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April 23, 2010

Mailbag: Is Notre Dame afraid of the Big Ten?

Based on geography and academic standards, the Big Ten and Notre Dame might seem like a perfect marriage when it comes to expansion.

Instead, the relationship between the two always has seemed more like a tryst between a bedazzled courter and flirtatious tease with no intention of making a commitment.

Sure, Notre Dame will play around with the Big Ten; the Irish have played at least three Big Ten opponents in each of the past eight seasons. Yet, despite an invitation in the '90s and one that could come soon now that Big Ten expansion again is a hot topic, Notre Dame has always hesitated to move in.


There are several reasons. As a private school, Notre Dame's administration may be hesitant to be officially aligned with institutions that may not share its core values. In addition, the question of whether Notre Dame would make more money in a conference or as an independent is always an issue.

But could there be more? Could it be the Notre Dame administration is fearful the Irish would not be a strong competitor in the Big Ten race?

That question is addressed in this week's mailbag.

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Afraid of the Big Ten?

If you take three cycles of recruiting classes [the past 12 seasons], Notre Dame is 18-19 in its games against Big Ten schools. Do you believe that the administration in South Bend may be afraid that record may stay the same or even get worse if they joined the conference? Are they afraid of being a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten?
Phillip in Placentia, Cal.

Do you really think a team that plays USC every season is scared of facing the likes of Indiana, Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota? I'd maintain that Notre Dame's chances for a bowl appearance actually would be enhanced by joining the Big Ten.

While it's true Notre Dame is 18-19 in 37 games against Big Ten teams in that span you referenced, 34 of those games were against Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue -- teams that the Irish play almost every year. If Notre Dame is frightened by the Big Ten, why continue scheduling Big Ten teams?

In the span you mentioned, Notre Dame has faced 24 non-Big Ten opponents that ended the season ranked in the AP Top 25. In '04, the Irish faced five (No. 1 USC, No. 13 Tennessee, No. 21 Boston College, No. 24 Navy and No. 25 Pittsburgh). They faced four in '02 (No. 4 USC, No. 13 Maryland, No. 19 Pittsburgh and No. 21 Florida State) and three in '01 (No. 4 Tennessee, No. 8 Nebraska and No. 21 Boston College).

Last season, the Irish played No. 15 Pittsburgh and No. 22 USC, as well as three teams -- Navy, Connecticut and Stanford -- that received votes in the final poll. In addition, Notre Dame played seven FBS teams that posted at least eight wins last season; Minnesota was the only Big Ten to play that many.

Notre Dame did not face an FCS opponent (nine Big Ten teams did) nor a MAC opponent (eight Big Ten teams did).

Considering Notre Dame already plays Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, a valid argument could be made that any schedule within the Big Ten wouldn't be much more difficult, if more difficult at all.

I believe Notre Dame's decision to remain independent has been about values and finances. If membership in the Big Ten is proven to be significantly more profitable, the bet here is Notre Dame's administration seriously re-thinks its independent status.

Erickson getting warm?

Do you believe Dennis Erickson is underachieving at Arizona State? He was a success at Miami and coach during part of the Hurricanes' dominant run. But is time with the Sun Devils has not been a sweet ride. Do you think he will get fired this year or next if they do not perform?
Cal in Shreveport, La.

I think Erickson overachieved when the Sun Devils went 10-3 in 2007, his first year in Tempe. That raised expectations that probably were unrealistic.

Arizona State had managed no more than sevens wins in three of the four seasons before Erickson's arrival, and the recruiting had been mediocre. Perhaps the struggles of the past two seasons (just nine wins) should have been expected.

The Sun Devils' defense is exceptional, but the offense has been problematic, particularly offensive line and quarterback play. The line may get a quick fix from junior college transfers and quarterback may be upgraded with Steven Threet eligible after sitting out a year following a transfer from Michigan.

In addition, sophomore running back Cameron Marshall has breakaway ability and junior college transfer George Bell could make an immediate impact at receiver. Erickson also hired Noel Mazzone as offensive coordinator.

All the changes provide hope for an improved offense. If the offense is better, the Sun Devils will be better.

They'd better be. It's always hot in the desert. Another losing season would raise the heat on Erickson. Arizona State hasn't endured three consecutive losing seasons since before World War II.

All about depth

I think Chris Petersen has done a fine job at Boise State, and I don't understand why a school from a BCS-qualifying conference hasn't snapped him up. But do you really think Boise State deserves a preseason ranking in the top 10? I mean, I watched all the televised spring football games in the SEC this year and I think I saw at least six teams that would destroy the Broncos. I think Boise State has a starting 22 that would play well in any conference, but they don't have the depth to compete in a major conference week in and week out.
Matt in Troy, Ala.

What six SEC teams without question would destroy Boise State?

You'd get no argument here that the SEC is the strongest conference in college football, but the difference isn't as dramatic as a lot of folks down South want to believe. Seriously, just in the past three seasons, the list of teams from non-"Big Six" conferences to defeat SEC teams includes Utah and Louisiana-Monroe (Alabama), Wyoming (Tennessee), Army (Vanderbilt) and Houston and Louisiana Tech (Mississippi State).

Could Boise State win the SEC? That's doubtful. Could Boise State beat any team in the SEC? Yes.

Maybe Boise State doesn't have the talent to win week in and week out in the SEC, but does Georgia Tech or Cincinnati? Probably not. Yet it doesn't seem to be an issue when those teams -- are many others from the ACC or Big East -- are ranked in the top 10.

In fact, an undefeated team from the ACC or Big East could play for the national championship. Yet undefeated teams from non-Big Six conferences really don't have a chance. Just ask Utah, which twice has finished unbeaten without getting a chance to play for the national title.

A team that returns most of its starters, including its highly productive quarterback, from an undefeated season that included a victory over the Pac-10 champion and in a bowl game over an opponent that was previously undefeated deserves to enter the next season in the top 10. It's up to Boise State to prove it can stay there. The Broncos will make a good case if they defeat Virginia Tech in the season-opener on Sept. 6.

Different picture

Thanks for the shallow and overly simplified view of LSU football. (How much time does a title buy?, April 16). Your thoughts on LSU being a historically mediocre program, while statistically correct, doesn't portray an accurate picture of where LSU is today or why. LSU's lack of sustained national prominence pre-1970 can be explained in one hyphenated word -- pre-integration. Since then, LSU has only itself to blame for not doing a better job of keeping talent at home.
Charles in Baton Rouge, La.

The question I was responding to in that story was whether LSU coach Les Miles is underachieving. My take was that compared to his predecessor, Nick Saban, the answer may be yes. But compared to other coaches in LSU's history, he isn't.

Therefore, I raised the question that perhaps Saban overachieved more than Miles has underachieved. In five years, Miles has won as many national championships (one) as LSU had managed in a century of football before Saban's arrival in 2000.

And please don't use segregation as an excuse for LSU's failure to maintain national prominence before 1970. Southern schools Alabama, Texas, Ole Miss and Arkansas, among others, were successful in that pre-integration era.

Besides, LSU was playing other programs that didn't have black players. In other words, LSU was on an even field and still wasn't dominant.

And since you brought it up, let's look at how LSU fared from 1970 (post-integration) until Saban's arrival. LSU's record in those 30 seasons was 198-139-9 (58.3 winning percentage). In five years under Miles, LSU is 51-15 (77.3 winning percentage) and has a national championship.

It's true that LSU should be dominant if it can keep the top in-state players at home. But the same can be said for, among others, Ohio State, Texas, Ole Miss, Florida, Alabama, USC and even Rutgers.

Keeping star in-state players at home is a big part of a coach's job. Apparently, before Saban, LSU wasn't always that successful.

Let's take the top 10 in-state players in each of the past three recruiting classes; Miles and LSU have signed 20 of the 30. That's not bad by any means.

And there's no guarantee that any other coach would have more success at LSU than Miles.

Well, maybe Saban -- but he isn't leaving Alabama.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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