While Notre Dame lines up one of its more friendly home schedules in recent memory the program is also facing one of its more challenging road campaigns for 2019. National spotlight games against Georgia and Michigan await while the always tricky–and as of late never winnable–trip to Stanford concludes the regular season.
How does the 2019 road schedule shape up in the long history of Irish football?
In the AP Poll era (beginning with the 1934 season) Notre Dame has played 314 opponents who were ranked at the time of kickoff and/or 305 opponents who would end the season ranked after facing the Irish. At kickoff, the program is 60-67-5 (.473) against ranked opponents on the road and 24-22-2 (.520) at a neutral site. For teams ranked at the end of the year the Irish are 45-79-5 (.368) on the road and 21-14-1 (.597) at neutral sites.
These numbers do include bowl games but for the rest of today’s article we will focus only on regular season non-home games for each Fighting Irish season.
There have been 51 Notre Dame seasons facing at least 2 non-home ranked opponents at kickoff while 43 seasons facing at least 2 non-home ranked opponents by the end of the year. For seasons facing at least 3 end-of-year ranked opponents away from home there have been 19 seasons to date. Those missing the cut today for the most difficult road schedule include (total opponent win percentage in parentheses):
The Top 10 Toughest Road Schedules
#10 1989 (.645)
#18 Virginia 10-3 (ACC Co-Champ)
#7 Michigan 10-2 (Big Ten Champ)
Air Force 8-4-1
#15 Penn State 8-3-1
#1 Miami 11-1 (National Champ)
Noted as one of Notre Dame’s toughest overall schedules in program history this 1989 season featured only 5 home games overall and only 1 in South Bend until week 8 with ranked Michigan State, ranked Pittsburgh, and Pac-10 and Rose Bowl champion USC playing at Notre Dame.
The Irish started the season against a surprise Virginia team at Giants Stadium followed up by a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in Ann Arbor. The back half of the road schedule featured a tough row finishing with the eventual champions who ended Notre Dame’s school-record winning streak.
#9 1991 (.650)
#6 Michigan 10-2 (Big Ten Champ)
#22 Stanford 8-4
Air Force 10-3
#3 Penn State 11-2
I recently talked about this season in an artice on the post-season Sugar Bowl the Irish limped into after this tough schedule. Remember, Penn State was still independent at this point. They’d win the Fiesta Bowl while as is their tradition Michigan would lose the Rose Bowl. Stanford finished a solid 4th in a very strong year for the Pac-10 and Air Force had itself a nice year, too.
#8 1952 (.651)
#10 Texas 9-2 (SWC Champ)
#18 Purdue 4-3-2 (Big Ten Co-Champ)
#1 Michigan State 9-0 (National Champs)
Frank Leahy’s second-to-last season saw one of the most challenging opening schedules with the first 3 road games taking place in the first 4 games with each opponent ranked at the time of kickoff. The highlight of this road schedule was eventual National Champion Michigan State who were working on their 23rd straight win when they faced Notre Dame and would eventually extend that streak to 28 games.
#7 1943 (.659)
#3 Michigan 8-1 (Big Ten Co-Champ)
#4 Navy 8-1
#11 Army 7-2-1
#9 Northwestern 6-2
#6 Great Lakes 10-2
Here is placed Leahy’s third season in South Bend which featured only 3 home games inside Notre Dame Stadium. If this road schedule isn’t brutal enough also factor in Iowa Pre-Flight finished #2 as one of the home games. Yes, six of ten games against Top 11 teams! If Wisconsin was even an average team this is in the mix as the toughest road schedule in Irish history and might be anyway. The schedule was so hard that even the finale loss to gathering war-time power Great Lakes didn’t prevent a National Championship for Notre Dame.
#6 1999 (.661)
#5 Michigan 10-2
#25 Purdue 7-5
#9 Tennessee 9-3
Stanford 8-4 (Pac-10 Champ)
Not great, Bob. The Irish opened the season in the Eddie Robinson Classic (played at home) and combined that win with 4 straight home victories in October. Unfortunately, all other games were lost including every single game on the road. Michigan actually won the Orange Bowl this year, as well. It’s pretty funny to see Stanford winning the Pac-10 and not ending up ranked until you realize this was the “big” season that vaulted Tyrone Willingham into the national consciousness.
#5 2001 (.688)
#8 Nebraska 11-2
#21 BC 8-4
#16 Stanford 9-3
Still not going great, Bob. We’ve covered a pair of Holtz teams, a pair of Leahy teams, and now a pair of Davie teams so far on this list. The Irish visited Memorial Stadium and Kyle Field within the first 3 weeks–one of the more challenging starts in school history–on their way to an 0-3 start. The team was never able to fully recover and limped to a sub-.500 record in Davie’s final season with Notre Dame.
#4 2004 (.694)
#24 Navy 10-2
#13 Tennessee 10-3
#1 USC 11-0 (National Champ)
The history with the Willingham teams is such that we witnessed them defeat co-Big Ten champion Michigan and a pair of ranked teams on the road and still struggle to only 6 wins. There are no tears being shed for Willingham but this 2004 season featured a very difficult road slate from an overall very challenging schedule.
#3 1956 (.710)
#16 Navy 6-1-2
#13 Pitt 7-3-1
#3 Iowa 9-1 (Big Ten Champ)
#18 USC 8-2
Here lies Paul Hornung’s Heisman season and a memory that Notre Dame opened the season as the No. 3 team in the nation. They’d beat horrid Indiana and North Carolina teams at home and lost every other game. That included opening the season with a loss in the Cotton Bowl against SMU and a blowout loss to Iowa late in the season, too. The Irish lost to No. 9 Michigan State and National Champion Oklahoma at home to add salt to this wound that is a ridiculous road schedule.
#2 1957 (.718)
#18 Army 7-2
#3 Michigan State 8-1
#4 Oklahoma 10-1 (Big Seven Champ)
Terry Brennan couldn’t catch a break with the scheduling at Notre Dame. Following the brutal ’56 season above the Irish finished the season at the Cotton Bowl (winning this time!) but were beaten soundly in East Lansing. The good news is that Notre Dame toppled Oklahoma in Norman (snapping the Sooners’ NCAA record winning streak) which was pretty much the highlight of the post-Leahy years during the 1950’s.
#1 1985 (.808)
#2 Michigan 10-1-1
#8 Air Force 12-1 (WAC Co-Champ)
#3 Penn State 11-1
#9 Miami 10-2
If there was any doubt Gerry Faust would survive at Notre Dame beyond his 5th season this 1985 schedule didn’t drive a nail into his coffin it drove a dozen nails into his coffin. This was actually one of the easiest home schedules in recent memory (the Irish won 5 of 6) highlighted by a pretty good 9-2-1 LSU team (the lone home loss) and not much else to brag about. The road schedule–dear Lord–there was no hope. Notre Dame fought hard in a few of these road games but were beat by 18 by Purdue, 30 by Penn State, and infamously by 51 points in Faust’s final game in Miami.
It’s a weird coincidence that 3 of these Top 10 most difficult road schedules (1985, 2001, 2004) came in a Notre Dame coach’s final season in South Bend.
Where could the Notre Dame 2019 road schedule fit in this history?
Below is the S&P+ pre-season projections for each of the road games and where those rankings could place the opponents win-loss record by the end of the season:
Louisville 87 (5-7)
Georgia 2 (12-2)
Michigan 9 (10-3)
Duke 65 (7-6)
Stanford 32 (9-4)
TOTAL: 43-22 (.661)
In terms of winning percentage this would tie for the 6th hardest road schedule ever at Notre Dame. Granted, this might be a little more optimistic about Louisville than most think (I actually predicted 3-9 in my ACC preview) for a program coming off a 2-win season. A 3-win Louisville for example would drop this winning percentage out of the top 10 most difficult completely.
However, the Louisville game (although kind of interesting being a Labor Day 8 PM ET opener against a new coach) shouldn’t be a memorable one for the history books nor change this road schedule in any great way. It’s the trio of Georgia, Michigan, and Stanford that could define Notre Dame’s 2019 season and carve out more of Brian Kelly’s legacy.
On the surface, these road games are a major uphill battle for the Irish.
Since 1994, Notre Dame has faced 39 end-of-year ranked teams on the road. They’ve won 7 of those games for a .192 winning percentage. Holtz at Texas (’96), Davie at LSU (’97), Willingham at FSU (’02) and Tennessee (’04), plus Kelly at Oklahoma (2012), at Michigan State (2017), and Northwestern (2018) is all the program has in the bank over the last quarter century. If it’s not fair to lump Kelly in with his predecessors he’s only 3-12 (.200) in road games against ranked teams, although one win in each of the last two seasons!
The humbling nature of these games–and why you might be smart to take the under on 9.5 wins for 2019–is that history says 0-3 in these big road games is overwhelmingly more likely than 2-1 and especially 3-0.
The Irish have won just 2 out of their last 10 trips to Ann Arbor and have lost their last 5 in a row and 6 of their last 7 on the road to ranked Michigan teams. The trip to Stanford has been equally horrible with losses in the last 5 trips, including to the last 4 to ranked Cardinal teams in Palo Alto.
If there is hope I think it rests in two areas:
1) This could potentially be the best Notre Dame team to head to Ann Arbor to face a ranked Michigan team since 1993. The Irish narrowly defeated a pretty good Michigan team that year, and to be fair, it’s a lot to ask of the 2019 team to be as good as ’93 Notre Dame as that feels like a decent gap in talent and star power.
2) There are decent odds that Stanford isn’t that good, maybe not ranked by the regular season finale, and could have as many as 5 losses by the time Notre Dame rolls into town.
I won’t even talk about the Georgia game, that’s going to be plain hard.