Prediction No. 6: The 17-season skid ends

The next installment of our summer prediction series examines a 17-season streak in which the Irish have lost at least three contests.

In 2009, outgoing head coach Charlie Weis helped his alma mater exorcise two demons from the program's decade-long swoon:

  1. His Irish defeated Michigan State in South Bend for the first time since 1993 (six meetings)
  2. And one month later, finally beat Boston College, anywhere, for the first time since 1999 (six more matchups).

Weis, however, was unable to tame the Trojans of USC, with the arch-rivals 34-27 victory in South Bend extending their vise grip on Notre Dame to eight straight (2002-2009).

Enter Brian Kelly, now 1-0 vs. the Trojans after last November's streak-snapping upset in Los Angeles. At present, no traditional rival holds more than a two-game hex over Notre Dame, with Michigan, Navy, and Stanford winning consecutively in 2009-10.

But Kelly, like Weis, Tyrone Willingham, and Bob Davie before him, was unable to snap a more important, tell-tale streak for the program.

In 2010, for the 17th straight season, Notre Dame lost at least three contests (8-5).

Which brings us to our next prediction in the summer series:

Prediction #6 – A frustrating 17-season streak will end

The national runner-up season of 1993 (11-1) marks the last season in which the Irish lost fewer than three contests, as the final three seasons of the Lou Holtz era (1994-96) saw one sub par, one strong, and one solid football team.

Previously, Holtz-led squads lost two games or fewer in four of six seasons (1988-89 and 92-93). But after a poor showing in 1994 (6-5-1), a disappointing bowl loss to Florida State in 1995 (9-3), and a stunning overtime defeat in Los Angeles to USC (to finish 8-3), the departing legend had dropped at least three games in three successive seasons for the first time in his 11-year tenure.

Setting the Bar: Two blemishes allowed

A look at 12 modern-era Irish squads that lost two or fewer games (minimum 10-game schedule). A quartet of others (1965, '68 and ‘69, 1980) suffered two losses and a tie.

1993: A crushing Senior Day defeat represents the lone loss for the 11-1, #2 Irish.
1992: The 10-1-1 team was viewed as underachievers at 3-1-1, but then reeled off seven consecutive – the final four vs. ranked foes – to conclude a tremendous season.
1989: Only a season-ending loss at national champion Miami kept the 12-1 Irish from back-to-back crowns.
1988: Undefeated and untied, 12-0
1977: The lone blemish in a national title season (11-1) was a 20-13 Week Two loss to Ole Miss in Jackson
1974: A Week Three loss to Purdue and shocking 55-24 comeback effort by USC in the finale dropped Ara Parseghian's squad to 9-2 before a bounce back bowl win over #2 Alabama.
1973: The national champion Irish (11-0) were not challenged in the final month, then defeated #1 Alabama, 24-23, to capture the crown.
1971: A two-touchdown home defeat to USC and season-ending loss at LSU concluded an 8-2 campaign (with no bowl) for the Irish.
1970: The 9-0 Irish saw their title dreams slip away with a 38-28 loss to USC at the Coliseum. Notre Dame finished 10-1 with a 24-11 humbling of #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
1967: Parseghian's defending national champs struggled to a 2-2 start, then won six straight to complete an 8-2 season.
1966: The infamous 10-10 tie at Michigan State ranks as the only mark against a 9-0-1 championship squad, one that annihilated #10 USC, 51-0, to conclude the season in Los Angeles.
1964: Parseghian's first team (9-1) missed out on a national title after his thrilling nine-game winning streak ended on a field goal in Los Angeles, a 20-17 defeat to unranked USC on Thanksgiving Saturday.

Myriad factors have contributed to the program's maddening streak of 17 straight seasons with at least three blemishes – a number that has routinely kept the Irish out of the Top 10 in the final polls (only Weis' 2005 squad earned a spot since '93, finishing #9 overall).

Coaching acumen, and especially turnover – regarding both the head man and key staff members – rank among the root causes, and until recently, a lagging Strength & Conditioning program also likely contributed to annual late-season defeats.

Of course, bowl games and repeated unfortunate matchups also felled a few solid, though unspectacular Irish squads of the recent past. During the span, relevant Notre Dame teams were regularly pitted vs. the nation's 3rd or 4th best opponent in an effort to draw bowl-site fans and a television audience, and the overmatched Irish paid the price.

The 1995, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2006 squads each entered bowl season with two losses – each exited with a third. Only the '95 squad's matchup vs. Florida State could rank as "one that got away."

  • 1995 (9-3): Finished #6 on the strength of six straight wins to conclude the regular season, then lost to a slightly better (#8 ranked) FSU squad, 31-26 in the Orange Bowl. Double-digit underdogs, the Irish played without their starting quarterback (Ron Powlus) or tailback (Randy Kinder), blowing a 12-point, 4th Quarter lead in defeat.
  • 1998 (9-3): Won eight straight to extend to a 9-1 record before losing at USC, 10-0, due largely to the absence of starting quarterback and team heartbeat, Jarious Jackson, to conclude the regular season. The #17 Irish then lost to a solid, though beatable and #12-ranked Georgia Tech squad led by QB supreme Joe Hamilton, 35-28, in the Gator Bowl.
  • 2000 (9-3): Finished the regular season with seven straight victories, a 9-2 record, and the #10 ranking, but were then exposed and embarrassed in a mismatch against #5 Oregon State. The 41-9 defeat marked the first of two glaring BCS mismatches for the Irish during the decade.
  • 2002 (10-3): Raced to an 8-0, start, then dropped three of their last five contests including a 28-6 defeat at the hands of a skill-position strong (#17-ranked and led by QB Philip Rivers) North Carolina State squad in the Gator Bowl. Notre Dame's hopes for a mild upset (the #11 Irish entered as two-point underdogs) were lost when starting QB Carlyle Holiday was lost to a shoulder injury on the opening drive.
  • 2005 (9-3): Won six straight finish 9-2 and earn a BCS berth, then lost to a better, though not far superior Ohio State team, 34-20. Ranked #4 and favored by four points over the #5 Irish, the Buckeyes controlled most of the contest, though the Irish were one third-down stop away from gaining possession with a chance to win or tie with less than four minutes remaining.
  • 2006 (10-3): Began 2-1, won eight straight, then lost handily at #3 USC in the season finale. The 9-point underdog Irish (#11) were clearly inferior to #4-ranked surging foe LSU in a 41-14 Sugar Bowl loss, dropping them out of the Top 10 with yet another three-loss campaign.

Note: The '98 Gator Bowl loss to Georgia Tech was the only of six bowl matchups above in which the Irish were favored (-3).

2011: Streak Snappers

Aside from an unknown, likely daunting bowl matchup, what stands in the way of a two-loss (or better) season for Brian Kelly's second Irish team?

  1. 10 competent, if unspectacular foes: Notre Dame shouldn't lose to South Florida, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Air Force, Navy, Maryland, or Boston College…but they could. The Irish should be slight favorites at Michigan, and some type of favorite at home vs. Michigan State and USC.

    But that's 10 games vs. 10 teams capable of rising up in a one-game situation. The squad's "easiest" contest is a true road game at Wake Forest. As such, the 2011 schedule does not provide a recipe for uninterrupted success, especially for a team with question marks at quarterback, and a lack of veteran depth in its offensive backfield.

  2. Thanksgiving Saturday: The Irish travel to Palo Alto to take on the nation's best quarterback, Andrew Luck, and the returning 12-1 Stanford Cardinal in the regular season finale. At best, a dominant Irish team would enter this matchup in a trap-game situation. More likely – a solid-to-strong Irish squad (one with a loss or two) would rank as an underdog vs. a Cardinal group that might not be as powerful as its 2010 predecessor, but one that is unlikely to fall far from grace.

  3. BCS Pitfall Would a two-loss Irish squad qualify for a BCS contest? I think so, especially if it finishes with a win at Stanford after posting two previous defeats. That potential BCS matchup? Let's just say a 10-2 Irish squad would not draw the default Big East champion in its prime time BCS matchup.
    (A Capital One Bowl matchup could also get tricky…just ask Michigan State.)

  4. The Irish are (again) potentially overrated, both here, and nationally: No analysis needed…

Though generally left for August's final week, my official pre-season projection for the Irish is a 10-2 regular season finish, with the season-finale in Palo Alto putting my prediction in jeopardy.

It's up to Brian Kelly and his staff to ensure the program's requisite third loss doesn't blot the slate next January.


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