On just four occasions since Notre Dame last finished undefeated (1988) have the Irish managed to escape the season's first month unscathed:
- 1989 – As part of a 11-0 start and 23-game winning streak.
- 1990 – 3-0 at the outset, but with a Week Four loss in early October that dropped the Irish from No. 1 in the polls for the first of two times that season.
- 1993 – Started 10-0 before losing the finale, ascending from #11 to #1 in the process.
- 2002 – Began 8-0, going from unranked to No. 3 in early-November's BCS rankings.
*The 1992 squad that finished 10-1-1 suffered a Week Two tie vs. Michigan and Week Five loss to Stanford.
An early-season loss is admittedly less damaging in the college football landscape than a November slip-up, but its no less painful for the team's fan base. National title aspirations fade or disappear with a first-month defeat; the buzz is generally lost, especially in South Bend, where it takes at least a win vs. a ranked foe to bring the program and its spoiled fans back in the fold.
I see a BCS season in the offing for the Irish, but for the third time in three off-seasons since joining the site in May 2009, I can't in good faith predict a 4-0 September for my alma mater.
History, in this case, prevails over (purportedly) educated projections and a healthy dose of optimism.
Prediction #7 – September SlipJust two of Notre Dame's four September foes have yet been featured in the ongoing Trouble Spots series: South Florida at #9 and October 1 opponent Purdue, which sits at No. 8. That means three of Notre Dame's seven toughest contests – at least in my opinion, will be played over the season's first four weeks.
None of the remaining first month trio: Michigan, Michigan State, or Pittsburgh, is likely a national title contender. Each is beatable, and Notre Dame led the each of the three at some point during their 4th Quarter match-ups last fall (beating only Pittsburgh).
The Spartans should be the only ranked team the Irish face in September, though it's likely Pittsburgh would grace the Top 25 with a road upset of Iowa in Week Three, the match-up preceding the Panthers playing host to Notre Dame.
The Irish will be a solid favorite (9.5-11.5 points) over South Florida; a mild favorite at Michigan (3.5 or less); and, pending a win or close loss in the Big House, favored to beat ranked Michigan State as well.
Notre Dame's record and Pitt's preceding contest vs. the Hawkeyes will help determine the spread at Pittsburgh in Week Four, but Notre Dame would have to enter with a 1-2 record for the then once-tested Panthers to be more than a 2.5-point favorite vs. the Irish at Heinz Field.
(Ancillary prediction #1: Notre Dame will be favored in each of its four September contests.)
Can Notre Dame win each of these four games? Of course. But couldn't they have in 2005, 2006 (19-5 combined), and 2009 (a last-minute loss at Michigan) as well? Or as the #3 ranked juggernaut of 1992? Or as a solid, contending team in 1995, 1996, or 1998? (Final aggregate record of the three seasons: 26-9.)
The season's first month – or to adapt for late-starting schedule's of the past, the season's first four games – have historically been unkind to the Notre Dame program, with a mere 13 of its last 47 squads beginning a season 4-0 – and six of those 13 came courtesy Ara Parseghian's guidance, 1964-1974.
(Irish head coach Brian Kelly has won each of his first four games in just two of seven seasons as an FBS head coach, consecutively in 2008-09 with Cincinnati.)
Over the last 21 seasons, Notre Dame has been favored in 12 of its 34 opening-month losses. (If the number of September losses appears high, consider a whopping 20 of those 34 defeats occurred in six of the 21 seasons during that span: 1997, '99, '01, '03, '07, and 2010).
Four bowl teams from 2010 will face the Irish in consecutive September weeks to start 2011. Just one of those four (Pittsburgh) will face another BCS conference foe during the season's opening four weeks – Michigan and Michigan State can dedicate extra time in August to the Irish, while Notre Dame must focus, recharge, and re-focus on the following Saturday's foe for three straight Saturday's.
Below is a review of the schedules for Notre Dame's 2011 September opponents:
- South Florida: Not relevant to the topic as the teams square off in the opener and will both have two weeks to prepare. Skip Holtz's crew faces Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP after traveling to South Bend.
- Michigan: A directional sandwich vs. Western and Eastern Michigan precedes, then follows their Week Two prime time battle with ND. Michigan then entertains its new head coach's former team, San Diego State, in an intriguing battle to conclude the month.
- Michigan State: Typical September fodder for the Spartans: this year's version combines Florida Atlantic and FCS-school Youngstown State prior to MSU's trip to South Bend. Central Michigan follows to end the month.
- Pittsburgh: Give them a solid E for effort, with a road trip to Iowa prior to hosting ND. The Panthers first warm-up with Buffalo and FCS-foe, Maine.
None of Notre Dame's first four foes is likely to be a college juggernaut next fall, but in total, four successive Irish victories without a defeat seems a daunting task for a program hoping to take the next step in 2011.
Why might this prediction be off-base?Though program history and the recent past are firmly in my corner, there are legitimate arguments vs. this prediction – Notre Dame's 1-3 start to 2010 notwithstanding.
- The Irish defense can handle two of the four foes on its own – Both South Florida and Pittsburgh could struggle offensively vs. the Irish, the Bulls because of their present makeup; the Panthers as an offense in transition with new head coach Todd Graham, coupled with losses of perimeter star power over the last two years. Bob Diaco's returning defense might not reach its stout November 2010 form during the season's opening month, but the advantage on paper heavily favors the Irish defense in both match-ups.
- Two of Notre Dame's four opponents have teams in transition – Michigan's Brady Hoke is changing a spread scheme and three seasons of spread personnel to fit his pro-style approach; Pittsburgh's Graham faces the more difficult task of turning a plodding, I-formation offense of the Panthers' recent seasons into the dynamic shotgun attack he featured at Tulsa over the previous four years.
Notre Dame and Brian Kelly faced this hurdle last fall and it showed: a 1-3 September stumble for a team that didn't hit its stride until Game Five (at BC) – and then not again until Week 11 following a much-needed Bye.
- The Irish might be as strong as I/we think – A contending team handles the likes of South Florida in the opener, a rebuilding Michigan team, and restructuring Pittsburgh, despite the road date. Only Michigan State and its potentially explosive offense looms as a likely Irish peer for 2011.
But five of the Notre Dame program's six best teams of the post-Holtz era slipped in September: 1998, 2000, 2005, 2006, and 2010 – with 2002 as the notable exception.
Moreover, three solid Holtz squads suffered a blemish during their first four contests (1987, 1995, and 1996) as did three of his six best squads during his tenure (1990, 1991, and 1992).
One September loss doesn't have to derail a season – and it won't for the 2011 Irish.
Ancillary Prediction #2: Unlike the program's last 4-0 start in 2002, a Brian Kelly 4-0 squad would not arrive at that mark via good fortune and fluke. Should the 2011 Irish start 4-0 and prove this prediction wrong, they'll roll into Stanford with no more than one loss on the ledger.