Strong to the Finish?

Notre Dame has entertained at least faint championship hopes heading into its final two contests 15 times in the last five decades. Brian Kelly’s 2015 crew hopes to be the seventh among that group to play for a national title thereafter.

"Winning's hard."

Brian Kelly’s oft-referenced credo has permeated his squad’s leadership council and likewise been hammered home by Kelly’s coaching compatriots since the outset of November. And let’s face it, the only style points a football coach cares about these days is whether to don a visor or well, what else does one where upon his crown besides a visor these days, anyway?

It’s not a new theory but the current race for playoff positioning and previously for BCS riches brought its reality to the fore.  And it’s certainly true at Notre Dame, a place where November has proved especially cruel after the leaves annually fall from their picturesque campus’s trees.

Just a dozen Irish squads over the last 50 seasons have finished the season’s final month unscathed – two of those and counting belong to the program’s current head coach.

Kelly will have to make that No. 3 in six seasons at the helm if his team is to attain its oft-stated goal of championship play at year’s end.

More challenging it seems is finishing the drill. A three-month season takes its toll, and even the historical best the program has to offer has fallen flat in the face of pressure or a potent foe during a season’s decisive final two Saturdays

NOVEMBER REIGN
Just 14 Irish squads over the last 50 football seasons entered the final two weeks of regular season play in realistic contention for a championship. As noted below, four won national championships thereafter.

2012 (10-0): Won as the nation’s No. 3 team at Boston College 21-9 and as No. 1 at USC 22-13 to claim a spot in the BCS Championship game, losing to Alabama 42-14 thereafter.

2006 (9-1): Ranked No. 6, beat Army, lost at No. 3 USC 44-24

1993 (9-0): Ranked No. 2, beat No. 1 Florida State, lost to No. 16 Boston College, 41-39. Florida State went on to claim the national championship.

1990 (8-1): Ranked No. 1, lost on Senior Day to No. 18 Penn State 24-21, beat No. 18 USC 10-6 thereafter and played for a chance at a split national championship, losing to Colorado 10-9 in the Orange Bowl.

1989 (10-0): Ranked No. 1, beat No. 17 Penn State 34-23 in Happy Valley, lost to No. 7 Miami 27-10. The Hurricanes went on to claim the national championship.

1988 (9-0): Ranked No. 1, beat Penn State on Senior Day and won at No. 2 USC 27-10. Beat No. 3 West Virginia to claim the national championship thereafter.

1980 (8-1): Ranked No. 2, beat Air Force 24-10, lost at No. 17 USC 20-3. Lost as No. 7 to No. 1 Georgia thereafter and the Bulldogs claimed the national championship.

1977 (9-1): Ranked No. 6, beat Air Force 49-0 and at Miami 48-10. Moved up to No. 5 and beat No. 1 Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl to claim the national championship.

1974 (8-1): Ranked No. 5, beat Air Force 38-0 but lost at No. 6 USC 55-24 in the “Anthony Davis Game.” Dropping to No. 9, beat No. 2 Alabama 13-11 in the Sugar Bowl to deny the Crimson Tide a national title (chances are, they claimed it anyway, but I digress…)

1973 (9-0): Ranked No. 5, beat Air Force 48-15 and at Miami 44-0. Ascended to No. 3 and beat No. 1 Alabama 24-23 to claim the national championship.

1970 (8-0): Ranked No. 2, beat LSU 3-0 and dropped to No. 4 thereafter. Lost at unranked USC 38-28 in the regular season finale. Beat No. 1 Texas 24-11 in the Cotton Bowl a month later. 

1966 (8-0): Ranked No. 1, tied No. 2 Michigan State 10-10 and beat No. 10 USC 51-0 one week later. The Irish were in the midst of abstaining from bowl games and claimed the national title with a 9-0-1 record thereafter.

1965 (7-1): Ranked No. 4, the Irish lost to No. 1 Michigan State 12-3 and tied unranked Miami – 0-0.

1964 (8-0): Ranked No. 1, beat 28-0 but lost to unranked USC 20-17 to conclude the season.

Between Kelly’s current crop of Irishmen and a shot at the title stand the nation’s No. 1 defense followed by the toughest annual rival of his six seasons at the helm.

Thereafter, the best or two best teams Notre Dame has faced since January 7, 2013 will provide formidable road blocks to the squad’s lofty goal.

Despite nine wins in 10 games and more than two months of football, the heavy lifting has clearly just begun.


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