We are kicking of a 2 week celebration of rivalries on SBN, and for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, that extra week is certainly needed. When it comes to the Notre Dame football program, the word “rival” pops up quite a bit. It’s been all too common practice by fans and the media to attach the R word to an opponent of Notre Dame. Some of it is justified, and some of it feels completely overblown — and all of this is very unique to Notre Dame.
We’ve had this discussion many times in the past. With Notre Dame, there are BIG R and LITTLE R rivalry games — as well as historical rivalries. The difference is a combination of history, importance, continuity, hate, and the future. How all of that is actually judged is where most of our arguments come from in regards to who is or who isn’t a rival.
This list contains those programs that Notre Dame once shared a rivalry with, but over the course of time it fizzled into the air for one reason or another.
The Irish have played the Wildcats 49 times with the bulk of those games coming in between 1924 and 1976. It had a pretty cool rivalry trophy that we have highlighted several times here at OFD.
Florida State Seminoles
This isn’t slotted in as a rival due to the number of games they played, as 9 is an extremely low number. It did, however, fill in an extremely large void for the Irish from 1993-1996 when the series with Miami went bye-bye. The ACC agreement Notre Dame has means that the Noles will continue to be on the schedule, but the sporadic nature of the schedule and decline in Tallahassee will likely keep this from becoming a LITTLE R rivalry again.
Penn State Nittany Lions
There is a lot of bad blood between these two programs after an intense 12 year run of being played annually as well as many recruiting battles between the two schools. The Irish last played PSU in 2006 and 2007, and with current scheduling practices it is unlikely that these two schools will meet more than a couple of times in the next 20 years — if at all.
Army Black Knights
This game became a rivalry in the 20’s and is one of the main reasons Notre Dame eventually became NOTRE DAME. Notre Dame has not lost to Army since 1958, and hold a massive edge on Army since the end of World War II. This series will be scheduled here and there, but it will never be what it was 100 years ago.
LITTLE R RIVALRY GAMES
Before we go any further... these are still rivalry games despite the LITTLE R designation. Some of these are likely to fade into the historical category in the future — but not yet.
This was THE hate rivalry for the Irish back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We still speak of this series as a “rival” despite the series “ending” in 1990. Notre Dame has played the Canes 4 times over the last decade, and each time that they do, the hatred comes through from the fans. Miami is the perfect example of how a regularly played team can turn into a LITTLE R rivalry, and then under certain circumstances become a BIG R rivalry — even if it is for a short while.
This is the game that really made us rethink the whole word, “rivalry.” Many Irish fans refused to acknowledge the Skunkbears as a true rival of Notre Dame. The truth of the matter though, is that this IS a rivalry game. Throw in all of the hate and bad blood and add it to the fact that these two teams played 31 times between 1978 and 2014 (no games in 1995, 1996, 2000, and 2001). During that time the record was 15-15-1 and many of those games were Top 25 matchups within the first two weeks of the season. The insane hatred between both programs will continue while we wait for the next scheduled game in 2033.
Notre Dame has played Pitt 71 times. While quantity alone should never classify a team as a rival, in Pitt’s case they have a bit more going for them. The Irish have lost to Pitt just 5 times since 1988, and each one of those losses were brutal, but it’s the OH MY GOD wins over Pitt that add the special spice. This is a tricky game due to Pitt’s Super Weapon, and there is always an uneasy feeling Pitt week. They are an overachieving LITTLE R.
Michigan State Spartans
The Irish faced off against Sparty almost every year from 1948-2013 with only a 2 year absence in 1995 and 1996. This game was firmly in place as a BIG R rivalry because of the high place that it held with the categories important to being such a game. Personally, the rivalry went wild from 1997-2010. During that time the Irish were just a mere 4-10 against Sparty with only one of those wins being in South Bend (2009). The Megaphone Trophy is gorgeous, the hitting is spectacular, and there is a good amount of hate towards one another — and towards Michigan. It was a beautiful series that Jack Swarbrick tanked due to the ACC stuff, but will forever be at least a LITTLE R.
Purdue is an in-state Power 5 school that Notre Dame played annually from 1946 through 2014 and 86 times overall. It has a rivalry trophy and a fair amount of history within the series — but Purdue won just 5 games between 1986 and 2014. It wasn’t a series that many Irish fans cried about when ended. The series is set to be played 6 times in 8 years beginning in 2021, so it stays a LITTLE R for the time being.
Boston College Eagles
I very reluctantly place this game in the LITTLE R category. Notre Dame has played BC just 25 times which is amazingly low when you look at the Catholic connections. The 1993 game will always stick in our craw, but losing to the Eagles 6 straight times between 2001 and 2008 is what stands out most to me. The Irish have won 7 straight since, but the game can get nasty enough sometimes to remain a LITTLE R during the ACC deal. Would it help if I said there were 2 rivalry trophies for this game?
BIG R RIVALRY GAMES
This is the big dog rivalry game. The game circled on the calendar and the game that means everything year in and year out. At one point you could put both Michigan and Miami in this category — which means some of the Holtz years had 3 BIG R games on the schedule. A LITTLE R can become a BIG R if the conditions are right (and revert back to a LITTLE R or nothing if conditions reverse).
Stop throwing things at me — Stanford is absolutely a BIG R right now. This program went from being a pain in the ass, to doormat, to LITTLE R, and is finally at BIG R status. Some of this is manufactured by Notre Dame as they insist on scheduling the Cardinal every year instead of a school like Michigan State. A large portion though, is due to what has took place over the last decade. The Irish are just 4-7 against Stanford since 2009, and before the 2019 game had last won in Palo Alto in 2007. Stanford built a program that was winning a lot of football games and was a top 10 program nationally. They could be on the decline, in which case this game will revert back to LITTLE R status, but it’s been a brutal ride for the last decade. I hate them — (but long live the Legends Trophy).
This is the one — this is BIG R FOREVER. They call Notre Dame VS USC the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, but is there any other intersectional rivalry around? Because a couple of coaches’ wives were down for fall weather and shopping sprees, Notre Dame and USC have turned this game into one of the most meaningful rivalry games in college football history. National championships and Heismans have been decided with this game. I find it odd when Irish fans don’t automatically place this game as #1 on their watch list each year — especially after all we had to endure from 2002-2009. The Jeweled Shillelagh is a spectacular rivalry trophy, and it deserves far better treatment from Notre Dame than what it gets currently.