From the late 1970s to 2014, the Notre Dame/Michigan game seemed to be the premier event early in the college football season. Like all great rivalries, it had its ups and downs, but the excitement was always there. Both Michigan and Notre Dame seem to recognize this fact since they have agreed to renew that matchup in 2018. Michigan even paid Arkansas $2 million to free up its schedule to do so.
As I wrote last fall, there are a handful of major programs that have never played Notre Dame. Otherwise, the Fighting Irish have played an unprecedented range of programs over the years. Some matchups have been in bowl games or short-lived series, while others have been great rivalries. Here are the 10 best rivalries based on longevity and competitiveness.
The Volunteers are one of countless programs that have played Notre Dame about 10 times. I chose Tennessee because the Irish and Vols are 4-4 in a series that has included shocking upsets on both sides and an amazing comeback known in Knoxville as “The Miracle at South Bend.”
Until 1980, this rivalry was fairly one-sided. Then the Hurricanes turned college football on its ear and thrashed its most sacred institution. Miami beat Notre Dame four years in a row and gave the school its worst thumping ever, courtesy of a 58-7 annihilation in 1985. The Irish got revenge three years later when both teams were undefeated and met during the regular season in a game dubbed as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” The Irish won 31-30 en route to a national title. The schools have played each other only twice since 1990 (last coming in 2012), but their rivalry in the ‘80s was pivotal for the college football world. Notre Dame holds a commanding 17-7-1 edge in the overall series, which resumes Oct. 29 in South Bend.
8. Boston College
This matchup between college football’s premier Catholic institutions has been played regularly since the early 1990s and has remained competitive. The Irish have won five in a row, but prior to that, the Eagles had reeled off six victories in a row (2001-03, ’04, ’07-08) in the series, which now stands at 14-9 in favor of Notre Dame.
Believe it or not, the only schools that have played Notre Dame more times than Purdue are Navy (89 entering 2016) and USC (87). The Boilermakers experienced their greatest success in this rivalry under head coach Jack Mollenkopf, who led Purdue to a 10-4 record over Notre Dame from 1956-69. Otherwise, this series has been fairly one-sided (Notre Dame leads 58-26-2) and Purdue has only won five games over the Irish in the last 30 years. The series came to an end in 2014, but the two schools are scheduled to meet again in 2020.
6. Penn State
One would argue that another Pennsylvania school, Pittsburgh, should be on this list since the Panthers and Irish have played 70 times. That being said, Pitt has only won a third of the games (Notre Dame leads 48-21-1) in that series. The Nittany Lions and Irish are 9-9-1 against each other, and in the 1980s and early ‘90s this annual battle between two independent schools often had a bearing on the national title. The schools have played sparingly since Penn State joined the Big Ten, but it was something special when it took place.
These two teams first met in the 1925 Rose Bowl with the Irish winning 27-10 and clinching their first national title. Since then, these two schools have met every year since 1988 – with the exception of the 1995 and ‘96 seasons – and played for the Legends Trophy. With the arrival of Brian Kelly at Notre Dame and Jim Harbaugh then David Shaw at Stanford, this game has become one of college football’s best annual matchups. The Irish will look to add to their 19-11 edge in the series when the two meet in South Bend on Oct. 15.
4. Military Academies
Notre Dame has consistently played the Naval, Army and Air Force academies and during World War II, faced off against two military service teams. It is a great tradition when these schools play and some fans would argue that these teams should be ranked higher, but when you look at the numbers, it is hard to call any of these series competitive. Army (8-38-4 vs. Notre Dame) has not beaten the Irish since 1958, Navy (12-76-1) has won three games over Notre Dame since 1963 and Air Force (6-24) has won two in the last 30 years.
3. Michigan State
The apex of this rivalry was a 10-10 tie in 1966, a season where both schools split the national title. In the meantime, this long-standing annual matchup was marked by individual decades of dominance. Michigan State dominated the 1950s and early ‘60s, Notre Dame dominated the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s and Michigan State dominated the 2000s. The Irish hold a three-game winning streak in a series that ended in 2013, but the schools will meet on the field once again in South Bend on Sept. 17.
Of all the schools that have played Notre Dame 20 times or more in their history, only one has a winning record over the Irish. That program is Michigan, which leads the series 17-24-1.
One of college football’s best rivalries has been played every year since 1926 (minus three years during World War II). Each school has 11 national titles and this matchup has been the premier game in college football during many of its 90 years. It doesn’t get much better than this. The Irish and Trojans will meet for the 88th time when they close out their regular seasons in Los Angeles on Nov. 26. Notre Dame holds a 46-36-5 edge over its top rival.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.