Notre Dame's Top Rival: Who Takes the Cake?
If you walk down the streets of South Bend and ask any Notre Dame fan who the Irish’s biggest rival is, more than likely the answer will be “USC.” However, if you ask a fan who isn’t as well versed in Notre Dame history, you might hear responses like Michigan, Boston College, Miami, Florida State, or even Navy.
Why do some Notre Dame fans consider USC to be Notre Dame’s biggest rival, while fans might consider these other teams to have that distinction?
For starters, you can thank Notre Dame’s diverse schedules for the plethora of responses. Additionally, some older Notre Dame fans might believe that younger fans aren’t schooled in the rich history and tradition of Notre Dame Football.
I’m 24, and I think I’ve read enough books, magazines, and articles to be fairly knowledgeable on Notre Dame’s history. Without a doubt, USC is Notre Dame’s biggest and oldest continuous rival, with some of the most exciting games played in either school’s history.
Why, then, would some consider these other teams to be Notre Dame’s biggest rivals? Could it be that because of the dominance by the Trojans in the recent history of the annual game, some fans don’t get too emotionally invested in the games anymore?
What constitutes a rivalry?
A rival is a person or group that is at constant odds with the subject: rival businesses, rival competitors, etc. A rival is not someone who is in conflict with someone or something else just once. A rival is always there, making things difficult: Joker to Batman, Tom to Jerry, and the Red Sox to the Yankees, just to name a few.
More importantly, a rival usually makes things much more difficult at critical moments—say when a football team is making their historic run for the National Title (don’t say Boston College—more on that later).
Who are Notre Dame’s main rivals, and why?
Notre Dame vs. USC
The Notre Dame/USC rivalry is the longest-running intersectional rivalry in the nation. What does that mean? It means that it is the longest rivalry that has nothing to do with conference affiliation or geographical positions.
Notre Dame started playing USC in 1926. Notre Dame and USC have played every year since excluding 1943, 1944, and 1945, when the series was halted for the Second World War.
Why is this Notre Dame’s biggest rivalry? It’s the biggest rivalry because of all the tradition behind it.
First, Notre Dame has been playing USC since before the Great Depression. Second, there are 18 National Championships between the two schools: 11 for Notre Dame, seven for USC. Third, there are several times when Notre Dame and USC have met where one school played spoiler to the other’s National Title run.
Finally, there are several very memorable and arguably some of the best games in both school’s football histories: 1974—The Comeback Game; 1977—The Green Jersey Game; 1988—No. 1 vs. No. 2 and the destruction of Rodney Pete.
If there’s so much history behind these two teams playing one another, why would anyone consider any other team than USC to be Notre Dame’s biggest rival?
Frankly, with the exception of the controversial ending to the 2005 game, there have been more exciting games in Notre Dame’s recent history which may have a hand in skewing some younger Notre Dame fans' views of the Irish’s rivalries.
Florida State and Miami
The only case for Florida State and Miami can be made in a few games.
Hands down, the most exciting game of the '90s for Notre Dame was the ’93 game against Florida State in the “Game of the Century.” The game lived up to its immense hype and ESPN’s College Football GameDay’s first campus visit was a great one.
If you don’t know the story of the game, I can’t help you—you’re too far gone. It had all of the hype and excitement of the 2005 USC game—except the Irish won.
Miami is another story altogether. They had a clash with the Irish in 1987 and once again in 1988 in the Catholics vs. Convicts game, which ended in a close Irish win, much like the FSU game. Pat Terrell batted down a two-point conversion attempt in the last remaining seconds of the game, and the Irish won.
Coincidentally, the Irish went on the next week to beat No. 2 USC to end the season. The Irish and Miami have not met since 1990.
As is the case for both teams, these games were huge in their respective seasons. However, one or two memorable games does not constitute a rivalry.
Nevertheless, if younger Notre Dame fans are going on the emotion and excitement of one single game to name a rival, a Notre Dame fan need not look further than these two games, as they are some of the most memorable games in the past 20 years (with the Snow Bowl coming in a close third).
I have to mention this... The biggest game for Boston College came against Notre Dame in 1993. The Eagles beat the Irish 41-39 on a last-second field goal to move the Irish back down to No. 2 and gave the National Title to Florida State.
It is one of the most heartbreaking losses in school history, mostly because of what happened the week before against Florida State, and the first heartbreaking loss I remember being emotionally invested in. This game is probably the most memorable loss to any Notre Dame fan younger than 25. This would continue to be Boston College’s style of football (read on).
That being said, the majority of Irish fans maintain that BOSTON COLLEGE IS NOT OUR RIVAL, and I have to agree with them. Boston College is called “Fredo” by most Irish fans. Fredo is the brother in The Godfather who betrays the family, much like Boston College betrayed the Big East for the ACC Conference.
Most Irish fans consider Boston College not a rival, but more like a little brother. Rather than achieving greatness on their own, their great moments are when they stunt the greatness of others (see above paragraph).
Regardless of whether Boston College fans revel in the chance to play Notre Dame in football, Notre Dame fans do not reciprocate the same feelings. Boston College will always be the little annoying brother of Notre Dame and should be treated as such—case closed.
The University of Michigan was Notre Dame’s first opponent in football ever, as the Wolverines notched a victory against the Irish in 1887 and continued to beat the Irish for the next seven meetings. The Irish got their first victory against Michigan in 1909.
Much of the rivalry can be attested to the fact that Michigan literally taught Notre Dame the game of football. From then, Notre Dame and Michigan have been in an on-again, off-again relationship.
Much of the animosity between Michigan and Notre Dame can be attested to different coaches and athletic directors getting their feelings hurt.
After Notre Dame notched their first victory against Michigan, Michigan cancelled the next year’s game and boycotted the Irish until 1942, when Elmer Layden brought the Wolverines back to the schedule for two years. Then the series was not renewed until 1978, when Moose Krause brought the Irish back to the schedule.
Through the years, Notre Dame and Michigan have been two of the best programs in the nation. Michigan has the best winning percentage of any program with a .745 mark, while the Irish are second at .739.
The case of the rivalry between the two teams can be attributed to the sheer number of times the two teams have played. Michigan lists Ohio State as their biggest rival, with Notre Dame in second. The Irish list USC as their biggest rival, with Michigan in second. I think that’s an accurate statement.
The “rivalry” with Navy isn’t a rivalry at all. Rather, the Irish have a great amount of respect and gratitude towards the Midshipmen. The Irish and the “Middies” have played each other annually since 1927, making it the longest uninterrupted intersectional rivalry in the nation.
Even though the Irish have owned the series between the two schools, there is no animosity between them, and Notre Dame has deep respect for Navy.
Like a lot of other schools, Notre Dame had a great deal of economic hardship during World War II. Navy decided to use Notre Dame as a training facility and paid the University enough money for its facilities to keep the University afloat during the War. Since then, Notre Dame has had an open invitation to Navy to play the Irish, and Navy has taken advantage of that invitation.
The series with Navy is one marked with a great amount of respect. This respect is evident as both teams stand at attention during the playing of the other school’s Alma mater. The “rivalry” with Navy comes out of respect and an annual payment of honor, not as a hostile meeting.
Even though, in this writer's opinion, USC is our school’s biggest rival, there hasn’t been much of a rivalry between the schools recently due to the lack of exciting games or National Championship implications.
The only mention of the other schools can be attributed in part to their involvement with some of the most memorable recent games in Notre Dame’s illustrious history.
Notre Dame has the most storied history in all of college football, and many teams have had a hand in shaping this history. But what makes a rival?
While the perception of this question changes from generation to generation of Notre Dame fans, one thing does not change: the love and respect for Notre Dame Football. While we may disagree on the importance of our opponents, we all have one thing in common—our love for the University of Notre Dame.
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