This doesn't mean that 2-0 starts are common, however. Beginning with Ara's reign in 1964, Notre Dame has started 2-0 18 times (including 2005) and 1-0-1 once (in 1992 with the 17-17 tie to Michigan in the second game). ND, however, has been 1-1, 21 times and 0-2 three times.It may surprise you that Notre Dame has started unblemished for the first two games only 18 of 42 times since 1964. There are reasons for this, however. As purely a matter of chance, a 1-1 record is the most likely after two games (it should occur 50% of the time) because there are two ways it can be generated: either win then lose or lose then win. After the first game, either an 0-2 or 2-0 record is out of the picture.
Of course, football games are not matters of chance like a coin flip, but ND has usually had at least one (and often two) dangerous opponents in the first two games. Although Ara, for example, often had Northwestern as one of his first two games, he almost always had Purdue early as well, and the Boilermakers earned their "Spoilermakers" appellation by dealing Ara second-game losses in 1965, 1967, 1968 and 1969. (It's hard to believe in retrospect that the great Ara went four years out of five without a 2-0 start.) In more recent times, Michigan has often occupied one of the first two slots on the schedule, and when Michigan and ND haven't played, Michigan's replacement has often been a quality opponent like Nebraska in 2000 and 2001.
But even avoiding apparently difficult opponents hasn't guaranteed a 2-0 start. In 1995 the Irish looked to have a fairly clear path to a 2-0 start with a home-opener against Northwestern and a road trip to a struggling Purdue program. ND lost a shocker at home to Northwestern (who managed to lose the next week to Miami of Ohio, but eventually won the Big 10) and then Notre Dame struggled to beat Purdue 35-28.
In 1997, Bob Davie's path to a 2-0 start seemed fairly smooth with a home-opener against Georgia Tech and a road trip to Purdue. ND struggled to beat a so-so Tech squad, 17-13, and then traveled to Purdue to play first-year coach Tiller's squad, which was coming off a humiliating 36-22 loss to Toledo. The final: Purdue 28 and ND 17.
In 1983 Gerry Faust seemed to have a clear shot at his second straight 2-0 start after blasting Purdue 52-6 on the road and then getting Michigan State at home. Michigan State was coming off a 2-9 record the year before that included an 11-3 home loss to ND The final: MSU 28 and ND 23.
Unsurprisingly, in the most recent era, Ara and Holtz were the best at generating 2-0 starts. Ara started 2-0 in seven of his eleven seasons (although only two of his first six). Ara was 1-1 in his other four years.
Devine started 2-0 in only two of his six seasons: his first in 1975 and his last in 1980. His national champion 1977 squad started off with a lackluster 19-9 win over Pittsburgh on the road and then lost a 20-13 shocker to Mississippi on the road and then had to rally behind substitute quarterback Joe Montana to defeat Purdue 31-24 on the road.
Devine's teams started 1-1 a total of three times: 1976, 1977 and 1979. His 1978 team started off 0-2 with a 3-0 home loss to Missouri and a 28-14 home loss to Michigan. That squad's next two wins were hardly convincing: a 10-6 home win against Purdue and a 29-25 road win against MSU. But that team didn't lose again until the phantom incomplete pass in Los Angeles bailed out the Trojans and spoiled a furious Montana-led comeback. Speaking of comebacks, the 23 points scored against Houston in the last half of the fourth quarter of a frozen Cotton Bowl were pretty good, too.
Faust started off 2-0 once in 1982 and was 1-1 in each of his other four years. The 1982 squad had nice wins over Michigan and Purdue, and even though they finished 6-4-1, this was the one Faust team that was seriously in contention for a major bowl. That Irish squad was 6-1-1 fresh off an impressive 31-16 road win over Pittsburgh and actually played quite well (without starting QB Kiel) in a 24-14 home loss (one of the few games played at ND under the lights) to eventual national champion Penn St. The Irish fell apart, however, and lost their last two games on the road to Air Force and to USC (on yet another mystery call).
Holtz nearly matched Ara's proficiency for 2-0 starts. He was 2-0 in six of his eleven seasons and 1-0-1 in 1992. His first year (1986) he was 0-2 and then reeled of four straight 2-0 starts. In 1991 he was 1-1 and he was also 1-1 in 1994 and 1995. His near-national championship team of 1993 started off 2-0 as did his final squad in 1996.
Bob Davie, as already mentioned, never started 2-0. Davie was 1-1 in each of his first four years (always winning the opener and losing the second game) and then was 0-2 in his last year. Davie was the only coach in ND history to never to have a start better than 1-1 (James Morison, ND's coach in 1894, was 1-0-1 in his first two games in his single season at the helm and stands as the only other coach in ND history besides Davie never to enjoy a 2-0 start).
Willingham got off to a 2-0 start only once-- his first year in 2002. That year ND finished 10-3. In his other years leading the Irish he was 1-1 twice, getting blasted by Michigan in the second game on the road leading to a 5-7 year in 2003, and the other by upsetting Michigan after a shocking loss to BYU and eventually leading to 6-6 season in 2004.
In the 17 seasons before this year that ND has started out 2-0, its final season records are an aggregate 159-33-3 (.823), which works out to 9.9 wins per 12-game season. It had occurred to me that there might be some special significance to whether the 2-0 start included a victory over Michigan. That factor turned out not to make any appreciable difference, however. In the eight of those 17 seasons that one of the wins has been against Michigan, Notre Dame is 67-14-2 (.813) and in the other nine years, the Irish are 83-16-1 (.835). The worst a 2-0 ND squad has ever finished since Ara took over was the 6-4-1 tally by Faust's 1982 squad, which was discussed above. Every other 2-0 team in this period won at least 8 games. Eleven of the 17 2-0 squads posted at least nine wins by season's end.
Although there have been some excellent ND teams that started 1-1 in this period (the best being the 1977 national championship team), as a group they have not done nearly as well as the 2-0 teams. Notre Dame's squads that have started 1-1 to begin their season have posted aggregate records of 147-81-4 (.642), which works out to 7.7 wins per 12-game schedule. Nine times since 1981 a 1-1 start has opened the door to five or more losses by season's end.
In the three times that ND has started 0-2 over this stretch, its aggregate record is 19-15 (.559), which works out to 6.7 wins over a 12-game schedule. Even this modest tally is buoyed considerably by the "Chicken Soup" Cotton Bowl squad of 1978 that finished 9-3. The 1986 and 2001 squads both ended at 5-6.
Though this year's win over Michigan was close, a close win in one or even both of the first two games has not spelled doom. Ara's 1966 national championship team had one of its least convincing wins beating Purdue 26-14 at home, and his 8-2 1970 squad had probably the ugliest win ever scoring late off a fumble on a rain-soaked field to win 8-7. And, of course, Ara had all those ugly losses to Purdue.
Devine's 1975 squad looked far from overwhelming winning 17-3 over Boston College and 17-0 over Purdue, and his other 2-0 start in 1980 seemed like a long, long shot as Harry Oliver stood 51 yards from immortality as the Irish trailed Michigan 27-26 as the game's final play began.
Holtz's 1988 squad actually looked much less impressive opening 2-0 against Michigan and MSU than did the 1987 squad which had blown both teams out. His 1990 team needed some active assistance from Gary Moeller to pull that game out, 28-24, and then was very lucky to beat MSU 20-19. His 1993 team didn't make many converts with its come-from-behind win against Northwestern.
ND's 28-point total scoring margin for its first two games is typical of post-Ara 2-0 starts. Ara, when he started 2-0, averaged a total scoring margin of about 56 points for those two games, though this was often fueled by huge margins over Northwestern. Since Ara, ND's average total scoring margin for the first two games in 2-0 starts has been about 26 points, ranging from a low of 5 total points in 1990 to highs of 46 and 42 points in 1987 and 1996, though note that both of those teams finished the year with only eight wins.
Of course, none of this guarantees anything about the rest of ND's season. But the door swings open much wider to a fine season with a 2-0 start, no matter how it comes about.