Ty Willingham ('02-'04) – Record as an Underdog: 8-9No first-year Irish coach conquered more favored foes than did Tyrone Willingham in 2002.
Signature Wins: None, though a 34-24 win (as 11-point underdogs) at No. 11 Florida State's then-dreaded Doak Campbell Stadium sure seemed to fit the bill at the time. The No. 6 Irish shot up to No. 3 in the BCS rankings with an 8-0 mark following the thorough whipping of the overrated Seminoles.
Notre Dame Moments: Without a doubt, FSU (above). There's no better definition of a Notre Dame Moment than in the resulting euphoria of a Dillingham-to-Battle pass to end a five-game losing streak vs. Michigan State (favored by 3) in Week Four. Arguably a Week Three win over Michigan (12.5-point favorites) in South Bend as the Irish began to convert believers nationwide. Each of the three occurred in 2002 prior to Week Nine. Not a bad start…
Notable Upset Wins: Willingham's Irish scored two more technical upset victories in 2002 (at No. 18 Air Force, believe it or not, and in the Kick-off Classic vs. Maryland); he began 5-0 in the familiar underdog role before bottoming out to a 3-9 finish.
The 2003 season saw just one Irish upset win (at Pittsburgh) in six chances. In 2004, Willingham took a 5-3 Irish squad into Knoxville to face No. 9 Tennessee (7-point favorites) and prevailed 17-13. It was his last win as the Notre Dame head coach.
Bob Davie (1997-2001) – Record as an Underdog: 6-15Until his final season and resulting firing in 2001, Bob Davie-coached Irish squads were rarely blown out (there were about six such instances in his first 48 games) and, much to the dismay of the still-spoiled fan base, rarely rose to the occasion vs. the nation's elite.
Signature Wins: None. A 27-24 OT loss in the 2000 season-opener to No. 1 Nebraska would have sent shockwaves through college football had the Irish prevailed. It was the first of two huge near misses of the past decade.
Notre Dame Moment: The best win of the Davie era occurred in the season-opener of 1998 when his 22nd ranked Irish felled the No. 5 defending National Champion Michigan Wolverines (new QB Tom Brady and the team from up north was favored by six points) in South Bend. The convincing 36-20 beating of the program's biggest rival of the 90s was the highlight of Davie's tenure.
Notable Upsets: A 24-6 win at LSU in 1997 marked the only game in Notre Dame history in which the Irish did not commit a penalty or turn the ball over. Davie also recorded a mild upset over Pete Carroll and the hated Trojans in the latter's first season at the helm, a 27-16 win over one-point favorite USC in 2001.Technical upset wins in Tempe over Arizona State (1999) and at home vs. Purdue (2000) are hardly worth mentioning. Davie and the Irish scored a mild upset over Purdue in the head coach's final game – the 9/11 makeup contest at the end of the 2001 season.
Lou Holtz ('86-'96) – Record as an Underdog: 11-12-1Holtz began his Irish tenure with four losses as an underdog to four Top 10 teams. Three arrived in heartbreaking fashion. He proceeded to win 10 of his next 13 contests in the underdog role before bowing out with a 1-5-1 finish over his final three seasons.
The technicalities of Holtz's record as an underdog are listed below. For a complete breakdown of his Signature Wins, replete with video highlights and more than a handful of According to Hoyle Notre Dame Moments, click the following three links:
- 1996: 0-1 as a (mild) underdog as his fifth-ranked Irish lost at home to No. 4 Ohio State, 29-16.
- 1995: Finished 1-2 as underdogs with the win a sure Notre Dame moment as Holtz's No. 17-ranked Irish defeated No. 5 USC, 38-10 in South Bend. Also lost to No. 7 Ohio State 45-26 in Columbus and 31-26 in the 1996 Orange Bowl vs. No. 3 and heavily favored (10.5 points) Florida State. The Irish led 26-12 entering the 4th Quarter of that contest despite the absence of the team's starting quarterback (Ron Powlus) and tailback (Randy Kinder).
- 1994: An 0-2-1 mark in Holtz's toughest season. The Irish lost a close one in Orlando to No. 8 Florida State and were blown off the field in the Fiesta Bowl by No. 4 Colorado in Tempe. Holtz's 8-game winning streak vs. USC ended in the season finale with a 17-17 tie vs. the Trojans.
- 1993: His last great team finished 2-0 as underdogs, first defeating No. 3 Michigan (favored by a way-off-base 9.5 points) in Ann Arbor and of course, the Signature 31-24 win by his second-ranked Irish over No. 1 Florida State (7-point favorites) in South Bend.
- 1992: Holtz's Irish were favored in all 12 games and finished the season at 10-1-1 with an early October upset loss at the hands of eventual Rose Bowl runner-up Stanford, and an early season tie vs. a Michigan team that finished an eye-catching 9-0-3.
- 1991: 1-1 Upset No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, 39-28 and lost as field goal underdogs at Penn State and at Michigan.
- 1990: Ranked No. 1 to start the season (and more often than not during the topsy-turvy college football campaign), Holtz's Irish nonetheless finished 3-0 as underdogs, beginning with an opening night win over No. 4 Michigan, 28-24 (the Wolverines were favored by 5 points in Rick Mirer's first career start). The sixth-ranked Irish scored an October upset in their three-season-rubber-match vs. No. 2 Miami, 29-20 in South Bend. Notre Dame marched into Knoxville ranked No. 1 and upset the field goal favorite Tennessee Volunteers, 34-29. Holtz and the Irish concluded the season with a 10-9 defeat in a "Pick ‘Em" scenario Orange Bowl vs. Colorado – a game with national title implications.
- 1989: 1-1 in the underdog role: The top-ranked Irish beat No. 2 Michigan in Ann Arbor as 1-point underdogs. The Irish made it through the season unscathed until the finale, losing at Miami as mild underdogs and seeing their 23-game winning streak snapped in the process.
- 1988: The National Champion Irish won two games as underdogs, both rank among the most satisfying wins for the program in the last 35 years. The Irish first upset No. 1 Miami (4-point favorites and winners of 36 consecutive regular season games) in South Bend, 31-30. Then marched into Los Angeles as the nation's No. 1 squad before hammering 10-0 and No. 2 ranked USC, 27-10. Incidentally, Notre Dame was somehow in a PICK EM situation at MSU in Week Two, but prevailed easily, 20-3.
- 1987: 1-1 as underdogs. The No. 16 Irish scored a 26-7 upset of No. 3 Michigan (favored by 3.5) in Ann Arbor to start the year, but were humbled 24-0 at No. 2 Miami as touchdown underdogs to conclude the regular season.
- 1986: A frustrating 0-4 in the underdog role as Holtz's Irish lost to No. 3 Michigan (24-23), at No. 2 Alabama (28-10); vs. No. 3 Penn State (24-19) and finally at No. 8 LSU (21-19) under the lights in Baton Rouge. Remarkably, but as a direct result of the team's oh-so-close calls vs. top competition, the 4-6 Irish were favored by 2 points at No. 17 USC in their thrilling 38-37 win to conclude Holtz's first season.
Future TenseIrish head coach Brian Kelly is 0-2 in the underdog role in his first season at the helm, losing at home to No. 9 Stanford (favored by 4.5 points), 37-14 and dropping a heartbreaker in overtime at East Lansing to Michigan State (3.5-point favorites), 34-31.
Kelly was 6-2 in the role of underdog during his three-year run at Cincinnati, losing only at heavily favored Oklahoma in 2008 and vs. West Virginia late in 2007, his first season as Bearcats head coach.
Utah is currently favored by six points vs. Notre Dame in their first visit to South Bend. The Irish have lost nine consecutive games vs. favored opponents dating back to Week Two, 2008.