One month, four wins – three at home, one on the road.
It’s hardly an extraordinary achievement for a power football program, but it’s a jump out of the gates that Notre Dame has struggled to attain for the better part of a quarter century.
That is until head coach Brian Kelly righted September’s sinking ship in South Bend, winning his first four contest in both 2012, en route to 12 straight, and last fall when the Irish won their first six before a late-Autumn free fall.
So rare was the 4-0 start prior to Kelly – 1989, 1993, 2002…and that’s it since Lou Holtz’s title team of 1988 – that I never considered predicting a 4-0 mark at the season’s quarter point until that magical 2012 season and the summer that preceded it.
Yes, for all the predictions gone astray (a 19-18 “win” over Alabama comes to mind), this particular projection has yet to fail on the website:
2009 September Prediction: At least one loss (began 3-1)
2010 September Prediction: Two losses (began 1-3)
2011 September Prediction: At least one loss (began 2-2)
2012 September Prediction: 4-0 (began 4-0)
2013 September Prediction: A loss at Michigan (finished Sept. 3-2)
2014 September Prediction: 4-0, made easier by the absence of MSU (began 4-0)
Why 4-0 again for 2015? There are three key reasons:
1.) One game is a given: The presence of Massachusetts on a Notre Dame schedule is both off-putting and ill-timed in its Week Four slotting, but it’s also the most certain victory for an Irish team entering in our (that’s all of “our) lifetimes. Name your score.
2.) The true road test is manageable: Notre Dame’s second foe Virginia gave #7 UCLA all it could handle in Week Two last season, dropping a 28-21 decision despite entering the contest as underdogs of 21 points. Two weeks later, the Cavaliers upset #21 Louisville 23-21 in Charlottesville. They’ll protect their Scott Stadium turf with fervor vs. the incoming Irish on Sept. 13.
But the Wahoos replace usual Week Two suspects Michigan (where Notre Dame has won once since 1993) and current national heavyweight Michigan State on the Irish slate. On paper and in terms of intensity over 60 minutes, Notre Dame’s rivals to the north would provide a tougher test.
Virginia isn’t a gimme, but it’s an early-season matchup in which a legitimate contender must prevail.
3.) The Irish draw Texas at an ideal time: There are quarterback battles, such as Everett Golson vs. Malik Zaire, and there are quarterback quandaries – the latter resides in Texas.
Notre Dame’s opening-week edge over the inexperienced Longhorns should result in an initial point spread of at least 9.5 in the Irish favor when the Golden Nugget releases its annual “Game of the Year” lines in June. Though Kelly has not always had his squad at peak efficiency in the opener (Navy 2012, and relatively speaking, Rice 2014 the exceptions), a visit by one of college football’s blue bloods will have the squad’s full attention.
To be blunt, it’s a game the Irish should not, and cannot afford to lose. The rematch next September in Austin, conversely, could be a classic.
THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT
Georgia Tech, aka, Navy with talent.
-- Head coach Paul Johnson, the man that brought Navy from the depths to a stunning South Bend upset eight years ago, has an entire off-season to prepare for his trip up north, as Alcorn State and Tulsa precede Notre Dame on Tech’s schedule.
-- An experienced, dangerous athlete in Justin Thomas returns at the trigger -- with 80 percent of his offensive line intact as well.
-- A team that took Florida State to the wire in the ACC Championship game last December and won that prevailed in 11 of 13 contests last season, will not be affected by what should be a nationally relevant game setting.
This Week Three matchup is Trap City USA for the Irish and their fans (more on that in our forthcoming, “Trouble Spots” series this summer), but in this case, the schedule’s obvious trap also pairs with a vexing triple-option form of offense that Notre Dame’s defense has more often than not failed to stop over the course of 60 minutes.
And these aren’t Academy athletes.
The Irish will likely be favored by 6.5 to 7.5 points when this matchup’s initial line is released in June, and it would be surprising if the game doesn’t ultimately fall into the “Close and Late” category – that is, a contest determined by the events of the fourth quarter -- after the final gun.
Admittedly, Notre Dame’s September 19 outing against the Rambling Wreck delayed this annual prediction, but ultimately you can consider 4-0 and thus, end-of-September contention, as the official projection for Brian Kelly’s sixth-edition Irish squad.
WHAT 4-0 MEANS
Previous 4-0 starts have been few and far between for the Notre Dame program over the last 30 years. In fact, should Kelly’s crew turn the trick this fall, the sixth-year head coach would match Lou Holtz with three such starts as the head man in South Bend.
1988: Notre Dame began 4-0, beating #9 Michigan and rivals Michigan State, Purdue, and Stanford en route to a 12-0 finish and national championship.
1989: The top-ranked Irish were in the midst of a 23-game winning streak and reached 4-0 by beating Virginia in the now defunct “Kickoff Classic” and outlasting #2 Michigan, 24-19 in Ann Arbor. A head-knocking victory over Michigan State (the name Percy Snow still resonates with Irish fans in attendance) and Purdue followed as Holtz’s squad reached 11-0 before falling to eventual National Champion Miami in the regular season finale.
1993: A Week Two win at #7 Michigan stood out in the midst of blowout victories against Northwestern, Michigan State and Purdue as the undervalued Irish raced to 10-0 before losing the regular season finale against Boston College, aka, the day that weakened a nation.
It was the last great team of the Holtz era and ranks as the third and final season in which his Irish began at least 4-0.
2002: Tyrone Willingham’s first-edition Irish won every special teams and defensive battle to begin 4-0 by beating #21 Maryland, a strong Purdue squad, and rivals Michigan and Michigan State – the latter trio ranked as heart-stoppers for both fan bases. Notre Dame ultimately reached 8-0 and #3 overall before dropping three of its final five to finish 10-3.
2012: A 4-0 start featured dominant, new level defense by former coordinator Bob Diaco’s crew. The Irish hit 12-0 and No. 1 – a first since November 1993 – before the infamous Alabama debacle in the BCS Championship game.
2014: Four wins against what proved to be lesser foes but that reality didn’t diminish the fan base’s early-season love for Kelly’s youth-filled Irish crew. A 4-5 finish over the final two months, however, did.
Note: For the first two predictions in our summer series, click the links below:
The second of 20 predictions in our summer-long series projects a repeat effort by Notre Dame’s top touchdown producer.
The first of 20 predictions in our summer-long series first reviews the candidates, then settles upon the Irish defender who’ll serve as defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s chief playmaker in 2015.