Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football’s Toughest Schedules
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Notre Dame’s Toughest Schedules

Earlier this week, the ACC announced Notre Dame would be part of its 10-game conference schedule in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced league-only slates.

The Fighting Irish already had six ACC games on the 2020 docket as a partial league member in football: Clemson, Duke and Louisville at home, and Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest on the road.

The four additions are Florida State and Syracuse at home, and Boston College and North Carolina on the road, with dates for all 10 to be determined later.

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Former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz
Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame teams from 1986-90 consistently played the nation’s toughest schedules. (Fighting Irish Media)

Other than perennial national title contender Clemson, none of those other nine ACC teams on this year’s schedule had fewer than five losses last year, and none finished among the 39 final teams that received votes in the Associated Press poll.

Consequently, on paper this might be deemed as one of the “easier” football schedules in recent decades.

There is no way yet to gauge how difficult this year’s slate might be. But we do know how from hindsight how challenging some schedules from the past were.

In Part I of our feature on the 2020 schedule, here is what we believe were/are among the 10 toughest schedules in school history — which we can use as a standard to measure any future such lineups:

10. 1958: USC Was The Worst

The most amazing aspect about this 6-4 season was it wasn’t until the 10th and final game that Notre Dame faced a foe that was under .500 — and that was at USC, who it defeated 20-13 thanks to a phenomenal goal-line stand.

Two of the losses were to teams that finished No. 2 (Iowa) and No. 3 (Army), and three others placed in the top 20. Fifth-year head coach Terry Brennan was fired despite finishing 17th in the country, and having three top-10 finishes previously.

9. 1986: A Rough Debut

First-year head coach Lou Holtz noticed the schedule upon his hiring and called it “your average death march.”

It began with defending Big Ten champ Michigan (quarterbacked by Jim Harbaugh), trips to Michigan State and No. 2 Alabama (helping lead to a 1-4 start), and concluded in the final three games with that year's national champ Penn State, SEC champ LSU in Death Valley, and at USC. Overall, the NCAA ranked it the No. 3 toughest schedule that season.

The Irish finished 5-6, losing five games by a total of 14 points.

8. 1987: Into The Fire

Holtz’s first Fighting Irish team had a No. 3 ranking in strength of schedule, but his second was No. 1 with a 71-34-2 record (.671) — not including a 35-10 loss to 10-2 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

Still the Irish won at Michigan (26-7), whacked Big Ten and Rose Bowl champ Michigan State (31-8), and then-No. 10 Alabama (37-6), and Pac-10 champ USC (26-15), before falling at Penn State, national champ Miami and the Aggies to close the season.

To give you an idea of how onerous the schedules were back then, consider that while winning the national title the next season the Irish defeated four teams that finished in the AP top 10, yet was ranked only No. 25 by the NCAA.

7. 1990: Burned At Home

This is a season when the Irish beat co-Big Ten champs Michigan and Michigan State, defending national champ Miami, SEC champ Tennessee in Knoxville and USC in the Coliseum.

Yet it still finished “only” 9-2 during the regular season because of blowing 24-7 and 21-7 leads at home against Stanford and Penn State. It also lost, 10-9, to No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl, possibly costing it a share of the national title.

6. 1985: Faust’s Finale

Fifth-year head coach Gerry Faust was on the hot seat, and the schedule didn’t help during this 5-6 campaign.

Since the NCAA first started recording strength of schedules in 1977, this is one of only two where the opposition finished above .700 (.701) — and the other is also by Notre Dame (more on that later).

His era concluded with losses to No. 1 Penn State (36-6), No. 17 LSU (10-7) and at No. 4 Miami (58-7). Other defeats included 20-12 at a Michigan team that finished No. 2 in the land, and 21-15 to a 12-1 Air Force outfit.

5. 1929: Rock’s Traveling Show

Notre Dame Stadium was under construction, so Knute Rockne’s 9-0 national champions had to travel every week during their 9-0 season from Oct. 5 through Nov. 30 en route to a national title.

Among their victories were against defending national champ USC at Chicago’s Soldier Field, avenging previous year defeats to Carnegie Tech and Georgia Tech in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, respectively, topping Navy in Baltimore and clinching the national title against top rival Army in Yankee Stadium.

This also was an era when travel was done by railroad.

4. 1952: Leahy’s Lads

How does a 7-2-1 team finish No. 3 in the country, like this one did?

Answer: By defeating four major conference champs in the Big 8 (Oklahoma), Southwest (Texas), Pac-8 (No. 2 USC) and Big Ten (co-champ Purdue) — and tying a fifth (Penn) in an era when the Ivy League was still competitive.

Head coach Frank Leahy coached four national title teams at Notre Dame and two other unbeatens, but he was proud of this team as much as any because of the schedule it had to navigate (including a 22-19 upset loss at home to Pitt).

3. 1978: Devine Ending

The defending national champions with head coach Dan Devine and quarterback Joe Montana opened 0-2 with home losses to Missouri and Big Ten champ Michigan, but then reeled off eight consecutive wins against a slate that included at co-Big Ten champ Michigan State and other top-20 teams such as Purdue, Pitt, Navy and Georgia Tech, not to mention Tennessee, before a controversial 27-25 loss at co-national champ USC.

The .709 winning percentage by the opponents is the highest since the NCAA began keeping the stat in 1977 — and that doesn’t even including defeating 9-2 Houston, 35-34, in the Cotton Bowl to finish No. 7 in the AP poll.

Overall, the 86-34-2 mark by the opposition was a remarkable .713 winning percentage.

2. 1989: Left At The Altar

Holtz’s 12-1 Fighting Irish defeated seven teams that finished in the AP top 18, highlighted by a 21-6 victory over then 11-0 and No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl.

Also vanquished were Big Ten champ Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Pac-10 and Rose Bowl champ USC, both of which finished in the top 10. The other wins versus top-18 finishers were against No. 15 Penn State, No. 16 Michigan State, No. 17 Pitt and No. 18 Virginia.

Alas, the Irish finished No. 2 to Miami, which defeated the Irish head to head in November and received the nod despite also having one loss.

1. 1943: Toughest Ever?

Leahy’s third Irish edition joins Nebraska 1971 as the only two in history to defeat the teams that finished No. 2 (14-13 versus semi-pro World War II team Iowa Pre-Flight), No. 3 (35-12 at Michigan) and No. 4 (33-6 against Navy at Cleveland).

Notre Dame also won against the teams that finished No. 9 (Northwestern), No. 11 (Army) and No. 13 (Georgia Tech).

The lone defeat came in the closing seconds of the finale to another semi-pro war team, Great Lakes, on a Hail Mary pass (the one school that should never lose on such a play).

That 1943 team is the only one in college football history to lose its regular-season finale, not play in a bowl and still finish No. 1. Never was an exception as deserving as that 9-1 Notre Dame squad.

Seven of the 10 teams it faced that year finished in the AP top 13. Even the three that didn’t (Pitt, Wisconsin and Illinois) had respectable traditions. Pitt was the “Team of The 1930s” under Jock Sutherland, Wisconsin finished No. 3 a year earlier, and the Illini came in at No. 15 in 1944.

Furthermore, only three of the 10 games played by the Irish in 1943 were at home.

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