Irish Brace for 7 Close and Late

Prediction No. 4 in O’Malley’s summer series examines the likelihood -- yet again -- of a preponderance of close calls next fall.

Magic Johnson dubbed it, “Winnin’ Time.”

Joe Montana is famous for owning it, while former Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson is infamous for choking when faced with it.

In college football, champions are often crowned because of it, while seasons, coaching staffs, and programs are waylaid annually in the wake of it.

For the purposes of this annual column, I call it, “Close and Late” – football games decided by the events of the fourth quarter.

And once again, the success of Notre Dame’s season will depend on it, as Prediction No. 4 in our summer series posits the Irish will play at least 7 games Close and Late this fall.

The 65-game Brian Kelly era in South Bend has included 39 “Close and Late” contests – hereafter defined as games during which at some point in the fourth quarter, the losing team was within one possession of tying the score or taking the lead, no matter the final margin.

-- 2010 (8-5): 3-3 Close and Late -- With each of the three defeats decided in the final 20 seconds or overtime.
-- 2011 (8-5): 3-4 Close and Late – Notre Dame’s second straight 8-5  finish ended with an 18-14 defeat in the Champs Sports bowl.
-- 2012 (12-1): 7-0 Close and Late en route to a 12-0 regular season finish
-- 2013 (9-4): 7-4 Close and Late – Our pre-season prediction was a whopping nine, one easily surpassed by the Tommy Rees-led Irish.
-- 2014 (8-5): 4-4 Close and Late – ending on a high note with a last-second victory over LSU

Kelly enters the 2015 season 24-15 in games played Close and Late/45-20 Overall.

Why settle on 7 Close and Late for the Irish in 2015?

Consider the following:

Pending your personal order of preference, the four best teams on Notre Dame’s slate are USC, Stanford, Clemson, and Georgia Tech.

None appear decidedly better or worse than do the Irish entering 2015.

Pencil in each for a Close and Late result and move on.

Though the Irish will be favored in each of the three when initial lines are released in mid-June by, Notre Dame’s opening month schedule includes a trio of potential dog fights among four matchups:

-- Texas in the Opener: Expect the host Irish to be favored by at least 10.5 over the QB-challenged Longhorns…and expect the ‘Horns remaining talent base to knock heads with Notre Dame for 60 minutes.

Chance for a Close and Late: 40 percent

-- At Virginia: Notre Dame should be favored by just under two touchdowns in this mid-afternoon matchup in Charlottesville. It’s also Malik Zaire’s first road start.

Chance for a Close and Late: Conservatively, 35 percent

-- Georgia Tech: Hey, an option offense with non-Academy athletes. Sounds fun…

Chance for a Close and Late: 95 percent

It’s safe to assume two from this trio will be decided in the fourth quarter.

Boston College at Fenway Park in late November? Navy arriving in South Bend one week after the Irish exit Clemson and one week prior to the arrival of USC?

Which side seems more likely to be full-tilt from the outset of these contests, Notre Dame? or its pair of chip-on-the-shoulder opponents?

At least one, if not both, will be decided in the fourth quarter.

In case you need a refresher on the recent history of this series:

-- 2008: Pittsburgh 36 Notre Dame 33 in 4 OT
-- 2009: Pittsburgh 27 Notre Dame 22
-- 2010: Notre Dame 23 Pittsburgh 17
-- 2011: Notre Dame 15 Pittsburgh 12
-- 2012: Notre Dame 29 Pittsburgh 26 in 3 OT
-- 2013: Pittsburgh 28 Notre Dame 21

Pencil in Pittsburgh for another Close and Late annoyance.

A three-spot of can’t-lose-contests for the Irish in 2015:

-- Massachusetts Sept. 26: Playing UMass Close and Late in Game Four portents a coaching search in January. Moving right along...

-- Wake Forest on Senior Day: Another three-win season is afoot in Winston-Salem.

-- at Temple, Halloween: I like what head coach Matt Rhule is doing in Philly (6-6 last season, by the way), but this spot is a tough one for the Owls as the Irish hit the City of Brotherly Love following their bye week. Expect Notre Dame to begin its five-game home stretch with a quality outing.

Overall, a potential 9 Close and Late were identified above.

Subtract from that 9 one requisite blowout by a dialed-in Irish squad (for example: Utah 2010; MSU 2011; MSU 2012; Michigan 2014) and we’re at 8.

Subtract from that the likelihood that one from the Pittsburgh, Boston College, or Navy trio is summarily dismissed (as they should be) by a superior Notre Dame team, and 7 is the lucky number for what will be a Top 15 pre-season Irish squad this fall.

How Kelly’s Irish fare in those seven Close and Late outings will decide whether Top 15 becomes Top 5, or if the Irish are bowling among college football’s also-rans again this December.

A look back at four previous coaching eras in South Bend plus the aggregate results of college football’s top four teams playing Close and Late over the last two seasons:

2014 Playoff Participants Close and Late
-- Ohio State: 7-1
-- Oregon: 2-2
-- Florida State: 9-0
-- Alabama: 4-2
Combined 22-5 Close and Late/52-6 Overall

2013 BCS Top Four Close and Late
-- Florida State: 1-0 en route to 14-0 and the BCS Championship
-- Auburn: 6-1 en route to 12-2, national runner-up
-- Alabama: 1-2 en route to 12-2
-- Michigan State: 6-1 en route to 13-1
14-4 Close and Late/51-5 overall

Lou Holtz Era: Close and Late
1986: 1-5
1987: 1-2
1988: 3-0
1989: 5-0
1990: 5-3
1991: 3-1
1992: 2-1-1
1993: 4-1
1994: 1-3-1
1995: 4-2
1996: 2-2
31-20-2 Close and Late/100-30-2 record overall

Bob Davie Era: Close and Late
1997: 4-3
1998: 4-1
1999: 3-6
2000: 4-2
2001: 3-4
18-16 Close and Late 35-25 record overall

Tyrone Willingham Era: Close and Late
2002: 7-1
2003: 3-3
2004: 4-3
14-7 Close and Late/21-15 record overall

Charlie Weis Era: Close and Late
2005: 3-3
2006: 3-0
2007: 1-2
2008: 3-3
2009: 4-6
14-14 Close and Late/35-27 record overall Top Stories