Notre Dame has it easy. The Irish have no problem filling up a full 12 game independent schedule - BCS, non-BCS, home, away, September, October, or November. It's a great schedule too. They play against powerhouses left and right, mixed with rich traditional rivalries and fun road trips.

How can they pull it off every year? Because they're "Notre Dame," right?

Right. But what exactly does that mean?

No one ever bothers to define exactly what it means to be Notre Dame. In fact, most of the time its used in a context of negation: "BYU is definitely NOT Notre Dame!" Well, what IS "Notre Dame" then?

As some research points out, being Notre Dame might not mean exactly what you think it does from a scheduling standpoint.

There are some important strategies and discussions going on right now in the BYU athletic department about how to create a good independent schedule. Two teams have already paved the way - Notre Dame and Navy. When examining how their schedules take shape, and looking at it from a BYU perspective, even some skeptics have to admit its feasible, and the Cougars are actually well on their way to pulling it off already.

First, a quiz:

How many different regular season opponents has Notre Dame faced since 2000?

Take a moment.

Ready for the answer?

The answer is 32.

Part 2 of the quiz:

How many different regular season opponents has BYU faced in the same time span?

The answer is... 31. That's correct. Notre Dame, the mighty independent that has 100 teams beating down its door to try and schedule it has played virtually the same number of different opponents that little old BYU from the MWC has.

Are you surprised? Don't be. BYU and Notre Dame have had one important thing in common in the last 11 years: They have both played a full slate of conference games every year.

It's true. Notre Dame is an independent with no formal conference affiliation, but don't let that fool you. Its "conference" schedule is every bit as real and regular as BYU's. Consider the following:

This list shows some regular Notre Dame opponents, and how many times the Irish have played them in the last 11 years.

Michigan St., 11
Navy, 11
Purdue, 11
Stanford, 11
USC, 11
Boston College, 9
Michigan, 9
Pitt, 8
Air Force, 6

When you consider that there are five different teams that Notre Dame plays literally every season, and a mish-mash of others that are there anywhere from half of the time to 90 percent of the time, you end up with a consistent run of conference-like opponents every year.

So, back to our first question, what does it mean to be "Notre Dame" from a scheduling standpoint? The Irish have one advantage. They get to handpick their own "conference." But, don't be deceived, Notre Dame is not going out every season with nine games to fill. They're trying to fill four slots or fewer, just like everybody else.

For comparison's sake, here's a look at some of Navy's opponents from 2000-2010:

Air Force, 11
Army, 11
Notre Dame, 11
I-AA, 9
Rutgers, 8
Duke, 7
Temple, 7
Rice, 6
Tulane, 6
Wake Forest, 6

Again, there is a set group of teams that Navy is slated to play virtually every season. The biggest difference is that the rotation ratio on the Midshipmen's schedule is flipped. In other words, there are half a dozen teams or so that they play part of the time, and three or four that they play every season, whereas Notre Dame is the opposite.

The other point worth noticing when looking at these lists, is that both of these schools fill their "conference" schedules with natural opponents. Notre Dame fills its slots with games in the Big 10 footprint, the service academies, and its traditional private school rivals on the west coast. Navy loads itself up with MAC/C-USA opponents and some smaller coastal schools, along with its service academy partners and Notre Dame. These regular schedules perfectly fit each school's geography, culture, and history.

We've all heard the bubbling comments from Bronco and Holmoe about how exciting scheduling is going to be in the future. BYU still wants a "conference" schedule. The difference is, it will be one of BYU's own choosing. And, like Notre Dame and Navy, it has a chance to mold a regular lineup that is a perfect geographic, cultural, and historical fit.

The groundwork is already being laid. From here into the forseeable future BYU's yearly schedule will include Utah, Utah State, and Hawaii, three schools with rich ties in those three categories. And, six games are already on the books with our closest cultural ally, Notre Dame itself (side note: Notre Dame also realizes how important it is to forge these cultural scheduling ties. Remember how excited Jack Swarbrick sounded when BYU dropped the independence bomb?).

So, the way to scheduling success is clear, even if there's quite a bit of work to be done. Holmoe and Bronco have mentioned that 2013 is when the schedule will start to shape up. "Start" is the key word. While the quality should get better every year, it will probably take closer to five seasons before BYU has things solidly worked out, and can rely on a totally consistent "conference" schedule every season.

With that in mind, there are still two big questions. First, who will those other 4-6 regular opponents be? And, what about those October and November games.

BYU is going to work hard to try and get at least one service academy team on the schedule every year. That will take some time to work out, but it's completely feasible. There are also a few schools with close geographic and historical ties, that happen to be in areas with lots of LDS members.

Remember, Notre Dame - a de facto midwest BCS team - plays a Big 10-like conference schedule. Navy - a regularly bowl-eligible coastal school - plays traditional rivals and other coastal schools of similar stature. BYU - a regular Top 20 rocky mountain school will play... I'm sure we can all guess a few names.

So what about those last six weeks of the season?

BYU's strategy is to use two points of leverage to help fill in the October-November schedule gaps. First, Holmoe can make very attractive offers to other conferences for collaborative scheduling agreements. The Cougars can offer home-and-home deals to schools that would love to host BYU, and would equally love to take advantage of the second point of levarage - great TV coverage.

Wisconsin and Nebraska want to play the Cougars, but they aren't likely to interrupt November Big 10 play just for a chance to face BYU on ESPN. But more than a few C-USA, WAC, and lower tier BCS schools can reap big benefits. And, even MWC schools are going to come around eventually. As Holmoe just said, they will "get over it." And, what MWC team won't mind pushing Hair Thompson to let them play an old rival on ESPN (even BYUtv ain't bad) in November after being stuck on Versus for the last month and a half?

Yes, most of BYU's marquee big-name games will be in September and early October. But, that doesn't mean the last weeks of the season are going to be duds. Remember, Holmoe and Bronco can now pick and choose the mid-majors they want to play, and avoid the ones they don't. And, even the BCS conferences can see the benefit of letting some of their lesser teams take a weak off late in the year for a nice ESPN non-conference game. The upcoming series with UCF is not something random. BYU wants to start building relationships in new places and show off what it can do for these teams.

Also, Utah is going to continue to lobby the Pac-12 to let them play BYU later in the season. Both schools feel that the game could become one of the big non-conference attractions in the Pac-12 every season, and could eventually deserve an "exemption" like USC vs. Notre Dame. It will take some time, but it's possible the last week of November could see BYU/Utah and Colorado/Colorado State every year instead of a contrived Utah/CU rivalry.

In short, BYU's strategy is to get a "conference" schedule looking something like this:

Hawaii - every season
Utah - every season
Utah State - every season
Service academy - one every season
Other quality (<- emphasis) mid-major opponents - about 2-3 every season
Notre Dame - About every other season

At least half of these games can be played in October or November annually. That leaves 4-6 slots every year - many of them early in the season - to get marquee games, and other opponents. Yes, there will be an ocassional FCS game, mostly on years where we decide to schedule 13 games.

To further illustrate, here's a sample fantasy schedule using the current template for 2016. This is thrown together using the pattern described and plugging in rumored opponents, etc. This 2016 scenario represents a *best-case* season, meaning it's what a great scheduling year will look like when BYU manages to get everything it wants:

Sept. 3 Ohio State
Provo, UT, ABC

Sept. 10 Arizona
Provo, UT, ESPN2

Sept. 17 at Utah
Salt Lake City, UT, Fox Sports

Sept. 24 West Virginia
Washington, DC, ESPN

Sept. 30 Utah State
Provo, UT, ESPN2

Oct. 8 at San Diego St.
San Diego, CA, Versus

Oct. 15 Notre Dame
Provo, UT, ESPN

Oct. 22 at Boise State
Boise, ID, Versus

Nov. 3 at Syracuse
Syracuse, NY, ESPN

Nov. 12 Hawaii
Provo, UT, ESPNU

Nov. 19 at Houston
Houston, TX, Fox Sports

Nov. 26 Air Force
Provo, UT, BYUtv

Notice how many entertaining games we still have lined up for the last half of the season. The last 2-3 weeks are softer, but not that bad, and there is plenty to keep fans interested all year long.

For the sake of balance, I'll use the 2017 template to represent a weaker scheduling year. This is what the schedule will look like on down years when things don't quite work out as well. As you'll see, it's definitely softer, but it's definitely not bad either, and it definitely beats your typical MWC slate:

Sept. 2 Ohio State
Columbus, OH, ABC

Sept. 9 Nebraska
Denver, CO, ESPN

Sept. 16 Utah
Provo, UT, ABC

Sept. 23 UNLV
Provo, UT, BYUtv

Sept. 29 at Utah State
Logan, UT, ESPN2

Oct. 6 Boise St.
Provo, UT, ESPN2

Oct. 14 Georgia Tech
Provo, UT, ESPN2

Oct. 21 at Notre Dame
South Bend, IN, NBC

Nov. 2 Houston
Provo, UT, ESPNU

Nov. 11 San Diego St.
Provo, UT, ESPN2

Nov. 18 Navy
Provo, UT, ESPNU

Nov. 25 at Hawaii
Honolulu, HI, ESPN2

Dec. 2 at San Jose St.
San Jose, CA, ESPNU

Note that we still have at least a couple of very interesting late-season games, and the home schedule isn't that bad, even though we have to plug in a few more mid-majors than we might like. I bumped Hawaii from the December slot because I anticipate that the MWC will have 12 teams and a CCG by this time. But, SJSU is still not a bad place to treat our bay area fans to a nice, relaxing end of year party, and the WAC would love to have us.

They real key for BYU is to get one nice BCS game (aside from Notre Dame) in late October or November. These won't usually be marquee games, but they can be nice games against teams like Syracuse. Nobody cares about Syracuse/Rutgers the last week of October, but BYU/Syracuse on an ESPN network is a bit more interesting and can actually benefit the Big East. The years we get one of those games, and Notre Dame (or two if we're not playing ND that season), the schedule will be fantastic. On years where it doesn't work out, things won't be as good, but still better than what we're used to.

BYU is not a Notre Dame. But that doesn't mean it can't schedule like one according to its own culture, history, and geography.

As these examples show, the future is bright. No, we're not going to load up with 8 BCS games every season. But, the schedules in coming years are going to be fun, and exciting for our fanbases all across the nation.