Blue and Gold Illustrated

June/July 2017

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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www.BLUEANDGOLD.com MAY 2017 43 IRISH ANALYTICS BRIAN FREMEAU Brian Fremeau of ESPN/Football Outsiders has been a statistical analyst at Blue & Gold Illustrated since January 2015. He can be reached at bcfremeau@gmail.com. T he Fighting Irish were a consistent national championship contender under head coach Lou Holtz, lay- ing claim to the title with an undefeated season in 1988 and ranking among the top 10 in the final Associated Press poll on four other occasions. It is an era of- ten referenced by Notre Dame fans as an elite standard to which the program should always aspire. The Holtz era has also been the elite standard against which subsequent Irish coaches are fre- quently measured. In the 11 seasons from 1986-96 un- der Holtz, Notre Dame went 100-30-2 for a .765 winning percentage. In addi- tion to the wins, the level of competi- tion faced by the Irish during that time was perennially among the toughest in the nation. How does the schedule strength compare with the competi- tion Irish teams and others face today? Schedule strength measures can vary wildly, in terms of both method and reliability. I'm particularly inter- ested in schedule strength measures that isolate on the obstacles faced by elite teams in pursuit of perfection. Teams that finish among the top five at season's end in the Massey Con- sensus (a composite ranking of more than 100 college football rating sys- tems) are defined here as "elite," and their collective results against other team types highlight how much of a factor schedule strength can play. These elite teams won 90.3 percent of their games against other Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in the last 10 seasons (2007-16). But the elite teams won only 68.2 percent of their games against "very good" or better teams (top 15 in the Massey Consen- sus) and 97.0 percent of their games against everyone else. A regression analysis of elite team results against other opponents allows us to assign an expected win likelihood for every potential matchup, and we can define schedule strength accord- ing to the average number of losses an elite team would be expected to have against that schedule. For example, the 1989 schedule faced by Notre Dame is remembered as one of the most dif- ficult in the program's history, and our analysis supports that assertion. The Irish faced six opponents in the regular season ranked at the time of the game, including four ranked in the top 10. According to my end-of-year rat- ings, Notre Dame faced six opponents in the regular season ranked among the top 18 teams in the nation. A typical elite team would have been expected to lose 2.27 times in the 12-game regular season schedule according to the ex- pected win percentage analysis. That ranked as the single toughest regular- season schedule in the nation that year. It was the lone year under Holtz in which the Irish regular-season sched- ule ranked as the toughest nationally, but others came close. Notre Dame's regular-season schedule ranked among the top five toughest in each of Holtz' first six seasons in South Bend, and among the top 10 nine times. On average in the 11 seasons from 1986-96, an elite team would have been expected to lose 1.84 times per year against Notre Dame's regular-season schedules — tougher than any faced by any other program in that span. We can fairly say that the Irish consistently played the nation's toughest sched- ule in an era in which they also con- sistently competed for national titles. That hasn't been the case since then. • From 1997-2001 under Bob Davie, the Irish played the nation's 22nd- toughest regular-season schedule. • From 2002-04 under Tyrone Will- ingham), they played the nation's No. 1 regular-season slate, although the 1.78 expected elite losses per year were not as high as Holtz's 1.84. • From 2005-09 (under Charlie Weis), they played the 32nd-toughest regular-season schedule. • Finally from 2010-16 under Brian Kelly, the Irish have played the na- tion's 23rd-toughest regular-season schedule. With few exceptions, they have been outside the national title conversation for most of that span. On average, an elite team would have been expected to lose 1.44 games per year in the seven regular sea- sons played since 2010. The schedule strength difference between the Kelly era and the Holtz era in terms of ex- pected elite losses is 0.4 games per year — basically the equivalent of one more very good, top-15 opponent per season. Remember also, though, that pres- ent day schedules usually have one more regular-season opponent than those of the Holtz era. Though the Irish played 12 games in the 1989 season, 11-game schedules were the norm then while 12-game regular- season schedules are the norm now. If Notre Dame's average schedule strength in the last seven seasons matched Holtz' 1.84 expected elite losses, the Irish would only rank sev- enth in the span, not first. Should Notre Dame aspire to play the nation's toughest schedule year in and year out? Though national cham- pionship contention and elite sched- uling went hand in hand during the Holtz era, that hasn't been the case in recent years. The national champions in the College Football Playoff era (2014 to present) have had an aver- age regular-season schedule strength ranked 42nd in the nation. Since 2010, the average regular-season schedule strength of eventual national champi- ons ranked only 47th nationally. On average, an elite team would have been expected to lose only 1.21 times per season playing the regular- season schedules of the last seven national champions. The Irish under Kelly aren't facing the most challeng- ing schedule, but it's still tougher than that faced by teams ultimately hoisting the trophy at year's end. Winning ev- ery game against a good-but-not-elite schedule needs to be the priority. ✦ In the 11 seasons from 1986-96 under Lou Holtz, the Irish went 100-30-2 while playing that era's toughest collective schedule. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME MEDIA RELATIONS Tough Times Not Always From Tough Schedules

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