It's how you start…

Or is it how you finish? Last week we examined what a fantastic finish generally means for the following season's Irish squad. After yesterday's prediction that Notre Dame will once again suffer a loss in September, we examine what hot starts have meant for Irish teams over the last three decades.

The No. 7 prediction in our summer series, published yesterday, offered that the Irish would not escape September unscathed. It also unearthed another story idea:

What has an undefeated first month generally meant for the program? What would it mean in 2011 after finishing the season at 4-0?

I'm glad you asked.

Below is a look at eight undefeated Septembers, or 4-0 starts, over the last three decades at Notre Dame

1980: Softly into the long goodnight

The Irish began 7-0 under head coach Dan Devine but stumbled on November 8 vs. a poor Georgia Tech team (1-9-1), suffering a 3-3 tie. Notre Dame rebounded with a Senior Day victory, but were then put down by #17 USC in the Coliseum, 20-3, dropping them from #2 in the polls to #7, though already scheduled for a Sugar Bowl matchup vs. #1 Georgia. The Bulldogs and future Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker prevailed, sending the outgoing Devine into retirement with a 9-2-1 record – solid, but anticlimactic after the 7-0 start.

1982: Roller Coaster Ride

Gerry Faust's second team raced to 4-0 on October 9, including two wins vs. ranked foes: #10 Michigan under the lights in the home opener, and vs. #17 Miami, a 16-14 revenge victory after the Irish had absorbed a 37-15 pummeling from the Hurricanes to conclude the previous season.

Notre Dame surged to #9 as a result of the victories, but lost its next contest to Arizona, 16-13 in South Bend, on last second field goal. The Irish then tied at Oregon (and as the masses began to form against Faust, it was oft-noted that the Irish tied winless Oregon not the other way around, settling for a 35-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining to knot the score at 13.

One of the most disjointed seasons in recent history then saw the Irish hit a solid 6-1-1 mark with an upset win at #1 Pittsburgh, vaulting the Irish back into contention at #13 entering mid-November. But Faust and Co. dropped three straight: #5 Penn State on Senior Day; at Air Force in a humbling 30-17 loss, then as victims of highway (or I suppose, freeway) robbery – and the lack of instant replay – recovering a last-minute goal line fumble by USC that was instead scored a touchdown against the #17 Trojans; a 17-13 defeat to conclude the 6-4-1 season after a 4-0 start.

1987: One year away

Lou Holtz's second squad began the season at #16 and reached # 4 in the polls on October 10 before falling under the lights in Pittsburgh, 30-22. The second half featured a furious Irish rally led by first-time competitor Tony Rice, and the ensuing option-heavy attack helped Notre Dame regroup to reach 8-1 and a #7 ranking thanks to a 37-6 Senior Day hammering of #10 Alabama in South Bend.

Two road tilts remained and the Irish lost both, first on a failed two-point conversion at Penn State, then 24-0 at #2 Miami. A Cotton Bowl blowout loss followed and the seemingly reborn Irish would have to wait a year to take over college football, winning the national title in 1988 despite an 0-3 finish to '87.

1990: Strike Three

The top-ranked Irish reached 3-0 in September before suffering a home upset vs. Stanford to begin October. They regrouped and regained the nation's top spot thanks to wins vs. #2 Miami and at #9 Tennessee, but were then bounced again from that perch, this time on a last second field goal by #18 Penn State on Senior Day in South Bend.

One of Holtz's most talented squad's finished 9-3 after a crushing 10-9 loss to national champion Colorado in the Orange Bowl – victims of one of the toughest schedules in program history (the Irish defeated teams ranked #4, #24, #2, #9, and #18 while losing to unranked Stanford, #18 and #1 along the way).

1993: Gut-shot

Undervalued for the first time since their '88 title campaign, Notre Dame upset heavily favored Michigan in a Week Two Big House beating, then cruised to 10-0 after a home upset of #1 and purportedly invincible Florida State. The infamous devastating loss to #16 Boston College followed before a Cotton Bowl win over #7 Texas A&M.

The '93 team was the sixth Irish squad over a 30-season span to squander national title hopes with a final week, regular season defeat (1964, 1970, 1974, 1980, and 1989).

2002: Pillars of Sand

From unranked in August to No. 3 in the first November BCS poll: Tyrone Willingham's first team hit 2-0 without an offensive touchdown; 4-0 after back-to-back wins vs. their tormentors from the state of Michigan; and 680 after back-to-back road wins vs. ranked foes Air Force (#18) and Florida State (#11).

A frustrating loss to a poor Boston College kicked off a 2-3 season finish and the beginning of the end of the three-year Willingham era.

1988 and 1989: Record-Breakers

No. 13 Notre Dame's '88 ascent began immediately, recording an opening night upset of #9 Michigan, 19-17 (without the benefit of an offensive touchdown). They reached #4 prior to the epic upset of #1 Miami, then finally graced the top spot – for the first time since Week Two of Gerry Faust's rookie season in '81 – entering November. The team's 3-0 September led to a 12-0 finish that bled into a 1989 season offering much of the same.

Unexpectedly down four starters to transfer/grades/injury, the '89 team nonetheless finished September 4-0, highlighted by a #1 vs. #2 victory at Michigan. They were challenged at home vs. Michigan State (21-13 in a head-knocker), and at mid-season vs. #9 USC (a 28-24 comeback win) before hitting 11-0 and a 23-game winning streak entering a season-ending loss at #7 and future national champion, Miami. The Irish then hammered undefeated and #1 Colorado, 21-6, but ultimately finished second to the rival ‘Canes.

Better indicator: Start hot, or follow a fantastic finish?

The Irish have concluded September undefeated on eight occasions since 1980 (in most cases, 4-0). Their aggregate record in that span was a 44-18-2 thereafter (though 77-18-2 including the September wins), with a low-point mark of 6-4-1 in 1982; but with four double-digit victory campaigns and an average of 9.6 wins per season.

Note: Lou Holtz enjoyed five undefeated, untied Septembers; his Irish finished an aggregate 52-9 in those seasons. (Or 62-10-1 including a tie in 1992).

Seven of the eight seasons ended with the Irish ranked among the nation's Top 20; five inside its Top 10.

Conversely, Notre Dame has finished November and its bowl game without a loss on just three occasions in that same span: 1988, 1992, and 2010. (Recaps can be found here.

Both the 1989 and 1993 squads highlighted above entered their respective seasons following an undefeated November, plus bowl game win from the previous season. Both ended September undefeated and both finished but a single loss from the national championship.

For the first time in nearly two decades, the 2011 Irish enjoy the same season-starting goodwill.

They have a legacy to reach in the process.

Get inside coverage of your favorite team. Click here now to get started.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories