“This is a big win for us. It will serve as a springboard into next season.”
- Every college coach, player that’s ever won a bowl game
It sounds good. It wraps a pretty bow around the season and gives everyone a good feeling as they pack their pads away until the spring and begin the long journey again.
A bowl victory. The inspiration a football program needs heading into the off-season to maximize its potential. The motivation to build upon its success.
Is this a tired, inaccurate stereotype and more football hyperbole, or a fact-based theory with a proven track record? When teams point to a bowl victory and its significance heading into January and February, it doesn’t take into consideration several factors.
Did the head coach stay or go? How did the players feel about the head-coaching change? How many changes were made in the assistant coaching staff? Were those assistant coaching changes upgrades? How many proven players are gone from the previous year? How many stars, high draft choices and glue pieces were lost from the previous team?
These and many other factors contribute more significantly to the next season than a game won or lost in December or January. The overall mood of the program is impacted in the short term, but by spring drills, the slate is clean. The roots of the program take over from there, diminishing the impact of the outcome of the bowl game.
But what do the statistics say? How has Notre Dame done the season after a bowl victory and how has Notre Dame done the season after a bowl defeat?
Let’s start with the national championships. There have been three – 1973, 1977 and 1988 -- since the Irish returned to the bowl scene on a long-term basis during the 1969 season when Notre Dame played No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1970.
Many around Notre Dame in the early ‘70s will tell you that Notre Dame’s 40-6 loss to Nebraska in the Jan. 1, 1973 Orange Bowl inspired the Irish the following season when they went 11-0 and claimed the ’73 national title with a 24-23 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
It was Ara Parseghian’s second national title (1966 was the other one), but Notre Dame’s first as a regular bowl participant. (Notre Dame defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl following the 1924 season to claim the national title.)
In 1976, Notre Dame wasn’t accustomed to going to “minor bowls,” yet the opportunity to meet Joe Paterno’s Penn State squad in the Gator Bowl was too enticing to pass up. Notre Dame won that game, 20-9, and then lost in the second game of the ’77 season at Mississippi. Ten straight victories later, including a 38-10 whipping of No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, Dan Devine’s Irish were crowned national champions.
As in 1973, the 1988 squad came back with a vengeance following a 35-10 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl to conclude the ’87 season in which the Irish limped to the finish line with three straight losses.
The 1988 team slipped by Michigan in the opener (19-17), defeated No. 1 Miami, 31-30, in one of the great games in Notre Dame Stadium history, and went on to claim the national championship by defeating No. 2 USC in the regular-season finale and No. 3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.
In 1973 and 1988, many would claim a loss in the bowl game to conclude the previous season served as the greatest motivation in preparation for the upcoming campaign.
The 2012 team went 12-0 during the regular season to earn the right to take on Alabama in the national championship game. That season came on the heels of a lackluster 18-14 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
That means three of the last four times the Irish have played in a national-title tilt, Notre Dame lost a bowl game to conclude the previous season in either convincing (1973 and 1988) or less-than-aesthetic fashion (2012).
And yet statistically, the Irish have turned in better campaigns the years after bowl victories than they have the years following bowl defeats.
Notre Dame – with its 31-28 win over LSU in the Music City Bowl – is 17-17 in bowl games with the outcome of the season following the most recent victory to be determined in the fall of 2015.
When Notre Dame has claimed its other 16 bowl victories, its combined record the following years is 137-49-3 for a .732 winning percentage. When Notre Dame has lost its 17 bowl games, its combined record the following years is 137-65 for a .678 winning percentage.
Again, there are numerous factors to consider beyond the outcome of the bowl, first and foremost, the talent drain.
For example, after the Irish won the 1977 national title, they had to replace first-round draft picks Ken MacAfee (tight end), Ross Browner (defensive end) and Luther Bradley (defensive back) the following season. They went on to lose three times in ’78 and four times in ’79.
And yet when the 1988 national champs lost just two high draft picks – tackle Andy Heck in the first round and defensive end Frank Stams in the second – the Irish went 12-1 in ’89 while extending their overall winning streak to 23 games. The return of ample veteran talent carried over into another near-national title season.
While the Irish did not claim the 1993 national championship, they won their first 10 games, including a home victory over No. 1 Florida State, which was followed by a devastating regular-season finale against No. 16 Boston College. The Irish went on to defeat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl to finish 11-1. All this on the heels of a one-sided defeat of the Aggies in the previous Cotton Bowl.
Another top season after a bowl win came in 1992 (following a come-from-behind win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl). The ’92 Irish finished 10-1-1.
Another top season after a bowl loss came in 1970 (following a loss to No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl). The ’70 squad, led by quarterback Joe Theismann, went 10-1, including a revenge-tinged victory over No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl to end the Longhorns’ 30-game winning streak.
During Notre Dame’s nine-game bowl losing streak from 1994-2006, the Irish finished under .500 the next season four times, including twice under Bob Davie (5-7 in 1999 and 5-6 in 2001), once under Tyrone Willingham (5-7 in 2003), and once under Charlie Weis (3-9 in 2007).
So what’s the conclusion from Notre Dame’s history of 17 wins and 17 losses in bowl games? That if the Irish have a good, well-coached team coming back the next season with ample playmakers and a limited number of lost stars, it doesn’t really matter what happened in the bowl game eight months earlier.
If anything, a loss in the previous bowl game seems to provide an increased impetus for a great season to follow. Perhaps Notre Dame’s dramatic, inspiring victory over LSU in Nashville will serve the same purpose.