Notre Dame's dramatic scheduling changes makes more sense than you think

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By BRIAN HARTNETT
College Contributor Network

By now, everyone who has tuned into SportsCenter in the last week knows that the Notre Dame-Michigan series is now on hiatus, with an indefinite return date.

However, probably few know that Notre Dame and Purdue, two teams that have played each other every season since 1946, will not play for six years after Saturday's game in Indianapolis. Or that Notre Dame and Michigan State, who have played each other 77 times, are not on each other's schedules for the first time since 1996. Or that no Big Ten teams will appear on Notre Dame's schedule next season, the first time since 1915 that that has happened.

Yes, it sure is odd to see Notre Dame, a program rooted solidly in the Midwest, steer away from competition in the Big Ten -- a conference many outsiders think would be a natural fit for the Irish. But it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Sure, many Notre Dame fans and former players will admit that they'll miss seeing Michigan on the schedule. While it was far from Notre Dame's longest-running series -- the two teams have only met 42 times since 1887 -- it featured fascinating backstories, bad blood and more thrilling games than can be listed in a column.

Likewise, much of the Irish faithful miss playing Michigan State, another program within road-trip distance that has played a role in many of Notre Dame's most famous games.

Heck, even a few die-hard Hoosiers will probably miss facing Purdue and battling for the Shillelagh Trophy annually.

Fan sentiment aside however, the shift away from Big Ten teams on Notre Dame's schedule provides the Irish with a chance to build a more national focus and gives them some prime open space with which to schedule some even tougher competition.

While Notre Dame is located in Indiana, it's had a national presence ever since Knute Rockne first took his squads to play some of the top programs in the nation during the late 1910s and early 1920s. Its students come from all throughout the United States, it has a national fan base and, historically, it has found rivals far and wide.

Just take a look at the list of the 10 opponents the Irish have played most frequently: it includes teams from Maryland, California, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia and Colorado. That doesn't even include other geographically diverse rivals, such as Miami, Stanford and Boston College.

The history of Notre Dame football has been written as much in Yankee Stadium, in the Los Angeles Coliseum and in the Orange Bowl as it has in Notre Dame Stadium, and that tradition should continue to be fostered in the years to come.

Some outsiders may look at Notre Dame's future schedules and conclude that the Irish have sold themselves to the ACC at the expense of future games with Big Ten opponents. It's not entirely false, as games against ACC opponents will comprise nearly half of Notre Dame's schedule beginning next year.

Notre Dame's brokered five-game per year agreement with the conference has its disadvantages -- outside of Florida State's national title last year, the ACC hasn't exactly made much of a dent in the college football landscape recently -- but it also allows the Irish access to some of the nation's most fertile recruiting grounds. Four of the 12 states that produced the most FBS football recruits between 2008 and 2013 -- Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia -- contain nine of the ACC's schools.

It provides Notre Dame with a group of academic and athletic peers, featuring top-rated schools like Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Boston College and Wake Forest, among others. And it gives Notre Dame a slew of opponents for late October and November games, dates which are traditionally difficult to fill due to eight- and nine-game conference schedules.

In addition to increased games against the ACC, Notre Dame will now be able to fill its early-season schedule with some of the most storied programs in the nation. Instead of penciling in Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue for September every season, the Irish can catch some top teams before they enter their respective conference schedules.

And they've done so already. Notre Dame will play a home-and-home series against Texas across the next two seasons and against Georgia over the 2017 and 2019 seasons. Last week, it even announced a two-game series with the Big Ten's crown jewel, Ohio State, in 2022 and 2023.

Irish Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick has said he is open to the idea of scheduling top teams, particularly those from the SEC, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see more series scheduled in the near future.

There's one final issue at play with regards to Notre Dame's scheduling, and it might be a particularly sensitive issue after the past weekend.

I don't ever like to kick a person (or league) when they're already down, but I would be doing a disservice if I didn't mention that the Big Ten has been pretty dreadful recently. The league hasn't had a team in the national championship game since 2008 and hasn't won a national title since 2003 -- Ohio State was the representative in both cases.

The Big Ten went 13-15 in 28 BCS bowl games between 1998 and this past January -- Ohio State had six of those wins. Its struggles against other power conference teams in non-conference games drew more evidence last weekend -- witness Michigan's loss to Notre Dame, Michigan State's defeat at Oregon and Ohio State's loss to Virginia Tech. It's a conference put at a disadvantage due to its geography, especially when compared to the SEC and Pac-12.

Much has been made of the recent changes in the college football landscape. One unfortunate consequence is the loss of rivalries such as the ones between Notre Dame and the three Big Ten teams listed above. And from a tradition standpoint, the loss of these games certainly hurts.

But from a scheduling standpoint, the loss of these games hurts nowhere near as much as one might expect.


Brian Hartnett is a senior at the University of Notre Dame with a major in Marketing and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Originally from central New Jersey, he's also a fan of the Yankees, Nets and New York Giants. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianGHartnett
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