SEC 360: Notre Dame vs. The SEC as good as college football gets
The history of Notre Dame facing teams in the SEC is long and storied. That serves as a suitable backdrop for a Saturday night in Athens.
Joe Montana stood on the sidelines and watched.
His gold helmet glistening beneath the brutal Mississippi sun, Montana was beginning to wonder if he’d ever get his chance to become the starting quarterback at Notre Dame. But on this hot day in September 1977, his number was never called.
One has to wonder how history would be tilted had Fighting Irish coach Dan Devine penciled Montana into starting lineup when his boys met the Ole Miss Rebels at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Miss. As it turns out, that blunder allowed the Rebels to pull off one of the more stunning upsets in the history of college football.
The next week, it would underscore the necessity of Joe Montana.
Blame it on fatigue. Blame it on the egregious miscalculation of Devine. Blame it on whatever you wish. The Ole Miss Rebels, who would finish that season 5-6, defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish — the eventual national champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish — by the score of 20-13 on Sept. 17, 1977.
Montana would trot onto the field the next week against Purdue. And the next. And the next. When the dust settled on the 1977 season, Montana would direct the Irish to 10 consecutive wins and a victory over Texas in the Cotton Bowl. In the final analysis, Alabama (11-1) lobbied against Irish by throwing the Ole Miss loss on the bonfire of argument, but it would do so to no avail. The loss to Ole Miss was severe, but not lethal, so the voters concluded, and Devine’s team was tops in the land.
Outside of the state of Mississippi and a few SEC football aficionados, perhaps few remember that immortal day in Jackson. But 42 years later, it’s one of the more stunning upsets in the history of college football. It’s a day Notre Dame has chosen to bury in the grave of memory, and one that Ole Miss is happy to relive.
Throughout the years, Notre Dame has played several teams now in the SEC, and, as greatly maligned as the Fighting Irish have been in national consciousness over the past 20 seasons (and the SEC greatly heralded) they hold an overall winning record (29-19) against those opponents.
The first time the Irish penetrated into SEC territory was in 1971 when Ara Parseghian’s Irish waltzed into Baton Rouge to face Charlie McClendon’s LSU Tigers. Notre Dame was ranked No. 7 and boasted All-American wide receiver Tom Gatewood, but the Bengals countered with cornerback Tommy Casanova and quarterback Bert Jones. The Irish, who were playing only their 4th game away from Notre Dame Stadium that year, proved to be no match, as No. 14 LSU raked and clawed its way to a 28-8 win.
“Welcomed with a roar from the stands and at the goal line in Baton Rouge, Notre Dame found itself the entrée in a tiger feast,” wrote William F. Reed for Sports Illustrated.
Notre Dame returned to the state of Louisiana just 2 seasons later when the Irish faced Alabama on Dec. 31, 1973 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant only tabbed it the “biggest game in the South’s history” as both teams arrived in The Big Easy undefeated and untied, with Alabama already securing the UPI National Championship voted on by the coaches after the regular season. A win against Notre Dame would lock up the Associated Press vote, making the Crimson Tide consensus national champions.
But that was not to be, as little known Irish tight end Robin Weber from Dallas, Texas, caught a 35-yard pass from little known Tom Clements to seal the win for the Irish with time winding down in the 4th quarter. Leading 24-23 and facing a 3rd-and-8 from its own 3-yard line, Parseghian elected to throw it, a gutsy call due to the fact that Clements had both feet planted firmly in the end zone when he heaved a sideline pass to Weber.
Bryant reserved a page-and-a-half in his autobiography for that game, stating, “if you saw that game you had to believe you were seeing football the way it ought to be played, college, pro or whatever.” It was obvious the loss stung Bear, but that disappointment was packaged with admiration of the rich history and tradition of the Irish and the leadership of Parseghian himself. Bryant believed the 2 teams, one a Catholic school from the Midwest and the other a largely Protestant school from the Southeast, gained a sense of “mutual respect.”
“I got a letter from Ara Parseghian shortly afterward, the only one I ever received from a coach who beat me,” Bryant wrote. “He said how much his group had enjoyed playing us, how wrong the impressions were beforehand. (They pictured us as a bunch of rednecks, and we had some thoughts about them, too.) He said how much everybody got out of the game, and how great it was for college football that we now had a series going. It was very gracious, Ara’s letter. One I’d love to have written him. Like I said, though. I don’t really consider it a loss. We just ran out of time.”
Bryant would have opportunities for redemption against the Irish in 1974, 1976, and 1980, but in each instance, his teams came up just short. Alabama would not get its first win against the Irish until 1986, when Crimson Tide linebacker Cornelius Bennett welcomed Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein to Legion Field with a thunderous sack that was memorialized in oil by artist Daniel Moore. After the crushing tackle, Bennett added in the papers: “That was the first time I was worried I had really hurt someone. He never saw it coming.”
With a 28-10 victory, Alabama had finally gotten the monkey off its back in the storied series with the Irish.
But Lou Holtz was waiting to exact revenge the next year, and the Irish crushed the Tide in South Bend, 37-6. How bad was it, you ask? The headline in the Chicago Tribune read, “Notre Dame Leads Alabama Straight to the Executioner.” Said Alabama coach Bill Curry, “We were whipped by a vastly superior team. Notre Dame is deep, talented, tough. They outhit us, dominated us, outexecuted us. They are far and away the best team we’ve played.”
Then the schools seemed to have enough of one another and took a 26-year hiatus. It wasn’t until January 2013 when the rivalry was renewed, this time in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami. Bama won 42-14, claiming its 2nd national title in a row and 4th overall for head coach Nick Saban.
If Notre Dame has a preferred SEC opponent, that seems to be LSU. The teams traded blows in the 1980s with a series of tight games in 1984, 1985, and 1986, but in 1997, the teams met twice, once in the regular season and again in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 28. After losing badly to the Irish in Baton Rouge, LSU coach Gerry DiNardo, a former Notre Dame player, flipped the script in Shreveport with a 27-9 victory over Bob Davie’s squad.
LSU and Notre Dame have met recently in bowl games: the 2006 Sugar Bowl, the 2014 Music City Bowl, and the 2017 Citrus Bowl. The Irish won 2 of those 3 contests and lead the overall series 7-5.
Florida and Notre Dame have met only once, in what could now be described as the “South Carolina Bowl.” That meeting occurred on Jan. 1, 1992, when Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier tangoed in the New Orleans Superdome. Florida, ranked No. 3 in the country, had dropped only 1 game, a loss to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome way back in September, and Notre Dame was laggard from a near-loss at Hawaii. Although the Irish were ranked 18th with a respectable 8-3 record, Holtz’s team didn’t get much respect before the game.
But Holtz countered Florida’s aerial attack with his own secret weapon, a ground-gobbler named Jerome Bettis. “The Bus,” as Bettis was called, rolled for 3 touchdowns in the 4th quarter on the way to a 39-28 Notre Dame win. After the game, a happy Holtz commented on the key to victory: “We went back to Notre Dame football.” (Later, both Holtz and Spurrier would have tenures at the University of South Carolina, Holtz from 1999-2004 and Spurrier from 2005-2015.)
But not all trips to New Orleans were bountiful for the Irish. After marching into Legion Field and shutting out Alabama and Bryant on Nov. 15, 1980, Notre Dame faced another SEC team, undefeated Georgia, in the Sugar Bowl.
Led by Vince Dooley and featuring the talented freshman, Herschel Walker, Georgia, though only gaining 137 yards of total offense, stymied the Irish enough (capitalizing on Irish turnovers and a blocked field goal) and to claim its first national title in school history.
Outside of Walker, who logged 150 yards on the evening, the Georgia offense went backward. After the game, Dooley quipped, “I don’t know how good we are, but I do know we’re 12-0 and nobody else is.”
Georgia was crowned national champion.
Other memorable games in Notre Dame/SEC history include an unforgettable home and home series against Tennessee in 1990 and 1991. In the first contest, the Irish traveled to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, where Johnny Majors and the Volunteers were lying in wait, muskets drawn and coonskin hats a-wearin’. But the Irish, stacked with players like Bettis, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Rick Mirer, Dorsey Levens, Rickey Watters, Chris Zorich, and Michael Stonebreaker, posted 17 4th quarter points to miraculously escape with a 34-29 win. The next season, the Volunteers and Majors received payback, beating the Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. With the Notre Dame leading 31-7, Tennessee mounted a furious comeback to pull out in front, 35-34. But luck seemed to lean toward the Irish, as placekicker Rob Leonard lined up for a game winning field goal with :04 remaining.
Jeremy Lincoln, wearing white over orange, had other plans.
After the snap, Lincoln charged in from the right side and was able to nick the ball with, of all things, his butt. The ball wobbled and then, like a shell-riddled mallard, died. Tennessee’s “Pride of the Southland” band cranked up a hearty rendition of “Rocky Top” and Majors had a comeback for the ages. Said Lincoln after the game, “I went up to my mom after the game and thanked her for giving me such a big behind.”
Now that old familiar feeling is back again, as the Irish travel to Athens for a showdown with Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs this Saturday night. It’s fitting that the teams will be playing on Dooley Field, named in honor of the iconic former Georgia coach.
As for the town of Athens, no doubt it will be in a complete frenzy as the Fighting Irish pull into town with a busload of history and mystique. And you can’t help but hope that this Saturday, it will have all of the feelings of New Orleans on that January day in 1981.