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The Role of 7-4-1 in the Fight For Independence

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In the wake of all the realignment talk last week we had some great discussion on here about the future of Notre Dame Football.

The course of that discussion quickly made its way to addressing the current 7-4-1 scheduling model. There were some interesting opinions on how 7-4-1 might factor into the equation as Notre Dame navigates its way through inevitable conference realignment. So I gave it some more thought over the weekend and came away me with one primary conclusion.

The one thing that Notre Dame can do to best position itself to remain independent is to embrace that independence and do whatever it takes to schedule more quality opponents. If that fits into the construct of 7-4-1 then we can consider it a bonus. Everybody wins. But if it does not then 7-4-1 needs to turn into 6-5-1, 6-6 or whatever is required to get another 1 to 2 marquee matchups on the schedule every year.

Before I dive in to the details here is a quick review of what we covered last week for those that missed it. The powers that be at Notre Dame have presented a clear and consistent message that remaining independent is the priority.

A couple of days later I expressed some concern about the potential impact that the future of USC could have on Notre Dame. In that discussion we started talking about the 7-4-1 scheduling format. But as we continue to drill down the real heart of the issue is not necessarily 7-4-1 itself. It is ensuring that you play a quality schedule. The only reason a weakened USC is cause for anything other than celebration is the fact that with Michigan flailing the 2010 schedule lacks any other marquee matchups. That could create additional difficulty climbing the polls in a year where Notre Dame will start outside the Top 25.

So what are we really talking about here? To put it plainly the one true goal is to get Notre Dame Football back in the hunt for a National title. Brian Kelly is responsible for winning games. The university is responsible for ensuring that he gets to play for a National Title if he wins all of them. In the unlikely event that he pulled that off in his first year I am not convinced he would get that opportunity.

Is that possible? In the immediate future think it might be. There are many factors playing into that assertion. First and foremost is the thing that I think is most wrong with the current system. Preseason polls. Preseason poll are a nasty cocktail comprised of results from the previous season, perceived strength of the program/ head coach, returning starters at marquee positions and seemingly random bandwagoning instigated by assorted talking heads. Put Oklahoma in the Top 5, Bradford doesn’t need an offensive line. Ole Miss and Okie State are going to be National Title contenders! Have either of them ever given any indication they can even win the respective division in their conference? Is Houston Nutt still the coach at Ole Miss?

It doesn’t matter. Like politics the perception of who you are, or who you are going to be is more important than reality in those polls. If that preseason perception starts you outside the Top 25 not only do you have to win but a lot of programs ahead of you have to lose. The margin for error is not only substantially reduced but your chances of finishing in the top 2 in the BCS may be nonexistent. A playoff could help fix that but in the interim there is an easy solution. Play a quality schedule. A quality schedule is homeowner’s insurance. You may not ever need it but if you roll the dice you are going to hate life the day that you paddle away from your house on a pool float with a six pack, your dog and a box of Slim Jims all piled up in your lap. So why risk it?

Don’t plenty of other major programs play 7-4-1 or 8-4 with a September slate consisting of glorified scrimmages against local high school squads and a team from the county jail? Sure, but they also probably have their own insurance in the form of decent preseason ranking, the perception of a competitive conference schedule and in many cases a potential kick save in the form of a conference title game. Pretty soon every team in the four super conferences will have the latter two at a minimum.

I am absolutely in favor an independent Notre Dame Football program. In order to maintain that independence I think you have to embrace it. Go out and find a way to get a few more compelling matchups on the schedule. If that means you have to go to 6-5-1 so be it. Jack Swarbrick has indicated he is thinking along these same lines which I find highly encouraging. The Oklahoma series in 2012 and 2013 is perfect, and if the rumored series against Miami in 2012, 2014 and 2016 comes to fruition I will really believe it. Add one more similar deal to the 2011 and 2013 schedules and the Irish are back in the fight.

I realize this is a slippery slope. The other side of the coin is that you don’t want to play a schedule that is so difficult you can’t possibly survive it unscathed. A good mix would be 4 marquee matchups, 4 mid level games and 4 cake walks. All tactically arranged of course. With that mix if you catch 1 or 2 of the marquee matchups in a down year you are still in good shape.

We can all dream up doomsday scenarios that eliminate remaining independent as a possibility. I personally see the biggest X factors as the carcass of the Big East becoming unwilling or unable to accept the other ND athletic programs and a post realignment BCS scenario tailored towards the champions of the super conferences. Those are external factors that cannot be controlled. But in the fight for independence the schedule can and should be fixed.

This is an exciting time for all Notre Dame fans. Things have been rough for the last few years. Some talking heads are already dismissing any chance of a Notre Dame return to prominence. Other detractors insist that Notre Dame must join a conference to survive. The conditions are ripe for the counterattack. It is too late to play it safe. I would rather line them up and let the chips fall where they may. When backed into a corner shouldn’t the Fighting Irish come out swinging?

I am looking forward to your comments.

**A quick side note for the regulars. As part of our new digs here at FanTake we have a Forum that we have yet to utilize. The link is right underneath the header. I am sure that the few hundred of you that stop by here regularly are already members of various ND Forums and Message Boards but if you ever have a topic you want to discuss hit the forum and start a thread. The best thing about this forum is that it can become whatever you make it. I like to think of OFD as the place I go to have my never ending discussion about Notre Dame Football and college football in general. It can be yours too. Thanks for stopping by.