Rank 'Em

Our question of the week elicits a painstaking process...with plenty of room for debate throughout.

This week's subscriber question was right up my alley, not to mention to the point:

"How would you rank Notre Dame's last 30 teams, 1-30."

With a half-hearted, disingenuous apology to those ranked #25 or below, here you go: 1982-Present:

The Cream of the Crop

Championship caliber across the board, those that fell short were either robbed ('93), ill-timed in defeat ('89), or wished a playoff existed ('92) rather than the old bowl system.

  1. 1988 (12-0): Defeated teams ranked #1, #2, #3, and #3. And never lost. All arguments thereafter are rendered moot.

  2. 1993 (11-1): An illogical vote away from a national championship. The most disciplined, physically strong Irish team of my lifetime couldn't overcome three bad quarters of football with a wild fourth quarterback comeback in their only loss, 41-39 to #16 Boston College on Senior Day in South Bend.

  3. 1989 (12-1): The better, more prepared team won in Miami (27-10) to conclude the season and an Irish run at consecutive national titles. The loss snapped Notre Dame's program-record 23-game winning streak for a squad that possessed at least the second most talented two-deep roster on our list and potentially the most talented player-for-player.

  4. 1992 (10-1-1): Would have given anyone in the nation, and any team on this list, a run for its money at season's end, concluding with 7 straight wins over programs such as BC, Penn State, USC, and 11-0 Texas A&M. An unexpected 3-1-1 start and home upset loss to (Rose Bowl-bound) Stanford knocked them down the polls and our list.

  5. 1990 (9-3): Faced the toughest three-month schedule of any Irish team over the last 30 years, squaring off vs. teams ranked #4, #24, #2, #9, #18, #18, and #1…with a home loss to lowly Stanford inexplicably intermixed. The squad's upperclassmen formed a Who's Who of Irish football stars.

Next In Line

Each was among the 10 best teams in the sport at some point during its respective seasons, but none proved championship quality.

  1. 1991 (10-3): The offense produced the most touchdowns in program history (64 including the Sugar Bowl win over #3 Florida) but the defense was in a transition year, relying on sophomore (and some freshmen) talent throughout its ranks.

  2. 2005 (10-3): A magic ride for a team most national pundits forecast major struggles. The Brady Quinn-led attack was one of the three best offenses I've seen at the school in 30 years; a rare team that was legitimately one play away from playing for the national title. The first string on both sides of the ball was top notch but depth was lacking throughout the roster.

  3. 1995 (9-3): Suffered what was at the time an earth-shaking upset in the home opener to Northwestern, but the Wildcats went on to represent the Big 10 in the Rose Bowl. Playing without starter Ron Powlus, Holtz's #6 Irish concluded the season by blowing a 26-12 fourth quarter lead to #8 FSU in the Orange Bowl in a year that can be viewed much better in retrospect than at the '95 season's end.

Successful, But…

Each had more than a few proud moments but fizzled late, putting a damper on otherwise enjoyable campaigns.

  1. 1987 (8-4): Reached #7 nationally entering its final two regular contests but proceeded to lose both: a failed two-point conversion heart-breaker at Penn State followed by a shutout loss to #2 Miami. The Irish were hammered in the Cotton Bowl to conclude the season with three straight defeats after an 8-1 start. The program rebounded to win the national title the following season.

  2. 1996 (8-3): Holtz's final team dominated the low-hanging fruit it faced but registered just two impressive wins (at #6 Texas and vs. Washington) and lost to the three other teams it faced with a pulse. They were out-classed at home vs. #4 Ohio State, something that never would have happened during the '87-'93 era.

  3. 2002 (10-3): What it lacked in offense was more than made up for with a vicious defense, speedy, opportunistic special teams, and desire. The fall from grace upon entering the Los Angeles Coliseum at 10-1 was staggering as many of the same players lost nine of their next 14 thereafter (through 2003).

  4. 2006 (10-3): Perhaps the most disappointing 10-win season in team history. The Irish entered the season ranked #2 as legitimate BCS Title contenders and exited with a trio of blowout losses to the only teams capable of beating them on a forgiving 13-game slate.

  5. 1998 (9-3): Hit 9-1 before starting quarterback and team heartbeat Jarious Jackson was lost to injury. The Irish finished 0-2 with Jackson sidelined: a 10-0 defeat at USC to conclude the regular season kept them from the inaugural season of BCS bowls. The '98 front five was likely the last great offensive line showcased at the program.

  6. 2000 (9-3): Solid and steady enough to win the race, but ultimately too slow, and thus exposed by the breathtaking speed of Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. An unexpected bounce-back season after a 5-7 finish in 1999 and 2-2 start to 2000.

A for Effort…D for Disappointment

Teams in this section occasionally made their respective fan bases proud by either A.) hanging with the nation's best, or B.) finishing with a flourish. Pre-season expectations weren't met, but they're better football teams than those listed in the following section.

  1. 1986 (5-6): Lou Holtz's first squad was the best sub-.500 team in program history, and the only such team viewed as an inspiration in hindsight. They'll never be challenged on that front...

  2. 2010 (8-5): From 4-5 with no semblance of hope, on or off the field, to 8-5 and a first-year squad that again gave Notre Dame fans hope and a source of off-season pride. Bob Diaco's late-season defense was the best over a four-game span since the aforementioned 2002 squad stifled its first nine foes. Brian Kelly's first season could be deemed successful as the troops rallied from an ugly opening two months.

  3. 1982 (6-4-1): A 6-1-1 start with a win at #1 Pittsburgh (Dan Marino as the Panthers' triggerman) seems highly incongruent with this Gerry Faust-led squad's 0-3 finish.

  4. 1984 (7-5): An Aloha Bowl loss to SMU (post-Pony Express) concluded a campaign with a narrow victory over Navy (18-17), a win at weather-torn #14 USC (19-7). The improvement from 3-4 to 7-4 included a win at #6 LSU…this on the heels of a three-game skid that saw a two-touchdown home loss to Air Force. In other words: the strangest season ever.

    (I turned to the reigning authority on the era, Blue and Gold Illustrated's Lou Somogyi, to decide between Faust's '84 squad vs. his '83 team. Somogyi pointed out: "How often in history has a team ('84) defeated an SEC champion (LSU) and a Pac 10/Rose Bowl champion (USC) in the same year — and on the road to boot?")

  5. 1983 (7-5): A 6-2 start, an 0-3 regular season finish, but a Liberty Bowl win over Doug Flutie's Boston College squad to conclude a season that included the high point of a 27-6 win over USC but a 23-22 loss to Air Force. The Falcons were Faust's Waterloo...

Others Receiving Votes

Each spent most of their respective seasons on the outside looking in at the Top 25. Four different head coaches with plenty of blame to go around...

  1. 2011 (8-5): Kelly's second squad failed to show up in the first half for three losses and in the fourth quarter in two others. Won one meaningful game vs. solid Michigan State but took it on the chin vs. its two best foes, USC and Stanford. That about covers it.

  2. 1994 (6-5-1): Perhaps that only Irish team that Holtz could not reach. Its veterans were undisciplined and out of shape; its collective team speed far less than the program was used to previously. Still, the Irish hung tough with two of the nation's best in Michigan and Florida State along the way. The group was likely more talented than some isted above but it was one that never should have boarded the plane for the fiasco that was the Fiesta Bowl, during which the team showed more fight on the pre-game bus than between the lines.

  3. 1997 (7-6): Bob Davie's first Irish team won five straight to end the regular season and six of seven after a stunning 1-4 start, but the team (that's right, the team) is penalized for the students inexplicably storming the field on Senior Day as the 11-point home favorite Notre Dame beat #22 West Virginia, 21-14. Apparently expectations had been lowered. Lost in a blowout rematch vs. LSU in the Independence Bowl.

  4. 2009 (6-6): 10 of 12 games were decided on the last possession and the Irish lost six of them. The defense wore down in November and helped end the Charlie Weis era in South Bend. Among the exciting wins, a home victory vs. middling Michigan State ranks at the top.

Fodder for the List

I should probably limit the comments section below...

  1. 1999 (5-7): Will likely go down in Irish lore as the only team to run out of time, twice, and in back-to-back September games in the opponents' red zone with a chance to win. A standout season by Jarious Jackson could not offset inadequacies on the defense and sidelines. Lost four straight to end the season.

  2. 1985 (5-6): An 0-3 finish vs. the nation's elite included the most infamous defeat in program history: a 58-7 bloodletting in Miami that ended the Faust era (though he resigned four days previously). The 'Canes and head coach Jimmy Johnson paid for their transgressions three years later in South Bend.

  3. 2008 (7-6): Don't kid yourself, they don't deserve higher...

  4. 2004 (6-6): Three blowout losses (including the Insight.com Bowl) and an opening defeat at BYU sullied the season and ended the Tyrone Willingham era. They'll always have Knoxville…

  5. 2001 (5-6): Likely the second-worst offense of Notre Dame's modern era though the D held its own more often than not.

  6. 2003 (5-7): A major letdown after a wild 2002 ride, the '03 Irish might have finished 2-10 if not for the exploits of standout running back Julius Jones.

  7. 2007 (3-9): You saw it. I saw it. Let's not relive it.

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