Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Case for Hope (Part 3)

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 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.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Budweiser Now Sponsoring Notre Dame?

It's Friday, so things can get a little chippy here at OC Domer. But I was looking at the Notre Dame webcam today:

And the first thing that popped into my head was how much the scaffolding and draping around Sacred Heart Basilica makes it look like this:

The next thought I had (besides how thirsty I was) was that it's a good thing Kevin White is now Duke's problem, because he surely would have recognized this golden opportunity to develop a new revenue stream by hanging a giant Budweiser label from the top of the steeple!

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned ...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Got Gear?

Football season is screaming up on us, and I still have to write part 3 of my series on the 2008 Notre Dame football schedule, "The Case for Hope," as well as my 2008 season preview & predictions post. Like Irish fans everywhere, I also need to replenish my supply of Notre Dame T-shirts and other assorted fan gear (I think the "ND" flag hanging in front of my house needs to be replaced with a fresh one this season).

A couple of seasons ago we had a young fan in the OC Domer household who wanted a kid-sized Brady Quinn #10 jersey for Christmas. I had to look around for quite a while and was getting a little panicky trying to find an affordable jersey in my son's size that we could get shipped in time for the big day. I finally found exactly what we needed at Football Fanatics offers fan gear for more than 350 different college teams, as well as for every professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey team. This link takes you to the main Notre Dame page, but you can jump from there to any team you cheer for.

Because I have used them myself and because I am impressed by their selection of over 1,000 Notre Dame products, OC Domer now features a link to the Football Fanatics Notre Dame store in our sidebar. If you're gearing up for the 2008 season, I encourage you to check them out and take advantage of their great $4.99 standard shipping rate for any size order.

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.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Notre Dame Welcomes New Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick

I think I can say with confidence that NOBODY won the "Pick the New AD" office pool. Defying convention as well as all the prognosticators, the University today announced that it has hired Indianapolis attorney Jack Swarbrick (ND '76) as its new Director of Athletics.

The full University press release can be found here.

I don't have a lot to add to what is swirling around the blogosphere about Mr. Swarbrick. After Kevin White departed for Duke and Missy Conboy was named interim AD, I wrote the following about her:

It's clear that she's a Domer through-and-through. A true Domer with a law degree, hustle, drive, and plenty of experience. That sounds like a pretty good fit to me.
That description pretty well sums up what I was hoping Notre Dame would get out of its search for a new athletic director, and I think my hopes have been realized. Swarbrick is a Notre Dame alumnus, and former student athlete, who went to school during one of the high-water marks of Notre Dame's football fortunes. He is a Domer through and through. He too has a law degree (from a very highly regarded law school). His resume' clearly marks him as a man with hustle, drive and experience, although his experience is not the most conventional for a high-profile AD job.

But that's okay. Our last AD was a re-tread hire from another college program. While hiring a "proven" AD has some advantages, it also carries some downside. An experienced AD walks in the door with a definite notion of how things should be done, for better or for worse. With KW, it was often worse as the Notre Dame Nation had to maintain eternal vigilance to ensure that they didn't wake up in the morning to learn that Notre Dame Stadium had been re-named the "Adidas Athletics Notre Dame Stadium Presented by Halls Fruit Breezers." The thing that is clear in looking at Swarbrick's record is that he is a Big Picture guy. He does not appear to be constrained by conventional thinking or the notion that "we've always done it this way." As long as such innovative thinking doesn't manifest itself in a disregard for the traditions that make Notre Dame great, I think we'll be in very good shape.

Congratulations to Fr. Jenkins and the rest of the University family on a great hire.

And a hearty welcome to new Irish AD Jack Swarbrick from the OC Domer!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

If you're not getting better ...

... you're getting worse. At least that's what they say. In trying to make productive use of the July lull, I have been tweaking my template. That's not as dirty as it sounds. I started OC Domer with a standard template and it has worked very well for the most part. Fairly early on I figured out how to modify the code to make the color scheme at OC Domer look more Domer-ish, and I was pretty happy with myself for not crashing the site while doing so.

One thing that has bugged me for a long time about the standard template was the default width of the two available columns. The sidebar width was fine, but the main column was just way too narrow. The result was that for blog posts of any length, readers risked serious neck injuries whipping their heads back and forth over the short lines while they scrolled endlessly down the page looking for the end of the article. The narrow columns also limited the size of pictures that could be included in posts, and really played havoc when trying to insert a chart or a diagram. So for a while I have half-heartedly been wishing the folks at Blogger would fix my problem for me and save me having to monkey with my template. It's a good thing I wasn't holding my breath.

Anyway, I finally bit the bullet and did some research and found some articles that convinced me my problem was readily fixable. After some trial and error, I think I have fixed my narrow-column problem and I'm pretty pleased with myself. A couple of notes on the new layout. First, in order to change the width of the main column (and the header), I had to ditch the very appealing rounded corners that used to be featured around each "box" on the page. The rounded corners were actually images, each featuring a pair of corners (left and right), with a fixed image length. Once I changed column width, the rounded corners no longer fit. So they had to go. This is mildly amusing since the template I use is now a modified version of Blogger's "rounders" template, with all the actual roundness removed.

The next side-effect of the change is that the news headline widget at the top of the main column is now wider and therefore readers can see more of the Notre Dame headlines as they scroll. Before, headlines were cut off way too short.

I hear you saying to yourself: "Okay OC, wider columns. Very nice. Pour yourself a cold one to celebrate. But why pester us with a long, boring post about columns that are 695 pixels wide instead of 485 pixels wide?" Fair question. I'm glad you asked. I need some feedback from you to make sure I haven't screwed the whole thing up from your end. I tested the new layout on my Firefox browser, and on Internet Explorer. But I don't know if my monitor settings, etc... are typical or not for other computer users.

So, I would very much appreciate it if you could drop me a comment on the new look, especially if it doesn't work for you or is causing you problems. (How great is that? "Please write a comment if you can't read this post"). Of course, if you really like the new layout, I'd love to hear that too. But otherwise I'll assume that no news is good news.

My next blog-tweak will probably be some spiffing-up of the top banner with a cool picture, so I can keep up with the likes of Subway Domer and Domer Sports Report. But I'm not making any promises.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Case for Hope (Part 1)

I know that just a few days ago I was whining about how boring the Summer is for college football bloggers ("Summer" being defined as the period between the end of Spring football and the beginning of Fall practice). That's still true. But this being a three day Holiday weekend dedicated to honoring those brave souls who choose to forge their own destinies without the safety net of an empire or a conference (Happy Independents' Day!), I had a little time on my hands to start looking forward to the 2008 college football season, and especially the prospects for the 2008 Fighting Irish. I decided to start with the 2008 schedule. In my view, the schedule in 2008 should be a significant source of optimism and hope for Irish fans this year. There's a lot to write about the schedule, so this short post will just be the first of at least two pre-season looks at the schedule with the OC Domer wide-angle lens. What I mean is that these posts will be some rough-cut, big picture thoughts about our 2008 opponents, without getting into a lot of detail about match-ups or in-depth opponent previews. Those will come as we get closer to kick-off.

The most basic information provided by the schedule is (a) who we play, and (b) when we play them. Today's post looks at who we play.

The 2008 schedule includes twelve opponents. Seven teams are squads the Irish played last year, five teams were not on the 2007 schedule. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the Irish? I think it is a very, very good thing. A quick comparison of the five 2007 opponents we dropped versus the five new opponents in 2008 reveals that the schedule changes are very favorable to Irish fortunes. For purposes of this quick-and-dirty review, I'm basing all comparisons on the final Jeff Sagarin rankings for the 2007 college football season, and I'm using Sagarin's "predictor" ranking (last column on his charts) because they factor in margin of victory and are therefore more accurate (if less politically correct).

The teams we played in 2007 but won't play in 2008 are: Georgia Tech (L 33-3), Penn State (L 31-10), UCLA (W 20-6), Air Force (L 41-24), and Duke (W 28-7).

The teams we pick up 2008 are: San Diego State, North Carolina, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse.

If each of these groups of five teams are listed from best to worst using the latest Sagarin ratings, and the two lists are compared side-by-side, you get this:

  1. Drop: Penn State (25), Gain: Washington (44)
  2. Drop: UCLA (27), Gain: Pittsburgh (61)
  3. Drop: USAFA (51), Gain: North Carolina (65)
  4. Drop: G-Tech (57), Gain: SDSU (89)
  5. Drop: Duke (105), Gain: Syracuse (125)
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.

Now I will admit there is a part of me, as a very proud Irish fan, that is mildly ashamed to be analyzing how much easier our 2008 schedule is than our 2007 schedule. Tradition dictates that Notre Dame should be playing one of the toughest schedules in the country every year, taking on all comers. So the fact that I even researched how Duke stacks up against Syracuse as an opponent pains me a bit. But Notre Dame lost nine games last year, and those nine losses were not even close (except for Navy). The average margin of defeat in those nine games was 21 points. Desperate times calling for desperate measures, I do care that Syracuse ended 2007 ranked #125 to Duke's #105.

But the bigger news is at the top of the lists. Instead of playing a 25th ranked Penn State team that beat the Irish by 21 points last season, Notre Dame plays the Washington Huskies, ranked #44. That's a nice trade, and one that you have to feel gives the Irish a chance to pick up a win based on scheduling alone.

Likewise, the Irish drop the 27th ranked UCLA Bruins and instead pick up the 61st ranked Pittsburgh Panthers. Yes, Notre Dame beat the Bruins last year, but UCLA had some significant injury problems (especially at QB) that greatly aided the Irish cause. You have to believe that playing Pitt provides a better chance of victory than would playing UCLA again.

Losing USAFA and picking up UNC is basically a wash, except that Air Force's option offense has long given the Irish defense fits. And playing San Diego State is a huge "upgrade" over playing Georgia Tech.

Notre Dame was 2 wins and 3 losses against the five listed 2007 opponents. It would be bitterly disappointing if an Irish squad that is even moderately better in 2008 doesn't go 5-0 against the five new teams on the schedule.