Commentary

Knute Rockne Conference: Duke it out

Originally Published: August 5, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Meet college football's new Knute Rockne Conference.

Ironically, most of the schools in the conference missed the telegram about the former Notre Dame coach's revolutionizing the forward pass more than 80 years ago.

Only two teams in the Knute Rockne Conference -- Notre Dame and Penn State -- ranked among the top 50 passing offenses in college football in 2008. In fact, six of the conference's 10 teams ranked 90th or worse in throwing the football last season.

Unlike the Bear Bryant Conference, where speed and high-octane passing attacks rule the roost, the Knute Rockne Conference is won by the big uglies in the trenches. These teams have long relied on bruising rushing attacks and black-and-blue defenses to win football games.

The Knute Rockne Conference includes six former Big Ten teams along with two ex-ACC schools and a former Big East school. Notre Dame, a longtime independent, reluctantly joined the division after we agreed to let them play a nonconference game against either Army or Navy every season.

The Knute Rockne Conference is the Gordon Gekko Subdivision's most geographically diverse league. Nine states are represented in the conference, from Massachusetts to Iowa. At least Boston College reduces its travel costs playing its new schedule.

It is difficult to find more tradition, although you might need a history book to find much of it. The Knute Rockne Conference teams have combined to win at least a share of 13 national championships since 1950. Ohio State is a four-time national champion since 1950 and is one of only two schools from the conference to win a national title in the past 20 years.

The Buckeyes upset Miami 31-24 in double overtime in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl to win the 2002 BCS national championship, and Michigan finished No. 1 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll in 1997. (Nebraska was No. 1 in the final coaches' poll.)

We might have named this league the "Heisman Trophy Conference." Its 10 schools have produced 22 Heisman Trophy winners, including seven in the past 25 years. Notre Dame and Ohio State each have produced seven Heisman Trophy winners, tied with Southern California for most by any school.

Buckeyes running back Archie Griffin was the only two-time Heisman recipient, in 1974 and '75, and Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson became the first truly defensive player to win the coveted award in 1997. Boston College gave us quarterback Doug Flutie, the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, and Penn State gave us John Cappelletti, its most deserving winner in 1973.

[+] EnlargeKnute Rockne
AP PhotoKnute Rockne won an astounding 88 percent of his games at Notre Dame.

Knute Rockne Conference teams play in the country's three largest on-campus football stadiums: Penn State's Beaver Stadium (capacity 107,282), Michigan Stadium (106,201) and Ohio Stadium (102,329).

Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium is much smaller (66,233) but no less intimidating. Knute Rockne Conference opponents, be forewarned: You're required to play a Thursday night game in Blacksburg, Va., at least once.

Many of the Knute Rockne Conference's traditional rivalries remain in place. Notre Dame still plays Michigan -- and the Fighting Irish are required to play Boston College every year. No more ducking the Eagles.

Virginia Tech and West Virginia resume their fight for the Black Diamond Trophy, and Ohio State and Michigan play the "Game of the Century" every other year. Sorry, Wolverines, all records and results carry over to your new league. Michigan's unprecedented five-game losing streak to the Buckeyes remains intact.

Who said there wasn't an ounce of compassion in our veins? We won't make Rich Rodriguez return to Morgantown, W.Va., for another year. The Mountaineers travel to the Big House in 2009.

The Knute Rockne Conference might have been more aptly named for Gerry Faust. Four of the league's coaches are off to rough starts at their respective schools: Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, Michigan's Rodriguez, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and West Virginia's Bill Stewart.

One coach who is rarely in trouble is Penn State's Joe Paterno, who enters the 2009 season with 383 career victories, one more than Florida State's Bobby Bowden for most victories by a major college coach. Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer has won 177 games in 22 seasons at his alma mater, and Jim Tressel has a sparkling 83-19 record in eight seasons at Ohio State.

The Buckeyes might very well be the team to beat in the Knute Rockne Conference in 2009. With quarterback Terrelle Pryor coming back for his sophomore season, along with eight starters on defense, Ohio State is a tough out. So are Penn State and Virginia Tech.

Boston College, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Wisconsin might need to overachieve to avoid relegation to the lower Tom Joad Subdivision. The Fighting Irish aren't playing Stanford, Washington and Washington State anymore. So much for their bounce-back year.

The bad news for Ohio State? The brackets for the national semifinals already have been drawn. The Knute Rockne Conference winner meets the Bear Bryant Conference champion.

Florida might be waiting for you again.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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