The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



We asked, you voted: Notre Dame’s top football rivalries

| Friday, April 24, 2020

The Observer sports department conducted a poll of Notre Dame students to gauge popular opinion of who the Fighting Irish’s biggest rivals are on the gridiron. Of the 274 respondents, 126 identified as freshmen, 63 as sophomores, 43 as juniors and 24 as seniors.

Here what they decided:


These six teams separated themselves as the clear top vote-getters in our survey. For these teams, I’ll include the best and worst Notre Dame memories within the rivalries (which are my personal opinion, but do a little to recall the history of each matchup). And thus, the real countdown begins.

6. Miami Hurricanes (2 first place votes)
You have to respect the classic “Catholics vs. Convicts” rivalry here, especially with some very important games having been played between these two squads. What dilutes this rivalry is the lack of recent clashes, as they didn’t meet a single time between 1990 and 2010.

All-time series: Notre Dame leads 17-8-1.

Best Notre Dame memory: The all-time classic Notre Dame-Miami game took place in 1988. Irish fans know that well as their last national championship season, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the 31-30 victory over the Hurricanes in a thrilling battle between undefeated teams. The memory of the legendary game is only enhanced by the controversial shirts that were distributed by Notre Dame students.

Worst Notre Dame memory: Back in 2017, Notre Dame was ranked No. 3 in the College Football Playoff, and they travelled to No. 7 Miami for a top-10 road matchup. In a contest that added to Brian Kelly’s reputation as a coach that doesn’t win big games, Notre Dame was blown out of the water, losing 41-8. The echoes of Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium still haunt my ears.

Observer File Photo
Former Irish linebacker Drue Tranquill celebrates after a defensive stop during Notre Dame’s victory over the Miami Hurricanes on Oct. 29, 2016.


5. Boston College Eagles (1 first place vote)
BC’s lack of relevance in college football has dulled this rivalry from Notre Dame’s perspective, but BC definitely hates Notre Dame. You know what they say the similarity between BC and Notre Dame students is after all…

All-Time Series: Notre Dame leads, 15-9

Best Notre Dame memory: Notre Dame’s best memory is most definitely the 1992 contest, the only top-10 clash between the Eagles and the Irish. Notre Dame throttled BC 54-7, and called for a fake punt while up 37-0, rubbing salt in the wound of the embarrassing loss for BC. Side note: crowd shots of Notre Dame Stadium from the classic movie “Rudy” were shot air halftime ofd this game.

Worst Notre Dame memory: We’ll move forward just one year. Notre Dame had won the “Game of the Century” against Florida State and looked primed to claim the national championship but couldn’t slip past the Eagles. BC won 41-39 on a game-winning field goal, ending the Notre Dame’s title hopes. 

Erin Fennessy | The Observer
Former Irish running back Tony Jones Jr. breaks a tackle during Notre Dame’s 40-7 victory over Boston College on Nov. 23, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium.


4. Navy Midshipmen (1 first place vote)
The historical basis of this rivalry lands Navy on the list. Notre Dame has dominated the series, having played every year since 1927. Although the game has not recently had much impact on the national scale, there are still plenty of memories within the ”friendly rivalry.”

All-time series: Notre Dame leads 77-13-1

Best Notre Dame memory: This one’s a tough one, because Notre Dame’s wins over Navy have rarely been considered “big” wins. For this one, I’ll pick out the 1969 game, in which Notre Dame amassed 720 yards, a program record, and won 47-0, an impressive feat given Navy’s penchant for having a strong defense and controlling the clock.

Worst Notre Dame memory: Most losses against Navy are pretty tough and unexpected. But in 2007, Notre Dame was 1-7 and had suffered rivalry losses to Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State and USC. The Navy game should have been a temporary release from the painful season. Instead, the Irish lost 46-44 in triple OT, snapping a 43-game winning streak against the Midshipmen.

Annie Smierciak | The Observer
Former Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool catches the ball during Notre Dame’s 52-20 victory over the Navy Midshipmen on Nov. 16, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium.


3. Stanford Cardinal (2 first place votes)
This rivalry has been built in the past 20+ years, with the teams playing all but two years since 1988. They’ve produced classics in both locations, some with major implications near the top of the rankings, so here are the highlights from this rivalry.

All-time series: Notre Dame leads 20-13

Best Notre Dame memory: There are a few good times to remember in this series, but I’ll go to probably the best finish to any Notre Dame-Stanford game, and that is the 2012 classic. This one comes with an asterisk, as technically this win was vacated later, but it was undoubtedly a classic. As part of their march to the national championship game, the Irish hosted Stanford and won 20-13. They forced overtime with 20 seconds left and won it on a goal-line stand, negating four straight Stanford runs from inside the 2-yard line.

Worst Notre Dame memory: This has to be the 1990 game, when an undefeated Notre Dame with national title aspirations welcomed the 1-3 Stanford to town, only to be stunned by their West Coast rivals 36-31. It marked the Cardinal’s first win in the modern series and their second win against the Irish in total. Notre Dame was ranked No. 1, so the combination of the upset, rivalry loss, and destruction of their title hopes clearly makes this the worst memory in the series. 

Observer File Photo
Former Irish tight end Cole Kmet rises up to make a catch on fourth down during Notre Dame’s 38-17 win over Stanford on Sept. 29, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium.


No. 2 Michigan Wolverines (121 first place votes)
It’s no secret that these two teams hate each other, and although they won’t be playing for the foreseeable future, there’s plenty of rich history in this rivalry.

All-time series: Michigan leads 25-17-1

Best Notre Dame memory: Every single one of these 17 victories is amazing, and I debated between picking a blowout or a thriller in which the Irish ripped the Wolverines’ hearts out. I’m picking the latter here and going with Notre Dame’s 1980 win. Down 27-26 with 41 seconds left, freshman quarterback Blair Keil drove the Irish 46 yards in 37 seconds, and kicker Harry Oliver’s 51-yard field goal just barely cleared the crossbar, unleashing pandemonium in Notre Dame Stadium.

Worst Notre Dame memory: This is less fun to write about, but we’ll recall the 2011 game, when Notre Dame led 24-7 heading into the fourth quarter in the first night game in Michigan Stadium history. The Irish not only let the lead slip away, falling behind 28-24, but they retook the lead 31-28 with 31 seconds left, only to watch the Wolverines drive 80 yards in 21 seconds for the game-winning touchdown.

Anna Mason | The Observer
Former Irish wide receiver Chris Finke leaps to catch a touchdown over a Wolverine defender during Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Michigan on Sept. 1, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium.


1. USC Trojans (145 first place votes)
This is one of the best rivalries in college football, and there’s plenty of hatred in this one. Notre Dame’s on a recent winning streak, but you can throw out the records when they play. Lots of history, hatred and classic games in this series — and for these reasons, USC has been voted Notre Dame’s top rival.

All-time series: Notre Dame leads 47-36-5

Best Notre Dame memory: The 1988 national championship season came with some very satisfying victories. In the regular season finale, No. 1 Notre Dame visited No. 2 USC in California, the first time they entered their matchup ranked in the top two spots. Both teams were undefeated, but Notre Dame was playing without two of their stars and thus were sizable underdogs. However, Lou Holtz put together a master game plan, and the Irish squeezed the life out of the Trojans, winning 27-10 in the Colosseum.

Worst Notre Dame memory: In 2005, the defending national champion Trojans visited the Irish in South Bend. USC was a massive favorite, but Notre Dame kept the game close throughout. Up three points, Notre Dame stopped USC at the one-yard line and the clock expired after the ball rolled out of bounds. At the request of USC head coach Pete Carroll, the referees huddled up and decided to give USC another play. Quarterback Matt Leinart’s sneak was stuffed, but Reggie Bush executed an illegal shove, propelling his quarterback into the end zone, ending the game in heartbreak and controversy for the Irish. The “Bush Push” still lives in infamy with Notre Dame fans.

Observer File Photo
Former Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush scrambles for yardage during Notre Dame’s 49-14 win over USC on Oct. 21, 2017 at Notre Dame Stadium.


Breaking down the votes:

Well that’s it. After 274 responses to the survey, we’ve come up with a list of nine total teams that our student body sees as rivals to some degree: USC, Michigan, Stanford, Navy, Boston College, Miami, Michigan State, Clemson and Georgia. Fringe contenders were Alabama, Purdue and Florida State. The list also reflects an interesting mix of history and a definitive tinge of recency bias (Georgia and Clemson had two 2nd-place and six 3rd-place votes apiece, while Alabama had one for 1st-place and one for 2nd).

In terms of voting by academic year, freshmen had the widest array of first place votes. Each of Boston College and Navy received their lone first place vote from this group, while Miami and Stanford received one apiece as well. Colorado State University was the only other other non-Michigan/USC team receiving a 1st-place vote (note: the respondent entered “CSU” in our form, which may have been a typo given that it is an anagram for “USC”).

Sophomores had less variety, with USC and Michigan overwhelmingly the favorites. Alabama and Miami each received a token 1st-place vote from this group.

Juniors were the only grade that voted only between USC and Michigan for 1st-place, with the Trojans narrowly winning out 22-21. Finally, seniors were the only group to choose Michigan as the greatest rival as it won 14-9 over USC, with Stanford getting one vote as well.

Also of note, Pitt received five votes split among the 3rd through 5th places and Northwestern received one vote in each of those spots as well. Ohio State received three votes each for the 4th and 5th places.

Georgia Tech and Duke received exclusively 3rd-place votes, with two for the Yellowjackets and four for the Blue Devils. Nebraska, Wisconsin and Virginia Tech received a lone vote for 5th-place and, somewhat surprisingly, Texas received just a sole No. 5 vote as well.


But let’s be honest, nobody really likes Notre Dame. Everyone wants to beat — or be — us. So with that being said, thank you to everyone who indulged us on this survey, even the freshman who chose Bowling Green and Ball State, respectively, as our fourth and fifth biggest rivals. 

Go Irish. Beat everyone. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

About Aidan Thomas

A senior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

Contact Aidan