Even before Tennessee upset Alabama on Saturday to end a 15-game losing streak to its rival and college football's supreme program, you could often hear Tennessee fans saying, "feels like 98," in reference to the last time the team won a national title. Roughly 500 miles north on Saturday, Notre Dame fans may have been uttering something similar but with a different meaning.
Notre Dame went 9-3 in 1998. It was Bob Davie's second season in charge after replacing the last Irish coach to win a national title, Lou Holtz. Holtz arrived to Notre Dame in 1986 to revive a program that had fallen into a rut, and was very successful with the Irish, winning a national title in 1988. Things then began to slow down slightly after at least 10 wins in five of six seasons from 1988 to 1993. The Irish went 23-11-1 in Holtz's final three seasons before he retired after the 1996 campaign amid rumors he was leaving for the Minnesota Vikings. In stepped Davie to take over a program that seemed to be on solid ground but wasn't.
Davie's Irish went 9-3 in 1998 but 5-7 the following season. It was the start of a 13-year trip through the wilderness for Notre Dame that saw three different coaches -- Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis -- have occasional success but were far too often mediocre or downright bad. The Irish were losing games to inferior opponents.
It was a period that ended when Brian Kelly was hired, though not immediately. Kelly went 16-10 in his first two seasons and lost to some teams he wasn't supposed to (Navy, Tulsa, South Florida), but he broke through with a 12-1 record and a BCS Championship Game appearance in 2012. The 2012 season raised expectations too quickly, however; the Irish would take a step back over the next few seasons and bottom out at 4-8 in 2016.
Then the real shift came -- the one where Notre Dame became one of the country's elite programs again. From 2017 to 2021, Brian Kelly's Irish teams went 54-10, and none of the 10 losses came to inferior teams. They came to Georgia, Miami, Clemson, Michigan, Alabama, and a Cincinnati team that reached the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame reached the playoff twice.
Then, like Holtz before him, Kelly left. Not to "retire" or take a job in the NFL (though Kelly was often mentioned with NFL openings in South Bend), but to take over at LSU. Notre Dame fans were left stunned that a sitting head coach would leave for another college program.