Texas Football: Notre Dame Is Historic Season Opener

The word historic gets thrown around too much, especially in sports circles. However, if you want to call the 2015 season opener in South Bend historic I won’t argue. In fact it doesn’t get much more historic than Texas at Notre Dame, especially on opening night.

In recent history college football fans have had precious few big games on the season’s first weekend. Most of the best teams now choose to start their season with a glorified scrimmage against some poor FCS school. The high-minded ones will at least stay in the FBS realm, usually against a “directional” school or some other overmatched opponent.

The Longhorns have been as guilty of this scheduling trend as anyone.  In 17 years at the helm, Mack Brown’s most prestigious opener was against North Carolina State. The upside to this scheduling is that you get off to a quick start. The Longhorns were 16-1 in openers under Mack, with the NC State game being the sole loss.

They not only won, but dominated, winning by an average of 43-10. From 2001-2006, UT’s season opening opponents failed to break single digits, including a pair of shutouts while Texas scored 40 or more in all but one of those games.

Yet, while Texas dominated game one in the Mack Brown years, their opponents were far from legendary.  New Mexico State, North Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette was the opponent in 10 of those 17 years.  A big win is a good way to get the season going, but schools like those don’t exactly get the fans’ blood pumping.

Mack Brown also didn’t believe in straying from the cozy confines of DKR-Memorial Stadium for his openers. The last Texas road opener was in 1995. That was when a freshman running back named Ricky Williams made a big impression in his college debut, running for 98 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-17 win at Hawaii.

So how long has it been since Texas had a season opener of this magnitude? Well, Charlie Strong was nothing more than a defensive ends coach at Florida when Texas last played a ranked opponent in game one. That was 1993, when No. 11 Colorado smoked Texas 36-14.

The 80s and 90s weren’t very kind to Texas football when it came to season openers. Colorado, BYU, Mississippi State and Auburn all put some serious whippings on the Horns in those years. The Longhorns didn’t dodge a big game back then, they just didn’t always show up.

As impressive as some of those teams were back in the day, none of them were Notre Dame. To find a season opener against a team of Notre Dame’s status requires you to go all the way back to Darrell Royal’s time, when the Longhorns scheduled LSU, Nebraska, UCLA and USC among their openers.

New Mexico State was a frequent first opponent for the Longhorns during Mack Brown’s years in Austin. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Then there is the simple matter of Texas vs Notre Dame. The Longhorns and the Irish rank No. 2 and No. 3 respectively in all time wins. They have combined to win a mind-boggling 1,766 games between them. The sheer number of great players and big wins these two teams have between them is astounding. Both schools’ histories are littered with All-Americans, award winners and eventual NFL greats.

Notre Dame also represents one of the few programs that Texas has never quite figured out. The Longhorns have only managed two victories in ten tries against the Fighting Irish.  However, the first one did come in South Bend, when he Longhorns managed to squeak past Notre Dame 7-6. That was all the way back in 1934, when Texas was nothing more than a regional power and Notre Dame was the biggest, baddest team in the land.

The only other Texas victory in the series is one of the most famous games in Longhorns history.  Notre Dame famously broke a 44 year ban on bowl games to travel to Dallas to play No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The James Street-led Longhorns came from behind to take the game and finish a perfect season with a National Championship.

Since then, Notre Dame has had all the glory. Twice the Irish helped end the Longhorns’ championship hopes by beating the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl, the first in the ’71 game and later in the ’78 edition where they smothered Earl Campbell and crew.

This marks the Longhorns’ first trip to South Bend since 1995. In that game, Texas actually led the Irish 20-19 in the third quarter before they pulled a patented Mackovic Meltdown. They were outscored 36-7 in the last 20 minutes of play and lost 55-27.

Keeping with the “finding a way to lose” motif that often marked John Mackovic’s tenure as Longhorns’ head coach, Texas also lost their last match-up with Notre Dame. In 1996 in Austin, the No. 6 Longhorns outplayed No. 9 Notre Dame all day, then gave up ten points in the last three minutes, including a final play field goal, to lose 27-24.

So history indicates a likely loss on September 5. Logic seems to as well. The young Horns look like no match for the Brian Kelly’s more experienced Irish right now, especially playing on the road. Still, the opportunity to open your season in one of the game’s cathedrals, against one of the winningest programs in history, shouldn’t be taken for granted. Longhorn fans have snoozed their way through too many New Mexico State and North Texas games not to appreciate what this year’s opener means.

Should the Irish get the better of Texas this year, don’t sweat it. We get to do it all over again on September 3, 2016 in our house. Charlie’s Charges should be rounding into shape nicely by then and the odds won’t be so heavily stacked in Notre Dame’s favor.