Brian Kelly's first Irish squad has a chance to achieve a season-end winning streak enjoyed by precious few Notre Dame teams in the modern era.
The oft-discussed six-game November losing streak for the Irish program has already been eradicated and a 2-0 start to the season's concluding month by Brian Kelly's crew includes the school's first win over a ranked foe since September 2006.
Likewise in the books is the first two-game November winning streak since the (nearly) lost season of 2007 when Charlie Weis' worst team hung in to the bitter end to win its final two outings in a 3-9 campaign.
The current squad's final challenge is two-fold: win a third straight to close out the regular season; the first such occurrence since 2005 and only the third of the past decade.
And of course...defeat USC in the process.
For the sake of the column we'll follow the head coach's (since altered) mantra from Sunday and consider that this Saturday's matchup and a potential win at USC speaks more to the consistency he plans to establish, rather than any streak-snapping, fan-appeasing conquest of Troy.
Regardless of the motivation real or imagined, a 7-5 record for this Notre Dame team did not seem possible following the ugly loss to Tulsa which dropped them to 4-5 with a Bye week and three to play. Then again, the potential for a 4-5 Irish team wasn't on anyone's radar after Kelly's seemingly improved group emerged at 4-3 following a win vs. Western Michigan.
(What was more unlikely: a bludgeoning by Navy and subsequent giveaway to Tulsa? or an ensuing blowout of Utah and identical handling of Army with no touchdowns scored against the defense during the wins? It's been a crazy season in South Bend).
Back to the task at hand: At 7-5, the Irish would likely be chosen to participate in the Champs Sports Bowl on December 28 in Orlando. Former hated rival Miami ranks high among the likely list of foes and one that would break most secondary bowl records in terms of television ratings and ticket demand.
Suddenly a season most had laid to rest could produce back-to-back matchups vs. USC and Miami. There's enough lingering, warming hate contained within to fan the flames of even the most jaded Irish fan.
Nine November Improvements
Over the last 40 seasons
only nine Irish squads managed to finish November with at least a three-game winning streak:
- 1973 – 4-0 finish included a win over No. 20 Pittsburgh and three Irish efforts in excess of 40 points. The Sugar Bowl victory by No. 3 Notre Dame over No. 1 Alabama ranks among the five greatest in program annals.
- 1977 – Four wins in four games and as with the '73 team, the finale was actually played in December. The National Champions limited foes to 14, 17, 0, and 10 over the four-game set before hammering No. 1 Texas and the legendary Earl Campbell 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl to claim the crown.
- 1984 – Gerry Faust's best team defeated two Top 14 foes including No. 6 LSU and No. 14 USC at the Coliseum in the finale. The Irish finished November 3-0 with a one-point win over Navy; a 44-7 drilling of down Penn State on Senior Day in South Bend and the aforementioned 19-7 victory over the Men of Troy – a win which started Notre Dame's streak of 13 straight without a loss vs. the Trojans. No. 10 SMU defeated Notre Dame 27-20 in the Aloha Bowl in late December.
- 1988 – A 3-0 November finish included a 27-10 victory at No. 2 USC in the program's greatest exhibition of physical defensive dominance since I've followed the University over the last 30 years. The No. 1 ranked Irish treated No. 3 West Virginia much the same to capture the National Championship in Tempe.
- 1992 – The forgotten team of the modern era: Lou Holtz's '92 Irish sputtered to a 3-1-1 start then reeled off eight consecutive to conclude the season with a 3-0 November highlighted by three wins vs. ranked foes: a 54-7 annihilation of No. 9 Boston College; a 17-16 thriller in the Snow Bowl vs. No. 22 Penn State; and finally a 31-23 nail-biter over No. 19 USC at The Coliseum. A dominant ND team blew out No. 4 and undefeated Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, 28-3.
- 1995 – A 3-2 start that included an unlikely opening loss to Northwestern concluded with a 9-2 regular season finish and a 2-0 November vs. a pair of overmatched Academy foes. An underdog and sixth-ranked ND team lost to No. 8 Florida State in a well-played Orange Bowl, 31-26.
- 1997 – Kelly's '10 unit most closely resembles the 1997 team, Bob Davie's first season as Irish head coach. Davie opened with a 17-13 win in the Stadium's rededication game against Georgia Tech, then stumbled to the unheard of depths of 2-5 after a last second home loss to USC.
Davie righted the ship, the Irish won five straight to become bowl eligible, and, much like this November, the students stormed the field after a Senior Day "upset" win over No. 22 West Virginia (Notre Dame was favored by 10).
A bowl rematch vs. LSU put a damper on the feel-good regulars season finish thanks to a 27-9 shellacking in Shreveport.
- 2000 – A 2-2 start; a 7-0 finish; a huge new contract extension for Davie on the heels of a 3-0 November with wins over Boston College, Rutgers and at USC to qualify for a BCS Bowl…one in which the Irish were exposed by lightning-quick Oregon State in a 41-9 humbling.
- 2005 – A 4-2 start; a 5-0 finish with Four November wins over Tennessee, Navy, Syracuse and Stanford to qualify for a BCS Bowl. Another contract extension, this time for Charlie Weis…and a frustrating 34-20 loss vs. surging Ohio State in Tempe.
Of those listed above, only the '73, '77, '88, and '92 teams prevailed in the season-ending Bowl game. (The first three were national champions; the '92 squad finished third in both polls).
A 7-5 finish won't equate to success by any reasonable measure for this program. Not from long-time fans that expect and demand more; not from most fans polled of any age, and certainly not from the head coach.
"I would say that 6-5 is not what I had in mind as to where we would be at this point. I look at myself relative to coaching and critique that on a day-to-day basis," Kelly said Tuesday in his final game week press conference. "Clearly 6-5 is not what I had in mind. As a coach I need to do a lot of things better. I have to continue to evaluate myself and decisions and game plans and things of that nature.
"But in 20 years I think what I've understood more than anything else is you have to do that. You don't just arrive. Things change so much from year-to-year…Notre Dame is a high profile job. With that comes a great deal of scrutiny. I think I was prepared for that; we got a lot of it this year."
But a three-game winning streak to a 7-5 end is the best case scenario, and considering you'd have elicited exactly Zero takers had you posed that possibility three weeks previous, it would be something to be proud of.
A 3-0 finish with a win at USC would signify one truth: Notre Dame improved its lot as a team and program from September 4 to November 28.
A 3-0 finish is rare in South Bend; it's nearly unheard of when coupled with a bowl victory, but first things first:
The team that had little to play for and less of which to be proud on October 31 is finally headed in the right direction.
The proof will be on display Saturday night vs. the team, and the game, that matters most.