Navy Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo praised Notre Dame earlier this week by calling this year’s team the best team in 15 years. Niumatalolo has been a coach for the Naval Academy since 2002 or most of that 15 year period. In other words, he would probably know the history of this team the best. His coaching tenure encompasses Willingham, Weis and Kelly. Prior to his current stay at the Naval Academy, he coached at Navy again between 1997-1998 or the beginning of the period he is discussing. Again, if you needed an expert, Niumatalolo might be it.
When reviewing the teams that could be the best over this span, I came up with four possibilities. These possibilities were 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2006. In my opinion, there is a clear winner among this group. This year’s team could be best but they still have 11 games (and hopefully another in a bowl game) to prove that they deserve the title bestowed upon them by the Midshipmen Head Coach. Although it is not expected, Notre Dame could just easily finish as the worst team in Notre Dame history then surpass the best teams in history. Let’s hope its the later.
2000 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
In 2000, Notre Dame finished 9-3 with losses to Nebraska, Michigan State and Oregon State. The loss to Nebraska was against the #1 team in the country at the time with Heisman Eric Crouch. Michigan State moved ahead of Notre Dame with a minute remaining in the game. Combined, Notre Dame was only 7 points and minutes away from an undefeated season. This year was Notre Dame’s first appearance BCS Bowl Game when they played Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame was routed by the Beavers 41-9. Notre Dame was lead by a solid defense coach by Greg Mattison.
2002 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
In Tyrone Willingham’s first season, Notre Dame started off the season 8-0 before losing a heartbreaker to Boston College. Notre Dame then finished the season 9-2 after a loss to USC and future Heisman Trophy Winner Carson Palmer. Notre Dame then faced off against another future NFL Quarterback in Philip Rivers. Rivers and the NC State Wolfpack defended the Irish in the Gator Bowl, 28-6.
2005 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Under Charlie Weis in 2005, Notre Dame was 6 points and seconds away from an undefeated season. Some would argue that if it were not for the “Bush Push”, Notre Dame would have played Texas in the National Title game. Notre Dame’s two regular season losses were to Michigan State and USC. Michigan State was 44-41 thriller in overtime. Everyone knows about the USC game. Notre Dame was invited to the Fiesta Bowl where they competed but were definitely outclassed by a faster Ohio State team, 34-20. Brady Quinn finished 4th in the Heisman Trophy.
2006 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The season that began with national championship hype ended very much like 2005. Notre Dame was throttled in two regular season games by Michigan and USC. Michigan pounced on the Fighting Irish 47-21. The Trojans defeated the Irish 44-24. Again, Notre Dame was invited to a BCS Bowl. This time it was the Sugar Bowl. The result was the same. Notre Dame lost 41-14.
Currently, the best team of the last 15 years is the 2005 team. The team was within in seconds of playing for the National Title. It had future NFL talent on the roster (and MLB, Jeff Samardzija). Brady Quinn was a Heisman finalist. Notre Dame Stadium has not been that electric since the 4th Quarter of the USC-Notre Dame game of that year.