completeness and to acknowledge the truism that there are three types of liars (liars, damn liars, and statistics), I am including another chart which shows the pre-season rankings of Notre Dame's 2007 opponents compared with the 2007 final Sagarin rankings for those same teams.