While it lacks the luster of "Catholics vs. Convicts" from its days as the premier rivalry in college football, both Miami and Notre Dame can take a huge step toward claiming an elite status this season Saturday night at Soldier Field in Chicago, where the teams will meet in the regular season for the first time in more than a generation.
In the late 1980s, the Irish (4-0) and Hurricanes (4-1) were fixtures in the top 10. Notre Dame enjoyed a status as America's team while Miami reveled in its role as a foil to the Irish as Jimmy Johnson's program was known equally for success and swagger. The rivalry picked up steam in 1985, when the Hurricanes humiliated the Irish 58-7 in what turned out to be Gerry Faust's final game as Notre Dame coach and led to the hiring of Lou Holtz.
Holtz quickly rebuilt the Irish, culminating in a three-year set of titanic games with national title implications each year. Notre Dame posted a 31-30 victory in 1988 en route to its last national championship, and Miami avenged that defeat with a 27-10 triumph - ending the Irish's school-record 23-game winning streak - the following year as it claimed a national title of its own.
Due to rising tensions between the teams with so much at stake, the series ended following Notre Dame's 29-20 home victory in 1990 that derailed the Hurricanes' hopes of repeating. Although the teams will play in the future with the Irish committing to five games versus ACC rivals on an annual basis as part of joining the conference for all other sports, Saturday's contest is the first of a three-game contract between the teams, who will play a home-and-home series in 2016-17.
"Lot of tradition," said Miami receiver Phillip Dorsett, who has team highs of 28 receptions, 464 yards and three touchdowns. "I've been following this team ever since I was born. So as a team, we're looking forward to it and we've just got to get ready."
This time around, the ninth-ranked Irish appear to be a step up on the Hurricanes, enjoying their first 4-0 start since opening 2002 with eight victories.
Notre Dame - the only FBS team yet to trail in a game - was idle last week after beating then-No. 18 Michigan 13-6 on Sept. 22, forcing six turnovers and keeping Denard Robinson out of the end zone. Offensively, Tommy Rees was again effective in a supporting role for starter Everett Golson, completing 8 of 11 passes for 115 yards and scoring on a 2-yard touchdown run.
"You want to go with one quarterback, but we have a freshman quarterback who's experiencing being a young quarterback," coach Brian Kelly said. "The only time I can prop him up with a veteran to win a football game because we're in this to win it, then we'll do that. I look at it as supporting Everett with Tommy, and if we need to do that, we'll continue to go that way because it's been pretty successful."
Kelly has the luxury of rotating his quarterbacks thanks to a suffocating defense anchored by senior linebacker Manti Te'o. Notre Dame has eight interceptions - already matching its total from last season - and ranks third in the FBS with a plus-9 turnover margin. The Irish have yielded only 36 points, their fewest through four games since allowing 20 in 1975, and have held their last three opponents below 300 total yards.
"You can feel the energy," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. "I talked to my mom about it, I talked to some of the team about it, it's a different energy around here. I haven't really felt that energy before. It's an exciting feeling. It's an exciting, about-time feeling."
Miami figures to give that defense all it can handle, coming off consecutive wins in which it totaled 86 points and surpassed 600 total yards in both contests. Stephen Morris threw for a school- and ACC-record 566 yards - including a go-ahead 62-yard TD pass with 19 seconds left - last Saturday when the Hurricanes outlasted North Carolina State 44-37.
"I've been waiting for this game since freshman year," said Morris, who threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns replacing the ineffective Jacory Harris in Miami's 33-17 loss to Notre Dame in the 2010 Sun Bowl. "It's going to mean a lot to me and my family. It's going to mean a lot for this program. So we're going to make sure that we're ready for this game."
Morris, though, will be without an anchor on his offensive line. Fifth-year senior Bob Jones has been ruled out of this game after suffering a foot injury against the Wolfpack.
In the Sun Bowl victory, Rees staked the Irish to a 14-0 advantage with two first-quarter TD passes and the defense recorded four interceptions.
Notre Dame has a 16-7-1 lead in the all-time series.