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Notre Dame’s New Tradition Is Getting Its Ass Kicked in Big Bowl Games

The Fighting Irish keep getting invited to college football’s most important and prestigious postseason games. They keep losing—by a lot.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

College football is a sport of regeneration. An NFL team may have the same starting quarterback for 15 years; meanwhile, every player on a college football roster turns over within five years. Yet the college football landscape generally stays the same. Alabama is perennially a juggernaut, replacing its superstars with more superstars; Oklahoma is perennially an offensive powerhouse, with a future high-round draft pick at quarterback; Auburn is perennially doing something that can’t be explained.

That’s because college football is also a sport of tradition—and no school has stronger traditions than Notre Dame. Every college football fan knows the Gipper and Rudy and Touchdown Jesus. Year after year, decade after decade, the Fighting Irish slap the same sign before playing in the same stadium and wearing uniforms that look the same as their predecessors’. The same song plays every time the Irish score a touchdown; the team sings a different song after each game ends. And there’s one other thing that perennially stays the same about Notre Dame: It’s good enough to get invited to prestigious postseason games, and bad enough to get utterly demolished every time.

On Friday, the Irish will appear in the College Football Playoff for the second time in the past three seasons. They were selected in spite of the fact that their last trip to the sport’s four-team championship invitational resulted in a 30-3 demolition at the hands of Clemson—and in spite of their 34-10 loss to Clemson just two weeks ago, the largest margin of defeat ever suffered by a team to receive a playoff invite. This Notre Dame team is the worst selection in the seven-year history of the playoff, considering that the recently demolished Irish were picked over a handful of undefeated teams. They are 20-point underdogs against Alabama, the largest spread in the history of the playoff—and the third-largest spread in the history of bowl games ever.

At this point, we simply expect Notre Dame to get blown out in big games. Hypothetically, there is little linking the Irish team that will face Alabama on Friday to the team that surrendered 35 consecutive points to Alabama in the national championship game in January 2013. The coaches—Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Alabama’s Nick Saban—remain the same, but pretty much everything else is different. All of the players from that 2013 game have left college, and most have finished their pro football careers. Many of Notre Dame’s current players were in middle school at the time of that game. But one team is still Notre Dame and the other team is still Alabama. We know what comes next, and it won’t be pretty.

Notre Dame’s postseason woes date back to the early 1990s and help explain the evolution of the college football postseason. For decades, college football didn’t pick an official national champion. The team that ended the season ranked no. 1 in various polls was just considered the champ. That team was often Notre Dame, which has won 11 national titles, the most recent of which came in 1988. (That’s 10 years before most current college football players were born.) But in the 1990s, conferences began to form loose confederations to pit top teams against each other at the end of a season to more objectively determine who was the nation’s best team. Notre Dame didn’t belong to a conference, but was given a seat at the table by virtue of having won so many championships. The Irish would get an automatic bowl spot against a conference champ so long as they managed to win a handful of games in their hand-picked schedule. That often sent subpar Notre Dame teams into mismatches against the best teams in the sport. From 1995 to 2006, the Irish lost nine straight bowl games.

Since then, the bowl season has expanded from a handful of games for the sport’s elite into a massive fracas that includes nearly two-thirds of all FBS teams. That allowed Notre Dame to finally break its bowl losing streak; in the past 15 years, the Irish have won second-tier bowls such as the Citrus Bowl and Sun Bowl, as well as third-tier bowls such as the Hawai’i Bowl, Pinstripe Bowl, Music City Bowl, and Camping World Bowl.

And the championship selection process has supposedly become more egalitarian. The College Football Playoff doesn’t explicitly give Notre Dame special access to games. Some argue that the Irish’s ability to hand-pick a schedule instead of playing a conference slate allows them to coast into the postseason without facing a real test. But Notre Dame typically has a tough schedule. This year, the Irish played an ACC schedule because of coronavirus-related scheduling issues and started 10-0. Notre Dame perennially produces a reasonably good team—just not good enough to win the big games.

The true stars of the sport—the five-star prospects, the Heisman Trophy winners, the future NFL stars—go to programs like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State. Notre Dame has not landed a player ranked in the top 25 of the 247Sports composite recruiting rankings since 2013, when future Pro Bowl linebacker Jaylon Smith signed with the Irish. When five-star tight end Michael Mayer enrolled at Notre Dame this June, he became the first top-50 recruit to do so since 2016.

College football is a sport of regeneration—and it keeps regenerating an Irish team that is significantly worse than the best teams in the sport. That’s why they’ve been embarrassed in nine straight big-time postseason games.

1995 Fiesta Bowl: Colorado 41, Notre Dame 24

Our story begins with the clearest example of a mediocre Notre Dame team going up against one of the powerhouses of the sport due to bureaucratic nonsense. The Irish’s history of getting obliterated by the best teams in the sport extends so far back that it started when Colorado was regularly one of the best teams in the sport.

The Irish and Buffaloes had a mini-rivalry in the early 1990s, as Notre Dame beat the top-ranked Buffs in the 1990 Orange Bowl, and Colorado returned the favor to claim a national championship a year later. In 1992, Notre Dame helped form the Bowl Coalition, an agreement between most of college football’s major conferences to send their best teams to the big bowl games. The conferences would send their respective champions; the Irish would go so long as they won six games.

By the time the Irish and Buffs met in 1995, their programs had trended in opposite directions. Colorado was still a powerhouse, going 11-1 with its only loss coming against eventual national champion Nebraska. It had a Heisman winner at running back (Rashaan Salaam) and a future NFL star at quarterback (Kordell Stewart). Meanwhile, Notre Dame went 6-4-1. It was a total mismatch.The Buffs raced out to a 31-3 lead; Stewart tallied 348 total yards (205 passing, 143 rushing). The final score obscures how lopsided this contest actually was.

1996 Orange Bowl: Florida State 31, Notre Dame 26

This one doesn’t quite fit the mold: Notre Dame deserved to be here after going 9-2, and the game was close! The Irish even led Florida State in the fourth quarter despite playing without starting quarterback Ron Powlus, who went down with an arm injury a few weeks earlier. But Notre Dame couldn’t hold off the no. 2 offense in the country, featuring quarterback Danny Kanell and running back Warrick Dunn. Kanell led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives and the Irish lost their second big bowl game in a row.

2001 Fiesta Bowl: Oregon State 41, Notre Dame 9

Yes, Oregon State. Not Oregon. The Beavers had rattled off an NCAA-record 28 straight losing seasons before head coach Dennis Erickson was hired in 1999. In 2000, the Beavers landed a pair of junior college transfers who went on to become NFL teammates and stars in Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. They tore through the Pac-10, sharing the conference title with Washington, the only team to beat them.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, was merely OK. In 1998, the Bowl Championship Series took over as the sport’s new system for determining a national champion. In the BCS era, Notre Dame still had special rules guaranteeing it access to important games. The Irish were ensured a top-tier bowl berth if they finished in the top 8 of the BCS rankings, which were set via a formula tied to both human polls and computer algorithms. If Notre Dame finished in the top 14, it was still allowed to be considered for an at-large selection by any BCS bowl. This mattered because when BCS bowl games weren’t required to pick a certain league’s conference champ, they were allowed to pick from a small pool of eligible teams—and often chose the ones that would result in the most profit for their game. So in 2001, Fiesta Bowl executives were asked to pick between pitting Oregon State against no. 6 Virginia Tech, no. 9 Kansas State, or no. 11 Notre Dame. The Fiesta Bowl went with Notre Dame, citing “the program’s national following.”

A school experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime season played against a school experiencing just another season. Who do you think won?

The Beavers went ahead 41-3; Notre Dame didn’t score a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter. Johnson and Houshmandzadeh combined for 167 receiving yards and three touchdowns; Notre Dame had only 155 yards of total offense. The Beavers actually gave up more yards on penalties (174, including six personal foul calls for 90 yards) than Notre Dame had total yards. This was one of my favorite bowl games ever, a rowdy, riotous celebration of an improbable season that will never be repeated.

Nothing remotely similar has happened to Oregon State since. Over the past 20 years, similar things have happened to Notre Dame time and again.

2006 Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State 34, Notre Dame 20

Anyone who watched this game has the exact same memory of it. This is the game in which Notre Dame was led by quarterback Brady Quinn, and Ohio State was led by linebacker A.J. Hawk—who was dating (and is now married to) Quinn’s sister, Laura. If the game broadcast lasted three hours, I promise you that at least two of them were dedicated to focusing on the future Mrs. Hawk, who wore a split Ohio State and Notre Dame jersey with Hawk’s number on one side and Quinn’s on the other. The broadcast would briefly show the game action—like Hawk sacking Quinn, or Ted Ginn Jr. reeling off a massive touchdown—before cutting back to the conflicted woman in Buckeyerish garb.

Laura recalls being mad. First, because she didn’t know how much she was going to be on TV. “I think it annoyed a lot of people watching the game,” she said. “I wish I had known in advance how much attention they were going to give to that.” She was also upset that her future husband hadn’t been forthright with her about a game plan that involved completely destroying her brother. “Stupid me, in the weeks leading up I’d be like, ‘Are you going to be rushing a lot?’ and A.J.’s telling me, ‘No, no, that’s not really in our game plan,’” Laura said. “Then here comes the game and he sacks him twice, and I think I got more frustrated and angry with him as the game went on.”

The result was a rout in a close game’s clothing. The Buckeyes gained a stunning 617 yards; the Irish mustered only 348. Ohio State gained 9.6 yards per play; Notre Dame’s figure was 4.8. Ginn and Santonio Holmes combined for 291 receiving yards and each caught a touchdown pass from Troy Smith; Ginn also rushed for a 68-yard score. Meanwhile, Quinn didn’t throw for any touchdowns and was sacked five times. But Ohio State lost three fumbles while Notre Dame had none, so the Irish kept it a one-score game until the final quarter. This is the most competitive big bowl game that Notre Dame has played in this century.

2007 Sugar Bowl: LSU 41, Notre Dame 14

Raiders fans can blame Notre Dame. JaMarcus Russell torched the Irish so badly that he became the no. 1 pick in the next NFL draft.

What we have here is another instance of a Notre Dame team that couldn’t crack the top 10 of the final BCS rankings landing in a game against one of the nation’s legitimately elite squads. The 11th-ranked Irish were 9-2, but the two losses were huge blowouts: a 47-21 loss to Michigan and a 44-24 defeat to USC. They didn’t beat any teams that finished the season ranked. Meanwhile, LSU was ranked fourth.

At one point, this game was tied at 14. Then LSU scored 27 straight points, with Russell running for a touchdown and throwing a 58-yard bomb to Brandon LaFell.

Quinn went 15-of-35 passing for 148 yards; Russell went 21-of-34 for 332. LSU nearly doubled up Notre Dame in total yardage, 577 to 291. It was the ninth straight bowl loss for the Irish, and the last major bowl game the program would play in under head coach Charlie Weis.

2013 BCS National Championship Game: Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14

Never has a game that was so anticipated been so ugly. Alabama did to Notre Dame what opening the Ark of the Covenant did to all those Nazis in Indiana Jones.

Notre Dame went undefeated in the 2012 regular season, and if you go undefeated, you get to play in the national championship game. (Unless you’re UCF, Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina, or San Jose State.) But it was a dicey 12-0 record: The Irish had a three-point win over 6-7 Purdue, a seven-point win over 8-5 Michigan, an overtime win over Stanford, a three-point win over 8-5 BYU, and a triple-overtime win over 6-7 Pitt. Alabama was 12-1 with a bunch of dominant wins and a squeaker of a loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. Sportsbooks had the Crimson Tide listed as 10-point favorites entering the game; it wasn’t nearly enough.

The following video might look like it’s just an Alabama highlights clip, but I can assure you: It’s all of the highlights from this game.

Alabama scored touchdowns on its first three drives and took a 35-0 lead. Notre Dame didn’t score until late in the third quarter. A.J. McCarron threw for four touchdowns, two to Amari Cooper; both Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon went for over 100 yards and scored. Bama outgained Notre Dame 529-302.

2016 Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28

I love when old classics get replayed! On the 10-year anniversary of Notre Dame’s last blowout Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, the Irish had another blowout Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. The main difference is that this one happened in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl, a result of the game’s one-year sponsorship agreement with something called “BattleFrog.”

By this point, the College Football Playoff had replaced the BCS as the sport’s method of setting the matchups for the major bowl games; the Fiesta Bowl could no longer pick Notre Dame just because it was Notre Dame. Regardless, the Buckeyes romped, with Ezekiel Elliott rushing for 149 yards and four touchdowns, and Michael Thomas adding a receiving score. Ohio State went up 28-14 at the half and never looked back.

2018 Cotton Bowl: Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3

In 2018, the Irish went 12-0 to secure their first bid to the College Football Playoff. Unfortunately, they met a Clemson team that was also undefeated, and only one of the two rosters was national championship caliber. Clemson racked up 538 yards; Notre Dame had 248. Trevor Lawrence spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench so that he could stay healthy for the national championship game, in which Clemson beat Alabama.

There might be little connecting Notre Dame’s current squad to the ones that lost to Colorado and Oregon State, but most of the Irish players from this game were on the field when Notre Dame lost to Clemson 34-10 this December. All told, Notre Dame has lost its past eight major bowl games by a combined 166 points—an average of almost 21 points per game. (Toss in this year’s ACC championship, and the average remains about the same.)

College football is a sport of regeneration and tradition, and Notre Dame’s tradition is to keep regenerating pretty good teams. Unfortunately, tradition only does so much. I’m 30, almost a decade older than most active college football players, and I’m not old enough to remember Notre Dame’s last national championship. Anyone my age or younger only knows the Irish as the program that keeps getting invited to the sport’s big games and getting its ass kicked. It’s Notre Dame’s new tradition.