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Struggles of the Irish

LSU's 41-14 drubbing of Notre Dame makes the 9th straight bowl game dropped by the Irish, creating a little media frenzy. As a fan, I'm enjoying ND's hardships. As a sports economist and analyst, I'm left wondering what's going on. My first question is whether the streak is genuine evidence of a down program or just a run of bad luck where a number of games could have gone either way. Here's the streak (from College Football Data Warehouse):

Season-Coach-Bowl-Opponent - Score
2006 Wies Sugar LSU 14-41
2005 Wies Fiesta Ohio St
. 20-34
2004 Willingham Insight Oregon St
. 21-38
2002 Willingham Gator NC State 6-28
2000 Davie Fiesta Oregon St
. 9-41
1998 Davie Gator Georgie Tech 28-35
1997 Davie Independence LSU 9-27
1995 Holtz Orange Florida St
. 26-31
1994 Holtz Orange Colorado 24-41

These results, at least on the surface, suggest ND has not merely fallen victim to a string of bad luck. The median point differential is -17 -- not exactly nail biters. The only game where they lost by less than a touchdown was the 1995 Orange Bowl.

Last night on ESPN, ex-Ohio State runnning back turned analyst, Robert Smith, was asked what his explanation was. He said, "Notre has been overmatched." That's pretty much self-evident when viewing the results above. He went on, however, to add that Notre Dame's ability to bring in viewers and fans lures bowls into consistently placing them against better opponents than they really have the ability to play.

The next question is how did ND get in this position. From 1987-1993, they won 5 of 7 bowl games and only got drubbed once. Yahoo!'s Dan Wetzel offers the most immediate answer:

Once you ignore the preseason magazines and the NBC hype and just watch them get thoroughly outclassed up and down the field, that fact becomes obvious. Forget what the vaunted Notre Dame public relations machine says. The Irish don't have enough good players to hang with anyone that does.

Wetzel goes on to offer evidence based on the paucity of NFL-caliber players coming out of ND in recent years. I think that Wetzel is right on the Mark. A good coach, like Weis, can do a lot for an offense with a good QB and decent receivers, but defense is another story. In games against Michigan, Michigan State, USC, and LSU, Notre Dame gave up 47, 37, 44, and 41. LSU's players dominated the second half with their speed and size.

Why a lack of players? Some ND supporters would offer the academics response. However, ND was a top flight undergraduate school and still attracted top flight players before 1995. A September 30, 1995 summary of NFL "Wunderlic" scores by college in the Wall Street Journal placed ND only at 11th, below the likes of Oregon State and Nebraska -- so much for the academics answer.

An alternative answer might be ND's strategy of staying independent. By the early to mid 1990s, every major independent football chose to hook up with a conference. Even powerhouses like Florida State and Penn State opted for that strategy. ND joined up in other sports but viewed its football program as so special as not to need conference support. After all, ND signed its own network football contract. As big as that seemed at the time, even to me, it now seems much less important. Oh, it brought in big bucks, but the television landscape for college football has been much different in the 1990s and 2000s than before. The recruiting advantage of ND's NBC deal is nothing like it would have been in the 1970s. Programs like Michigan, Texas, USC, or others may not have exclusive deals with a network, but their games, at least the ones that matter, are almost on all TV.