Finishing with a flourish

Ranking the program's best regular season finishes of the last three decades, and the relative impact of each on the following year.

From solid to spectacular

Though exceptions and extenuating circumstances exist, Notre Dame's strong late-season finishes have generally led to quality, or in multiple cases, national-title contending efforts the following year.

Below is a look at Notre Dame's best finishes to a season over the last three decades, the 12-0 national title season of 1988 not included.

1992 – The Standard

Began 3-1-1, falling from the nation's No. 3 perch to No. 14 as a result. One of Holtz's five best team, the '92 squad concluded the season with seven straight victories including wins over the nation's #9 (BC), #22 (Penn State), and #19 (USC) squads before destroying undefeated and 4th-ranked Texas A&M, 28-3, in the Cotton Bowl.

The Irish won by 31, 26, 31, and 47 points (over #9 Boston College) to begin the streak, then took a pair of barn-burners, beating Penn State 17-16 in the famous Snow Bowl and finishing with a 31-23 win at USC. The defense allowed just six touchdowns over the final six games while the offense averaged a whopping 37.4 per contest.

The '92 squad concluded the season as the nation's No. 3 ranked team and is the gold standard of bounce-back teams with fantastic finishes over the program's last 30 years.

Momentum gained from the 7-0 finish: The 1993 Irish followed the '92 squad's finish with wins in their first 10 games en route to the nation's No. 1 ranking before a season-ending loss to Boston College. The 17 combined wins from mid-October '92 to the near conclusion of '93 ranked as the second longest winning streak at the program in the modern era (since 1964).

1989 – Dynasty Denied

The Irish carried a 23-game winning streak into the season finale at Miami, but a 27-10 loss dropped them from the nation's top spot and, one moth later, buoyed the one-loss Hurricanes to the 1989 national championship.

The '89 Irish played the season as powerful defending champions, defeating #2 Michigan in Ann Arbor, #17 Air Force in Colorado Springs, #9 USC in South Bend, #7 Pittsburgh (45-7) in South Bend, and finally #17 Penn State, 34-23 in State College, the latter setting up the season-ending showdown vs. the dangerous, one-loss ‘Canes. (The Irish had outscored their previous four foes 179 to 36 entering the Miami matchup.)

Notre Dame rebounded from its only defeat to handle #1 Colorado, 21-6 in the Orange Bowl, but Miami's 33-17 win over Alabama allowed the Hurricanes to capture the crown.

Momentum gained from 12-1 season and 4-1 finish: The Irish entered 1990 as the nation's No. 1 team and, despite two losses, entered an Orange Bowl rematch with one-loss Colorado with a chance for the split national crown. The Buffaloes defeated Notre Dame 10-9 after Rocket Ismail's apparent game-winning touchdown return was overturned by a clipping call, deep in Irish territory.

2010 – Portent

A 4-5 start evolved into a surprising 8-5 finish as the Irish used a Week Ten Bye to recharge, refocus, and morph from frustrating underachievers that repeatedly found a way to lose into a near Top 15-level squad by season's end.

The 4-0 finish included three upset wins: vs. No. 14 Utah (5-point underdogs) and at rival USC (4.5-point ‘dogs) and in the Sun Bowl vs. former rival Miami (2.5-point ‘dogs). The Irish defense allowed one touchdown from kick-off vs. Utah through the first 50 minutes of the Sun Bowl, a 15-quarter span of dominance not seen by a defensive unit at the program since early 2002.

The four teams Notre Dame defeated during the season-ending streak finished with an aggregate record of 32-20 (32-16 sans a matchup with the Irish).

Momentum gained from the 4-0 finish: To be determined…

1995 – The one that got away

An opening game upset to unranked Northwestern and 19-point defeat to No. 7 Ohio State one month later dropped the Irish from No. 9 to No. 23 in the polls. Holtz's penultimate squad proceeded to win six straight to conclude the regular season before an Orange Bowl loss to No. 8 Florida State and a 9-3 finish.

The six-game streak included wins over two ranked foes (at #15 Washington and vs. #5 USC), as well as a thrilling 28-27 victory over an Army squad that finished the season with a 10-2 mark. The Irish entered the Orange Bowl matchup with FSU ranked #6 but without the services of starting quarterback Ron Powlus (injury) or tailback and leading rusher, Randy Kinder (suspension).

Notre Dame blew a 26-12 fourth quarter lead to the explosive Seminoles, a disheartening finish to an otherwise strong, albeit disjointed season.

Momentum gained by 6-1 finish: Notre Dame entered 1996 ranked #6 and began 4-1 before an upset loss to Air Force, 20-17 in overtime. The Irish finished the season 8-3 as detailed below.

2005 – Success in a vacuum

A 4-2 start allowed the unranked Irish to climb to No. 9 in the polls and Charlie Weis' first squad never looked back, concluding the regular season with five straight wins before falling to No. 4 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Notre Dame scored 204 points over the five-game regular season winning streak, the most over a quintet of contests since Lou Holtz's last team scored a whopping 224 points over a four-game set in November 1996. Weis' Irish, however, did not beat a ranked team during the streak with only Navy finishing above .500 at season's end.

Notre Dame, trailing the BCS bowl by double digits for the bulk of the contest, nonetheless had a shot victory near the four-minute mark, trimming the lead to 27-20 and forcing Ohio State into a 3rd and long at their own 25-yard line. But future Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith escaped a potential third-down sack by the Irish defense, completing a pass for 11 yards and an Ohio State first down. The Buckeyes scored one snap later on a 60-yard run, pulling away for a 34-20 victory.

Momentum gained from the 5-1 finish: The 2006 Irish started the season with consecutive victories and a No. 2 national ranking but were hammered at home by No. 11 Michigan, 47-21, in Week Three. They finished 10-3, concluding the season with a pair of blowout losses to Top 5 foes USC and LSU.

Honorable Mention

A quartet of inspired regular season finishes that missed the cut due to sobering conclusions. The final edition (1997) saw a strong finish pave the way for a BCS-contending, 9-1 start in 1998, as noted below.

2000 – Fool's Gold

The Irish began 2-2 but rebounded to win seven straight to conclude the season thanks to the steady play of true freshman quarterback Matt LoVecchio, who started every game of the streak en route to a 7-0 start to his ND career. The Irish did not beat a ranked foe during the seven-game run but defeated rival USC in the Coliseum, 38-21, and put down regular foes West Virginia and Boston College as well. A comeback home overtime win vs. Air Force served as a microcosm for the 2000 season and win streak: the Irish weren't great, but they found a way.

The good vibes ended in a Fiesta Bowl mismatch with surging, No. 5 Oregon State as the Beavers torched the No. 10-ranked Irish, 41-9.

Momentum gained from the 7-1 finish: Head coach Bob Davie received a contract extension and was fired one year later following a 5-6 finish.

1984 – Par for the course

Gerry Faust's second-best squad struggled to a 3-4 start before reeling off four straight to conclude the regular season, earning a #17 national ranking and date with #10 SMU in the Aloha Bowl. The Irish lost to the Mustangs, 27-20, to conclude the year with a 7-5 record.

The streak was highlighted by victories at #6 LSU and at #14 USC to conclude the regular season. The win over the Trojans was the second of 13 straight games without a loss vs. USC through the 1995 season. Faust's Irish also escaped disaster during the November winning streak, coming back to beat Navy 18-17 on a field goal in the final seconds.

Momentum gained from the 4-1 finish: None. Notre Dame endured one of the three worst seasons over its last three decades, finishing 5-6 with a trio of blowout losses and subsequent firing of Faust.

1996 – Out like a lamb

A shocking mid-October home loss to unranked Air Force dropped the No. 8 Irish to No. 19 overall and out of national title contention. A bye week, subsequent trip to Ireland to face Navy, and four consecutive blowout wins followed before Holtz lost the final contest of his Irish career, 27-20 in overtime at USC. It was the Hall of Famer's only defeat at the hands of the Trojans in 11 meetings. No. 10 entering the contest, the Irish finished 8-3 and elected to forgo a bowl invitation.

The Irish took advantage of weak opposition to conclude the '96 regular season, destroying four overmatched foes by a combined total of 224-54 before dropping the decision in the Coliseum.

Momentum gained from the 4-1 finish: None. The 1997 squad was led by new head coach Bob Davie and dropped a stunning four straight and five of six following a 1-0 start. Davie's squad rebounded, as outlined below.

1997 – Much ado about nothing...

A terrible debut (2-5) for Davie was partially saved by a five-game winning streak to conclude the regular season. Davie's '97 Irish defeated No. 11 LSU in Baton Rouge and No. 22 West Virginia on Senior Day in South Bend (with a curious storming of the field by the apparently confused student body, included) as part of the streak. They later hung on for a one-point win at Hawaii to conclude the regular season but were stifled in an Independence Bowl rematch with LSU, 27-6.

Momentum gained from the 5-1 finish: The 1998 Irish opened with an upset win of defending national champion Michigan and raced to a 9-1 start and No. 9 national ranking prior to a season-ending defeat at unranked USC, a game in which starting quarterback Jarious Jackson missed due to a knee injury.

End of the era?

The 1993 season began with 10 wins and 17 consecutive dating back to mid-October 1992, but the year is forever marred by one of the most heart-breaking defeats in program history, a 41-39 upset loss to #16 Boston College. The defeat dropped the newly-minted, #1 Irish to #4 and on the outside looking in at a matchup between #1 Nebraska and #2 Florida State – the latter of which the Irish had defeated seven days previous.

Notre Dame beat #7 Texas A&M 24-21 in the Cotton Bowl to conclude the season but the Seminoles held off Nebraska, 18-16, giving Florida State a dubious national title claim (both the A.P. and Coaches' Poll ranked the Seminoles #1 and the Irish #2 at season's end).

Momentum gained from the 11-1 season and Cotton Bowl win: 17 years later, we're still searching. The Irish have lost three games in each of the last 17 seasons following their No. 2 finish in 1993 – a stat to be examined Monday in the next installment of our Summer Prediction Series.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories