Assessing Notre Dame’s ‘Lesser’ Schedules: Part II
Yesterday we featured 10 of the toughest Notre Dame football schedules ever played, mainly because there might be some notion that this year’s 10-game ACC slate might be one of the “easier” seasons for the program.
That’s because other than perennial national title contender Clemson, none of those other nine ACC teams on this year’s slate had fewer than five losses last year, and none finished among the 39 final teams that received votes in the Associated Press poll.
The Fighting Irish already had six ACC games on the docket as a partial league member in football: Clemson (14-1), Duke (5-7) and Louisville (8-5) at home, and Georgia Tech (3-9), Pittsburgh (8-5) and Wake Forest (8-5) on the road.
The four additions are Florida State (6-7) and Syracuse (5-7) at home, and Boston College (6-6) and North Carolina (7-6) on the road.
There is no way yet to gauge how difficult this year’s schedule might be, but based on the NCAA ratings — which can be misleading based strictly on winning percentage — that began in 1977, there have been only eight times in 43 seasons the Fighting Irish have finished 50th or lower.
Chronologically, here are those regular seasons, and what occurred:
1983: No. 50 — 50-49-5 (.505)
Despite finishing only 11-10-1 in head coach Gerry Faust’s first two seasons, Sporting News ranked Notre Dame the preseason No. 1 for two primary reasons.
One was the “magical” third year of Irish head coaches (four previous mentors finished unbeaten and/or national champs in year three) and two was a softer schedule — six of the first seven opponents would finish under .500, and the one that didn’t (eventual national champ Miami) had lost to Notre Dame the year prior.
Alas, the Irish still finished the regular season 6-5. Athletics director Gene Corrigan wanted to make the head coaching change then, but school president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. informed him the school would honor the full five-year contract unless some cheating was occurring.
1993: No. 50 — 56-54 (.509)
No head coach at Notre Dame played more killer schedules than Lou Holtz (1986-96), with four of them ranking in our top 10.
This one turned out more manageable, even though the regular season concluded with eventual national champ Florida State and then Boston College, which went on to finish No. 13.
Although Notre Dame defeated the top-ranked Seminoles (31-24) to move to 10-0 and temporarily No. 1, the upset at the hands of Boston College the next week (41-39) at home resulted in a No. 2 final placement.
1996: No. 54 — 58-53 (.523)
Holtz’s final season had his personal lowest ranking of schedule from the NCAA, which made the 8-3 result all the more disappointing.
Holtz knew it was over after losing at home to a subpar 6-5 Air Force team in overtime. Then, after posting a 9-0-1 mark versus rival USC, his Notre Dame career ended with a defeat to the 6-6 Trojans, also in overtime.
This was a 10-1 team that managed to finish 8-3.
1998: No. 82 — 52-61 (.460)
When including only the regular season, this is the lowest cumulative winning percentage by Irish foes since the NCAA began recording this stat in 1977.
Under second-year head coach Bob Davie, Notre Dame began the year 9-1, highlighted by a season-opening win over Michigan and starting quarterback Tom Brady, before a 10-0 loss at USC when starting signal-caller Jarious Jackson was unable to play because of an injury.
However, this is also a classic example of how one never knows how a schedule will shake out. In the preseason, both Arizona State and LSU were deemed potential top-10 to top-15 material. But ASU finished 5-6 and LSU 4-7, losing to Notre Dame by scores of 28-9 and 39-36, respectively.
The intent for a top schedule was there. It’s not Notre Dame’s fault that some of the opponents underachieved.
2005: No. 52 — 66-57 (.537)
Another example of one never knowing about schedules was Charlie Weis’ first-year as head coach.
In the preseason, ESPN was projecting a potential 1-5 start (maybe even 0-6) for the Irish because the first six foes included three teams that had defeated Notre Dame the year prior (Pitt, Purdue and defending national champ USC), plus No. 3 Michigan on the road, Michigan State (which had won four straight at Notre Dame) and at Washington — which had new and former head coach Ty Willingham bent on revenge in “The Ty Bowl.”
Oh, and Tennessee was also on the docket and was favored in some circles to win the SEC.
Instead, Notre Dame defeated four of those first six teams en route to a 9-2 regular season and some Coach of the Year honors for Weis.
Pitt (5-6), Purdue (5-6) and Tennessee (5-6) all lost to the Irish, and so did Michigan (7-5) and Washington (2-9).
Suddenly, it went from “Notre Dame has a killer schedule” to “Notre Dame doesn’t play anybody.”
2008: No. 89 — 67-78 (.462)
As disappointing as the 3-9 record the previous year was, the 6-6 regular season in 2008 was just as bad because of not taking advantage of a more favorable slate.
The nadir was reached with a 24-23 loss at home on Senior Day to a 2-8 Syracuse team that had just fired its head coach. In six road games the Irish averaged 15.7 points.
2009: No. 50 — 71-64 (.526)
Weis was axed after another 6-6 regular season versus another subpar schedule.
This time the unacceptable setbacks included the final two home games, 23-21 to Navy and 33-30 in double overtime to Connecticut after jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead.
2016: No. 80 — 66-65 (.504)
Far and away this was Brian Kelly’s lowest-ranked schedule in his first 10 seasons at Notre Dame, which made the 4-8 finish all the more mind-numbing.
The 1-3 beginning with losses to 6-7 Texas (50-47 in double overtime), 3-9 Michigan State (36-28) and 4-8 Duke (38-35) prompted the firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder at the one-third mark of the season.
Setbacks to North Carolina State (3-5 in the ACC, plus lost to East Carolina) and Navy later exacerbated the frustration, and so did blowing a 17-point lead at home to Virginia Tech.
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