Avoiding the Head Shakers

Predicting a 12-week college football season has historically been an exercise in futility for Irish fans.

More than two months remain before the Irish football program begins fall camp and once again, hope springs eternal. Each off-season, nearly every Irish fan looks for reasons the upcoming squad can contend for national honors, and this season an influx of depth and skill position talent lends credence to the argument.

As does the perceived soft schedule. Notre Dame's upcoming 12-game slate is littered with teams facing major pre-season issues:

  • Rosters depleted through transfer, graduation (so to speak) and early departures (Michigan, MSU, Purdue, USC, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut)
  • The presence of a new quarterback or lingering decisions to be made at the position (Michigan, MSU, Purdue, USC, BC, Washington State, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut – featuring Irish transfer Zach Fraser)
  • Coaching changes (Purdue, Washington, BC)
  • And teams expected to endure another rebuilding season (Michigan, Washington, and Washington State)

But if history has taught us anything its that one or more of the 12 teams the Irish will face this fall will inevitably play an entirely different game than the experts, fans, and pundits expected after the initial whistle blows.

College football teams rarely perform as forecasted. In fact, since Notre Dame's last undefeated season in 1988, there have been, in my estimation, TWO completed schedules that didn't include an unforeseen upset of the Irish. Whether that loss occurred because an opponent happened to be underrated in the off-season; undervalued at the time of the contest; or simply played the game of their lives on the Saturday they faced ND, at least one team usually rose to the occasion vs. a favored Irish squad.

Below is a breakdown of such unforeseen surprises – the games that make most of us just shake our heads.

Fans that have learned from college football history know these games as the dreaded, often season-derailing phenomenon we call:

The Stubbed Toes

1989: Regular Season Losses (1). No Stubbed Toes in this near-championship season, just a heart-breaking, season-ending loss to eventual National Champion Miami. The loss snapped Notre Dame's school-record 23-game winning streak.

1990: Regular Season Losses (2). Stubbed Toe Game: a shocking 36-31 home loss to a Stanford team that finished 5-6. The home finale, a 24-21 loss to No. 18 Penn State might not qualify ... then again, the Irish had just re-ascended to the nation's No. 1 ranking prior to the contest.

1991: Regular Season Losses (3). I don't think there was a Stubbed Toe Game in the bunch: a road loss to No. 3 Michigan; a home loss to No. 13 Tennessee (Notre Dame was ranked eighth at the time) and the subsequent debacle at No. 8 Penn State the following week. The loss to Tennessee might not have been technically been a Stubbed Toe, but it was a shocker, as the Irish gave up a 31-7 lead in the 35-34 loss known in Knoxville as "The Miracle in South Bend."

1992: Regular Season Losses (1 – as well as a tie vs. Michigan). The lone defeat was a Stubbed Toe classic. With an NFL-laden roster, the seventh-ranked Irish jumped out to a 16-0 lead at home over No. 17 Stanford, only to watch the Cardinal run off 33 consecutive points in the humbling defeat. Stanford finished 10-3 but the '92 Irish ranked as one of the deepest and complete teams in Irish history.

1993: Regular Season Losses (1). It's still too painful to recount the 41-39 loss to No. 16 Boston College (the 10-0 Irish were back where they belonged at No. 1). Call it a letdown, call it a miracle, or call it a Stubbed Toe special. Let's just stop talking about it.

1994: Regular Season Losses (4 and 1 tie). Two Stubbed Toe candidates: a loss to unranked (but solid) Boston College in what was supposed to be revenge for ‘94 and the following week's home snoozer vs. BYU. By the way, the lost Irish squad of '94 featured more dissension than your average Timothy Leary experiment.

1995: Regular Season Losses (2). At the time, it appeared to be a sign of the Apocalypse…a season-opening home loss to Northwestern. However, the Wildcats proved to be a quality squad winning the Big 10 crown. The only other loss was to a loaded Ohio State team in Columbus. Was Northwestern a Stubbed Toe? Just consider how Irish fans felt about that matchup in the summer leading up to the contest…

1996: Regular Season Losses (3). A home loss to a better Ohio State team; an all-time Stubbed Toe home defeat, in overtime, to Air Force; and a season-ending loss at mediocre USC. It was Holtz's final game at Notre Dame and his first loss to the rival Trojans in 11 matchups. Total Stubbed Toe Losses: 2.

1997: Regular Season Losses (5). Stubbed Toe Moments: Other than the off-season coaching hire, the loudest alarm sounded in September with a 28-17 loss at unranked Purdue (Notre Dame was No. 12 at the time). It marked the first loss to the Boilers since 1985 (as an aside, Holtz finished 11-0 vs. Purdue). Other than a home loss to USC (in what can only be called an even matchup), the rest of the defeats occurred vs. ranked teams.

1998: Regular Season Losses (2). Stubbed Toes: The No. 10 Irish were destroyed at Michigan State, 45-23. The Spartans finished 6-5 though they did pull off an upset of Ohio State in Columbus later that season. The Irish also lost 10-0 at USC due largely to the absence of starting QB Jarious Jackson, who injured his knee the previous week taking an intentional safety at the end of a victory over LSU.

1999: Regular Season Losses (6). Stubbed Toes: A loss at unranked Pittsburgh (5-6) was the most unforgivable defeat, considering the Irish hadn't lost to the Panthers in a decade. Otherwise the Irish suffered through a disappointing season of near misses (headlined by a couple of sideline clock issues in September) and losses to superior teams.

2000: Regular Season Losses (2). Stubbed Toes: None. A valiant effort in a home overtime loss to No. 1 Nebraska and a last minute loss at No. 23 Michigan State (the Herb Haygood play) were the only regular season blemishes. The 2000 Irish rose to the occasion each week until the Fiesta Bowl annihilation at the hands of Oregon State.

2001: Regular Season Losses (6). Stubbed Toe: A home loss to Michigan State (7-5). The five remaining losses were to ranked or quality teams.

2002: Regular Season Losses (2). Stubbed Toe: Boasting a No. 3 ranking, an 8-0 record, and lima-bean green jerseys, the Irish lost 14-7 to unranked Boston College.

2003: Regular Season Losses (7). Stubbed Toes: The Irish were pre-season No. 12, so the perceived "Stubbed Toes" abound, but losses to unranked MSU at home; and a 38-12 season-ending disaster at 6-6 Syracuse top the charts.

2004: Regular Season Losses (5). Stubbed Toes: A season-opening 20-17 loss at BYU; crippling home losses to BC and Pittsburgh that sealed the coaching regime's collective fate.

2005: Regular Season Losses (2). Stubbed Toe: Losing the 44-41 OT thriller vs. Michigan State. The game marked one of the few upset losses in which Irish fans still believed they had a special team for that season.

2006: Regular Season Losses (2). Stubbed Toe: Normally a loss to Michigan wouldn't qualify but the second-ranked Irish were a touchdown favorite over the visiting Wolverines in the 47-21 defeat.

2007: Regular Season Losses (9). Stubbed Toes: Not Applicable. The only true Stubbed Toes were Navy and Air Force, though Air Force was favored entering the contest.

2008: Regular Season Losses (6). Stubbed Toes: Considering the pre-season projections of doom in Chestnut Hill, the shutout loss at BC would certainly apply. The Pittsburgh loss was a hard-fought contest, but Syracuse stands as the all-time example of why games aren't played on paper in the off-season.

The lessons? There are three: God Bless 1989; the 2000 Irish deserve a little more credit than we've given them; and most importantly, we have no idea how the 2009 season will unfold.

Coming Next Week: Coincidentally, an early (and much more upbeat) look at the 2009 slate.

Coming Tomorrow: A Pre-Camp Assessment of Robert Blanton

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