Notre Dame’s scheduling structure is a strange beast. A strategic partnership with the ACC has grounded the FIghting Irish, giving them firm dates for five games through the year 2037. Notre Dame also has home-and-homes with teams like Texas and Georgia as well as other routine matchups like major rival Navy and Michigan State, one of its many other rivals.
You might have picked up on a scheduling pattern within the Pac-12 in recent years that has something to do with Notre Dame, though.
The Cal-Stanford Big Game and USC’s game with UCLA don’t occur on the national rivalry weekend, Thanksgiving week, every year. USC hosts Notre Dame on rivalry weekend in even years, and Stanford has hosted the Irish in odd years since 1997.
This is USC’s fault, in a roundabout way.
Essentially, the Trojans got way too cold nearly 60 years ago. Observe this passage from USC’s media guide.
1959 - Notre Dame 16, USC 6 This was the last game played between the two teams in South Bend in November. The freezing cold affected the Trojans so much that Athletic Director Jess Hill proposed moving USC’s games at Notre Dame Stadium to October, while continuing to play the Coliseum games in late November. Notre Dame agreed and it has been that way ever since.
I don’t blame the Trojans one bit. They said, “Hell nah, we’re not gonna travel for bad weather if we don’t have to.” If you’ve ever been to Southern California, you likely got off the plane like I did and said to yourself, “OK, I get it.” The region is just gorgeous.
And in the late 1980s, the Irish got Stanford involved.
Those two have played almost annually since 1988, with basically the same setup since 1999 as USC-Notre Dame: Cali games in November, South Bend games earlier.
For Notre Dame, being able to tell recruits they’ll play in California every Thanksgiving weekend is nice.
The Irish recruit nationally, and that includes plenty of California kids whose families want to be able to see them in person.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have made recruiting in the state of California a top priority for many years. So much so, the Irish always schedule a game in the state to end the season (USC in even years and Stanford in odd years) so they can go right to work on the recruiting trail. But has the work paid off? Have they got more than just a couple of golden nuggets?
Since 2007, Notre Dame has signed 21 players from the state of California. After 10 years of hard work, they have only managed to average 2 recruits a year. With the way that the Irish recruit nationally, having 8-10 players on the roster from California each year makes that state one of the biggest feeder states for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame’s travels end up working fine for the Cali schools.
USC-UCLA and Cal-Stanford are bigger rivalries than Notre Dame-Stanford, if not Notre Dame-USC, though it all depends on which fans you ask.
USC and UCLA have met as early as Nov. 17 and as late as Dec. 6 in the last decade alone (the latter being before the Pac-12 Championship began), so it really doesn’t have a fixed weekend. The game has typically alternated between rivalry weekend and the weekend before, depending on USC’s date with Notre Dame (except 2017, because USC has a much-needed bye).
As for Cal and Stanford, the Big Game has pretty consistently been on the week preceding rivalry weekend throughout its history, whether Stanford had Notre Dame as an opponent or not. In 2016, Stanford played definite non-rival Rice during Thanksgiving weekend while Cal played UCLA, a secondary rival. In 2014, they played UCLA and BYU, respectively.
Since 1959, the Irish have barely ever played a home game on the last Saturday in November.
In search of a dance partner for that final Saturday in odd years, they played a couple different teams away from South Bend. ND found a similar tropical locale for rivalry weekend when they began playing Miami more consistently.
In 1965, the Irish made their first trip to South Florida on the last Saturday in November. They returned in 1967, and would either have a bye week or a road game at Miami in every odd-numbered year rivalry week from 1969-1989. The only exception came in 1979 when the teams met in Tokyo. Meanwhile, in even years they still played at USC on rivalry weekend almost every time besides a few early December trips to L.A.
Notre Dame played at Hawaii in 1991 before again taking rivalry week as a bye in ‘93 and ‘95. They returned to Honolulu on Thanksgiving weekend 1997 before getting into the Stanford-USC rhythm.