Today's Irish 101 Topic: When September EndsTwenty seasons have passed since the Irish finished a season undefeated. Off the top of your head can you guess how many seasons during that span the Irish have exited September with no blemishes?
Four (1989, '90, '93, and '02 - the '92 squad suffered a tie). The aggregate record of those four seasons was 42-8 with three of the four squads holding legitimate national title aspirations on New Year's Day. Charlie Weis has yet to exit the month undefeated (nor did Bob Davie from '97-'01).
Losing in September is certainly better than losing in November in terms of a program's BCS options, but a loss on the ledger before the leaves begin to turn is a downer for fans of any school. Excitement dampens; scoreboard watching begins in earnest; and hysteria replaces hope among the team's fan base.
Can the '09 Irish negotiate its September slate without a misstep? Let's take a closer look using history as our guide:
Game 1: NevadaBuzz Level – Non-Existent (other than the fact that it's the season-opener): Unless the team resides in Boise (or maybe Salt Lake City if you regularly wear Maize & Blue to work), there's little "oomph factor" beginning a season vs. a program outside the BCS. Yes, Nevada is dangerous. Yes, they can score; and yes, the program has confidence and expects to win on September 5. But unless Nevada finishes 13-0 beating the Irish, Missouri, and Boise State along the way, there'll be an uprising in South Bend if the Irish drop the opener to the Wolf Pack.
Likelihood the Game is Within Reach Entering the 4th Quarter – Not Even Mildly Surprising for September 5: In four seasons Charlie Weis has fielded opening day teams that have looked (chronologically): Awesome; Battle-tested; inexplicably awful; and feeble (but victorious). Nevada ranks as either the third or fourth best foe among Weis' five season-opening opponents.
Likelihood of an Irish Loss – Low: Notre Dame has suffered what could be referred to as a "shocking upset" just twice over the last 20 season-openers: 1995 vs. Northwestern (who finished the season in the Rose Bowl) and 2004 at BYU (and we probably shouldn't have been shocked). They've had two additional outings that qualified as "escapes" vs. vastly inferior opponents (Vanderbilt in '96 and SD State in '08). In every other season, the Irish faced solid competition or blew out an also-ran.
Game 2: at MichiganBuzz Level – High…just not off the charts per usual: There's no such thing as a sure-win in an ND/UM matchup. And there's nothing about a game against the Maize & Blue that doesn't excite a Notre Dame fan. The Wolverines could be down again (3-9 in '08) but I'll believe it when I see it. This is the game both programs are pointing toward in Fall Camp.
Likelihood the Game is Within Reach Entering the 4th Quarter – Relatively High: In last year's relative blowout (a game in which ND was never challenged), the Irish led just 28-17 entering the final period. Michigan possessed the football near mid-field only but suffered a fumble-recovery touchdown (Brian Smith) essentially sealing the game. In '05 when the Irish offense opened with a flawless first half they nevertheless maintained just a 14-3 advantage entering the 4th.
Michigan has destroyed the Irish (albeit with a team possessing a talent level that in no way resembles the Wolverines' 2009 squad) in two of the last three games played in Ann Arbor and three of the last six games in the series. Notre Dame's last comfortable win in The Big House was 1993, a game in which the 27-23 score is (extremely) misleading. (If we're splitting hairs, the last technical blowout by the Irish at Michigan was 1987 when Tim Brown led the way to a 26-7 romp.)
The Irish will be favored and in '09 are the better team, but a blowout would be a surprise result for at least one Irish Eyes Publisher.
Likelihood of an Irish Loss – Relatively Low on Paper: I'm fairly certain the game won't actually be played on paper, but the 2009 Irish are a more talented and more experienced unit than the '09 Wolverines. Notre Dame is a respectable 4-5 in its last nine games in the Big House (Weis is 1-1) and the Irish aren't yet good enough to feel any undue pressure due to ranking or hype following a contest with Nevada. The sight of the Michigan helmet and uniform should be enough to quell any undeserved feeling of superiority upon kickoff.
Game 3: Michigan StateBuzz Level – High…and much higher than it should be: The Spartans' six-game winning streak at Notre Dame Stadium (and 9-3 overall record vs. the Irish since that streak began in 1997) is both impressive and ridiculous. Not to mention annoying and inconceivable if you came of age as a Notre Dame fan during the 70s, 80s, or early 90s (Notre Dame was 22-3 vs. the Spartans from 1970 through 1994). The Spartans have found their leader in head coach Mark D'Antonio (2-0 vs. ND) and they'll bring another physical, talented, though less experienced unit to South Bend for the season's litmus test.
Likelihood the Game is Within Reach Entering the 4th Quarter – 95%: Barring key injuries, a major blowout by either team would be a complete shock, at least where we stand three months prior to the season.
Likelihood of an Irish Loss – 40%: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to lose to Michigan State at home until someone puts a stop to this madness…"
Game 4: at PurdueBuzz Level – Ehh… Notre Dame's aggregate record over the last 20 seasons when it beats Purdue: 133-47-2. ND's final season record when it loses to the Boilermakers: 26-35. The Irish have beaten the Boilers in 15 of the past 20 seasons. In just three of those 15 did the Irish finish with more than three losses on the year ('94, '01 – when the game postponed to December 1 – and 2008). Apparently Purdue is a litmus test as well.
Likelihood the Game is Within Reach Entering the 4th Quarter – It Should be Expected: The Boilers are 4-2 vs. the Irish since 1997 at Ross-Ade Stadium. Only one of the six matchups qualifies as an evenly-matched contest (1999). But each of the last six Purdue teams the Irish encountered at Ross-Ade was more dangerous than the '09 version. There should be additional pressure on the Irish at this point, either fighting to move to a crucial 3-1 mark or striving for a 4-0 start and national attention.
Likelihood of an Irish Loss – It's Not Expected: The best Irish team to lose at Ross-Ade (at least since 1979 when both squads were national powers) was likely the misguided 5-6 clock masters of 1999. Purdue will be battle-tested with a trip to Oregon two weeks prior, but the Boilers don't look like a Big 10 player as of May 27. A loss at Purdue in '09 would be a bad sign for an Irish team that has a better-than-average chance to begin the season at 4-0.
Past results don't necessarily predict future success, but Irish fans will likely have a grasp of what to expect from the 2009 season…When September Ends.