Between 1964 and 2006 there seemed to be one constant in the college football world: Notre Dame beating Navy. Against the spread, however, the game was very much in doubt. The Irish’s dominance on the field usually translated to massive spreads – numbers rarely seem in any sports book nowadays. For example, Notre Dame was a 41-point favorite against the Midshipmen in both 1991 and 1994. While it was heaven for Irish faithful, it was poison to bettors as touching 4-plus touchdown spreads – especially giving the points – is always a crapshoot.
During the past 27 years, Navy is just 3-24 against Notre Dame straight up but has fared extremely well against the spread going 17-10. Two of those Navy covers were as the aforementioned 41-point ‘dogs (the Midshipmen lost those games 38-0 and 58-21, respectively, but the 38- and 37-point drubbings still covered!).
Things changed in 2007. The sports books sensed it, making the Irish a measly 3-point favorite. (During the 43-game win streak* Notre Dame was never favored by fewer than 6 points). Not only did Navy cover, it won the game, 46-44, in triple overtime. Since then Notre Dame hasn’t been giving Navy many points. The Irish were 4-point favorites in 2008, 12-point favorites in 2009, and 6.5-point favorites in 2010. With Notre Dame’s higher-than-normal expectations last season coupled with Navy’s drastic underachievement, the Irish were 23.5-point favorites and easily covered the spread.
The Irish are 13.5-point favorites right now at 5Dimes – a number that immediately caught my attention for a few reasons. First, Notre Dame is a pretty consistent favorite but usually not near the two-touchdown mark. Second, the more points the Irish lay the less confident Notre Dame bettors should be.
In its last 25 games when being favored by 10.5 or more points Notre Dame is 7-17-1 ATS. There were seven such instances last season where the Irish gave 10.5 more points; Notre Dame went 4-3 ATS in those contests, losing the season opener at home to South Florida outright. Here’s another stat to tuck in your back pocket: Notre Dame is only 2-7 ATS in its past nine openers. Like most high-profile teams not playing some Division II (errr… FCS) school in Week 1, the Irish tend to win in ugly fashion.
Visualize this play: Notre Dame’s trailing USC by a touchdown midway through the third quarter. The Irish are with a 3rd-and-goal at USC’s 1-yard line. Dayne Crist attempts a QB sneak only to fumble. USC picks up the loose ball and sprints 80 yards for a touchdown.
That, my friends, was a microcosm of Notre Dame’s 2011 season.
It is no secret that Brian Kelly’s teams are built to score points and score them quickly. Quite frankly, if Notre Dame didn’t treat the football as if it had leprosy last season the team might not have limped to an 8-5 finish. More than likely, the Irish would have posted a 10- or 11-win season and been in a BCS game. Notre Dame became the first team in recent memory to lose back-to-back games in which it posted 500-plus yards of offense. Thanks to turnovers, mostly from the questionable quarterbacking of Tommy Rees, Notre Dame was arguably the most talented 0-2 team not only in 2011 but in the history of college football. As the year went on, Notre Dame became known for turning the ball over in the red zone in key situations. Even when people thought maybe the Irish had solved the bugaboo entering the Champs Sports Bowl, Notre Dame quickly showed it lives and dies with red zone turnovers. Rees threw a pick on Notre Dame’s first offensive possession with the Irish at FSU’s 4-yard line. The situations where most players earn helmet stickers are the situations where Irish players tended to shrivel last season. Even in the bowl game, which is essentially treated as the de facto first game of the following season, Notre Dame showed it can’t be trusted in key moments.
I find it extremely difficult to trust a George Washington – let alone a precious Benjamin Franklin – with a team like that.
Of course, before making any rash decisions, one must look at the Midshipmen more closely. Navy isn’t a great bet. Over the past four seasons Navy is 26-25 ATS or slightly better than a coin flip. (Navy’s ATS numbers the past four years look as follows: 6-6, 7-6, 7-7, 6-6). If Navy was a poker player it undoubtedly would be extraordinary because it wouldn’t have many tells. As in, there is a 50-50 chance Navy has the best hand or a 50-50 chance Navy is bluffing. That’s precisely how projecting what Navy will do vs. the spread feel like.
There is good news, however. The bright spot in the recent ATS mediocrity is how Navy fares as a double-digit underdog. Navy has been given 10 or more points six times in the past four years, covering five times. The lone occasion where Navy failed to cover: Last season’s beat down vs. Notre Dame. In other words, Navy might not win enough games to become bowl eligible each year, but when it loses, it tends to lose close games.
PREDICTION: Giving Navy almost two touchdowns is a gift for Midshipmen backers. It would be one thing if this game was being played at Notre Dame Stadium, but it isn’t. It’s being played across the country where both teams will say they’ve been “100 percent focused on football” or “it’s a business trip.” The fact remains they’re college students playing a football game in Ireland! I don’t care how much someone tries to treat this as “just another game,” it will be anything but that. With projected starting QB Tommy Rees’ altercation with police officers in early May it only adds more uncertainty to what Notre Dame’s offense will look like on the field. College football diehards know how both teams will play this game: Notre Dame is going to air it out while mixing it in the run; Navy is going to attempt to execute the triple option ad nauseam while slipping in a handful of passes the entire game. The game, like most, will come down to turnovers. Notre Dame dominates the head-to-head battle talent-wise and I’ll take Brian Kelly calling plays over Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo any day (no disrespect to Niumatalolo, but give Kelly a half-competent quarterback and he’s a national championship caliber coach). It’s execution that’ll determine the final score. It would be shocking if Navy won this game – but it would be equally shocking if the Irish ran away with the contest. Given all the factors listed above, a 10-point Notre Dame win sounds about right but it could easily be just a one-touchdown game. Forget the shoes: Take Navy and the points and thank me later.
*Past lines are via Covers and only go back to the 1985-86 season.