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Can Brian Kelly reverse Notre Dame’s awful record against top-ranked teams?


Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was asked the big-game question again during his media availability ahead of Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 1 Alabama.  

“I mean, we’re knocking on the door every year playing really good teams and great opponents,” Kelly responded. “There’s elite football teams. I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up when we’re always in the games.”  

Kelly then answered the question about that narrative himself.  

“We haven’t won a national championship, that’s correct. I’m not changing the record,” he said. “But we are there every single year and we’re grinding it out just like everybody else. And only one team gets to celebrate at the end of the year.”  

Notre Dame won its last national championship in 1988, and the narrative exists because of the missed big-game opportunities ever since. Sporting News looks closer at those missed opportunities against top-five teams ahead of the next opportunity against the Crimson Tide.  

Pre-BCS reputation (1989-1997)  

The Irish won their last national championship in 1988 under Lou Holtz, and they maintained a reputable big-game reputation through his final season in 1996.  

From 1989-96, Notre Dame compiled a 7-5 record against top-five teams, including a 4-3 record in regular season top-five showdowns and a 2-3 record in bowl games. The high point was the victory against Florida State in the Game of the Century in 1993.  

A look at those matchups (*denotes bowl game)  

SEASON WINNER SCORE LOSER SCORE
1989 No. 1 Notre Dame 24 No. 2 Michigan 19
1989* No. 1 Colorado 21 No. 4 Notre Dame 6
1990 No. 1 Notre Dame 28 No. 4 Michigan 24
1990* No. 1 Colorado 10 No. 5 Notre Dame 9
1991 No. 3 Michigan 24 No. 7 Notre Dame 14
1991* No. 18 Notre Dame 39 No. 3 Florida 28
1992* No. 5 Notre Dame 28 No. 4 Texas A&M 3
1993 No. 11 Notre Dame 27 No. 3 Michigan 23
1993 No. 2 Notre Dame 31 No. 1 Florida State 24
1994* No. 4 Colorado 41 Notre Dame 24
1995 No. 17 Notre Dame 38 No. 5 USC 10
1996 No. 4 Ohio State 29 No. 5 Notre Dame 16

That is a steady track record of success against top-five competition. The loss to Ohio State in 1996, however, foreshadowed the slide that would come in the BCS era. 

BCS before Brian Kelly  (1998-2009) 

The Irish sifted through three coaches in the BCS era in Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, and this is where the big-game hits showed up.  

From 1997-2009, Notre Dame went 2-14 against top-five teams. Both victories were against top-five Michigan teams in the regular season. Five of those losses were to USC, and that included the “Bush Push” game in 2005. 

A look at those matchups (*denotes bowl game) 

SEASON WINNER SCORE LOSER SCORE
1998 No. 22 Notre Dame 36 No. 5 Michigan 20
1999 No. 3 Tennessee 38 No. 24 Notre Dame 14
2009 No. 1 Nebraska 27 No. 23 Notre Dame 24
2000* No. 5 Oregon State 41 No. 10 Notre Dame 9
2001 No. 5 Nebraska 27 No. 17 Notre Dame 17
2003 No. 5 Michigan 38 No. 15 Notre Dame 0
2003 No. 5 USC 45 Notre Dame 14
2003 No. 5 Florida State 37 Notre Dame 0
2004 No. 1 USC 41 Notre Dame 10
2005 No. 20 Notre Dame 17 No. 3 Michigan 10
2005 No. 1 USC 34 No. 9 Notre Dame 31
2005* No. 4 Ohio State 34 No. 5 Notre Dame 20
2006 No. 3 USC 44 No. 6 Notre Dame 24
2006* No. 4 LSU 41 No. 11 Notre Dame 14
2007 No. 5 Boston College 27 Notre Dame 14
2008 No. 5 USC 38 Notre Dame 3

The lone top-five showdown in that stretch was the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on Jan. 2, 2006. The Irish also had blowout BCS bowl losses to Oregon State and LSU in that stretch.  

Brian Kelly’s record against top-five teams

The Irish beat No. 1 Clemson 47-40 on Nov. 7 this season, but that marked the first win against a top-five team under Kelly, who took over in 2010.  

Kelly is right about the opponents. Notre Dame has played seven top-five opponents since Kelly took over, and the Irish were ranked in the top five in five of those games.

The results, however, have followed a similar pattern (*denotes BCS championship, **denotes CFP semifinal, ***denotes ACC championship).  

SEASON WINNER SCORE LOSER SCORE
2011 No. 4 Stanford 28 No. 22 Notre Dame 11
2012* No. 2 Alabama 42 No. 1 Notre Dame 14
2014 No. 2 Florida State 31 No. 5 Notre Dame 27
2018** No. 2 Clemson 30 No. 3 Notre Dame 3
2019 No. 3 Georgia 23 No. 7 Notre Dame 17
2020 No. 4 Notre Dame 47 No. 1 Clemson 40
2020*** No. 4 Clemson 34 No. 2 Notre Dame 10

Expanding it further, Kelly is 3-8 against opponents ranked in the top 10 at Notre Dame. Five of the eight losses were by 14 points or more, including that 28-point loss to Alabama in 2012 — the last time Notre Dame played for a national championship.

What’s next?  

Add those numbers up since the BCS era, and it’s easy to see why the Notre Dame big-game narrative exists.  

Notre Dame is 3-20 against top-five teams, including a 0-5 record against those teams in bowl matchups. Alabama’s blowout victory in the 2013 BCS championship game hasn’t been forgotten, and that was the game reference that prompted Kelly’s reaction in the first place.  

“We’re going to keep getting back here, and that’s our job,” he said. “That’s our challenge each and every year is to compete for a national championship, and we’ll continue to do that.”  

A win against Alabama would be a good start. 




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