Even before Tennessee upset Alabama on Saturday to end a 15-game losing streak to its rival and college football's supreme program, you could often hear Tennessee fans saying, "feels like 98," in reference to the last time the team won a national title. Roughly 500 miles north on Saturday, Notre Dame fans may have been uttering something similar but with a different meaning.
Notre Dame went 9-3 in 1998. It was Bob Davie's second season in charge after replacing the last Irish coach to win a national title, Lou Holtz. Holtz arrived to Notre Dame in 1986 to revive a program that had fallen into a rut, and was very successful with the Irish, winning a national title in 1988. Things then began to slow down slightly after at least 10 wins in five of six seasons from 1988 to 1993. The Irish went 23-11-1 in Holtz's final three seasons before he retired after the 1996 campaign amid rumors he was leaving for the Minnesota Vikings. In stepped Davie to take over a program that seemed to be on solid ground but wasn't.
Davie's Irish went 9-3 in 1998 but 5-7 the following season. It was the start of a 13-year trip through the wilderness for Notre Dame that saw three different coaches -- Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis -- have occasional success but were far too often mediocre or downright bad. The Irish were losing games to inferior opponents.
It was a period that ended when Brian Kelly was hired, though not immediately. Kelly went 16-10 in his first two seasons and lost to some teams he wasn't supposed to (Navy, Tulsa, South Florida), but he broke through with a 12-1 record and a BCS Championship Game appearance in 2012. The 2012 season raised expectations too quickly, however; the Irish would take a step back over the next few seasons and bottom out at 4-8 in 2016.
Then the real shift came -- the one where Notre Dame became one of the country's elite programs again. From 2017 to 2021, Brian Kelly's Irish teams went 54-10, and none of the 10 losses came to inferior teams. They came to Georgia, Miami, Clemson, Michigan, Alabama, and a Cincinnati team that reached the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame reached the playoff twice.
Then, like Holtz before him, Kelly left. Not to "retire" or take a job in the NFL (though Kelly was often mentioned with NFL openings in South Bend), but to take over at LSU. Notre Dame fans were left stunned that a sitting head coach would leave for another college program.
Now Marcus Freeman is in charge, and following a 16-14 loss to Stanford on Saturday, we shouldn't judge any Notre Dame fan who might be experiencing flashbacks to that decade in the wilderness. Freeman's tenure began in the Fiesta Bowl, a game in which the Irish blew a 28-7 lead over Oklahoma State to lose 37-35. His first full season started with a 21-10 loss to Ohio State, which is acceptable, but the Irish never appeared to be a threat in the game. That loss was followed by a 26-21 home loss to Marshall, a team that hasn't beaten another FBS team this season but has lost games to Bowling Green, Troy and Louisiana. It looked as though things were being put in order when the Irish pulled off three straight solid, if not convincing, wins, but any optimism was washed away against Stanford.
Stanford's win over Notre Dame ended an 11-game losing streak against FBS opponents. A Stanford defense that ranked 122nd nationally in yards allowed per play and 112th in points allowed per possession coming into South Bend held the Irish offense to 14 points and 301 yards of offense on 61 plays (4.93 per).
Is Notre Dame scared of joining the Big Ten because they’re scared of the Stanford game counting towards conference standings? People are asking.— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) October 16, 2022
The Irish are 3-3 with games remaining against Clemson, USC and a Syracuse team that's undefeated and up to No. 14 in the AP Top 25. Whether the team will even reach a bowl game is in question. While home games against UNLV, Navy and Boston College are winnable, Notre Dame has already lost home games to Marshall and Stanford. There are no sure things right now.
Of course, none of this means Marcus Freeman won't be successful in the long run. Brian Kelly struggled his first couple of seasons and lost games he wasn't supposed to lose. But this 3-3 start is an excellent reminder that just because a program has a history of success, it doesn't mean anybody can walk in and have things humming from the start. Oklahoma is in nearly an identical situation. Lincoln Riley left for USC and was replaced by first-time head coach Brent Venables, and the Sooners are only 4-3 and experiencing joy and relief for simply beating Kansas a week after being annihilated 49-0 by rival Texas.
Freeman is still figuring things out only seven games into his tenure as head coach. While patience is required, every home loss to a team like Marshall or 2022 Stanford will test how much patience fans or those in charge have.
Charity Drive of the Week
Y'all remember how we tore the goalposts down, hauled em out of Neyland and dumped em in the Tennessee River?— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) October 16, 2022
Yeah that was awesome.
Anywho, turns out that in order to play next week's game, we need goalposts on our field. Could y'all help us out? 🙏 https://t.co/NSMoL3SzPX
If there's any way you can help pay for my friend Tennessee's new goalposts, I'd really appreciate it. I swear Tennessee would buy its own goalposts if it could afford to, but you see,to tear its goalposts down. So, Tennessee is a double victim here. Not only did it get its goalposts stolen, but it's being punished for a daring heist the thieves pulled off! Maybe just a donation of $52.49?
Seriously, though, I'm sure Tennessee fans are happy to pay for those goalposts right now. If you ran into one Saturday night, you could probably convince a Vols fan to buy you a new house. They definitely would've bought you a drink and a cigar.
Houdini Act of the Week
For his next trick, K.J. Jefferson will put on a straitjacket, wrap himself in chains, suspend himself upside down in a tank of water filled with Great White Sharks and find an open receiver downfield within 15 seconds.
Also, it might surprise you that BYU's defense ranks 61st nationally in missed tackle rate, which isn't great, but it's not as bad as it looked in this highlight. They probably ranked a lot higher before this game!
Workhorse of the Week
Illinois improved to 6-1 on the season with a 26-14 win over Minnesota on the broad shoulders of running back Chase Brown, who rushed for 180 yards on 41 carries and caught three passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. Brown leads the nation with 1,059 yards rushing and has been a workhorse for the Illini all year, but something he did against Minnesota was especially remarkable.
Between his 41 carries and three receptions, Brown had 44 touches Saturday. Minnesota's offense ran only 42 plays as a team (Illinois ran 86). Brown touched the ball more often than the Gophers.
Catch of the Week
It isn't often the best catch you see in a college football weekend comes from a defensive back, but that was the case this weekend. Oklahoma's C.J. Coldon got up to get his fingertips on this ball and did a great job of keeping his eye on the prize as he fell to the ground and caught his own deflection.
Team of the Week
There were some great performances this weekend. Tennessee upset Alabama and ended 15 years of misery and pain. TCU came back to beat Oklahoma State to stay undefeated. Michigan trounced Penn State in a game that was a bigger blowout than the score indicates. Utah reminded USC that it's been the Pac-12's best program the last few years and let the Trojans know it doesn't plan to give up the crown easily. All these teams deserve accolades, but I have to give the award to Syracuse.
In short, I keep waiting for Syracuse to lose, and it keeps telling me to wait a little longer. The Orange took down No. 15 NC State 24-9, and while the Wolfpack didn't have Devin Leary (the quarterback will miss the rest of the season), you can only beat the teams they put in front of you, and Syracuse keeps beating them all. They're 6-0 and had a preseason win total of five.
Now the stage is set for a battle of unbeatens this weekend when Syracuse hits the road to take on No. 5 Clemson. I expect it to lose, but that might be the best news Syracuse can hear!
Photo of the Week
College Football Playoff Projection of the Week
This is a projection of what I think the committee would do this week if it were releasing a ranking, not a prediction of what I think it will be come the end of the season.
- Ohio State
Until the next Monday After!