If you are a college football fan, you probably think that your favorite team constantly has the odds stacked against them. It’s your team vs. everyone else: rivals, the NCAA, geography, even the weather. College football fans can spot any statistic that allows their team to be framed as the disrespected or disadvantaged underdog. One of the most frequently cited grievances centers around bye weeks—specifically, how many opponents get an extra week of rest before taking on their team.
In 2019, seven of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents play the Fighting Irish right after their bye week: New Mexico, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech, Duke, Navy and Boston College. This detail has not gone unnoticed by Notre Dame fans and bloggers who have noted that seven such games seems like an abnormally high number. And compared to previous seasons and other top teams, seven actually is a lot. Notre Dame fans might have a legitimate reason to be mad, but where exactly should their anger be aimed?
Notre Dame fans are hardly the first to take note of the number of teams they face coming off of bye weeks. In 2010, Alabama fans vented about the Crimson Tide’s schedule, in which six conference opponents had a week off before playing the Tide. (The Tide went 10–3 that year, with all three losses to teams coming off byes.) As a result, the SEC passed a rule the following season that would keep teams from having to play more than three league opponents coming off of a bye in a single season. Other conferences have similar policies, either official or unofficial. This year, Georgia’s schedule includes five games against SEC teams coming off open dates—Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Missouri and Auburn—but Georgia’s own bye weeks fall before the Florida and Tennessee games, so those matchups don’t count toward the SEC limit, even though they could arguably make Georgia’s own off dates less of an advantage.
As an independent, Notre Dame has no conference policy to protect itself, which could expose it to an unusual number of opponents after off dates. But through its contract with the league, Notre Dame plays five games against a rotation of ACC opponents each season, plus traditional annual rivalry games against Stanford, USC and Navy. While Notre Dame may not be at the complete mercy of a conference schedule, there are only a handful of games they need to arrange each year.
BYU and Army, both recently successful independents, only play one opponent coming off of a bye week in 2019, so not everyone without a conference affiliation gets burned by byes. While neither of these teams have reached the heights Notre Dame has in the last decade, keep in mind that parts of the schedule are locked in years in advance before you assume everyone’s intentionally resting up to take on a 2018 College Football Playoff team.
Part of this year’s odd schedule can be blamed on the calendar itself. In 2019 each team has two bye weeks instead of one because there are 14 Saturdays between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, instead of the usual 13. With more open dates spread out throughout each team’s schedule, it seems plausible that there would be a higher instance of teams seeing more opponents coming out of a bye week than in previous years. And these things are cyclical: In 2018, no Notre Dame opponent had a weekend off before playing the Irish.
With 130 FBS teams, 10 conferences, six independents and a smattering of FCS opponents to take into account, putting together the schedule of a college football season is a massive undertaking. School and conference schedule czars have to consider a multitude of variables, such as holidays, academic calendars and television contracts, before locking in games. Everyone has to deal with their own scheduling quirks. For example, while most teams play nonconference games early in the season, Navy plays two nonconference games late in the season: Notre Dame and Army. The Army-Navy game in particular poses some challenges because it is played the week after the end of the regular season, typically the day of the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Spacing out all three of Navy’s bye weeks within the Midshipmen’s AAC obligations is challenging, which might account for their open date the weekend before they travel to South Bend.
Your opinion on Notre Dame fans’ outrage depends on whether you believe that playing against a team after their bye week is actually a disadvantage in the first place. Over the years, various college football fans and writers have tried to study the effects of bye weeks. Most claim that there is a disadvantage to playing a team after their bye week, but it isn’t much.
Still, under Brian Kelly, Notre Dame is 10–1 coming off of its own bye week and 6–5 against opponents coming off of their byes. While the Irish may have a legitimate gripe over the amount of teams they are playing coming off of a bye week, there are so many moving parts in the college football scheduling world that it’s difficult to call their well-rested 2019 slate anything other than an anomaly.