SOUTH BEND, Ind. Notre Dame at home used to be a good bet. At home against a military academy? Heading into the season, the Irish were 20-1 since 1985.
Things are different this year.
A week after losing to Navy for the first time in 44 years their school record fifth straight home loss the Irish (1-8) find themselves 3-point underdogs at home to Air Force (7-3). Even Falcons coach Troy Calhoun finds it hard to believe and to describe.
"That's one of those where you could pull my right leg and you'll automatically get, 'Here comes Santa Claus,"' Calhoun said.
It hasn't felt anything like Christmas at Notre Dame this season. Things are so bad the only players coach Charlie Weis allowed to talk with reporters this week were the team captains because he knew there would be tough questions about the home losing streak and this year's squad possibly being the worst in school history.
"I just thought it was in the best interest of a lot of guys that don't know how to handle adversity and tough questions," Weis said. "I thought I'd protect them,"
There's been no protecting the players on Saturdays, though.
Week after week the Irish have been exposed and embarrassed. A 30-point loss to Georgia Tech. A three-touchdown loss to Penn State. A 38-0 loss to Michigan. A 38-0 loss to USC that was the second-worst home loss in school history.
The Irish could hit a new low Saturday. No Notre Dame team has ever lost nine games in a season. That's as many losses as Notre Dame had for the entire 1940s.
It would also be the first time since 1944 the Irish lost twice to military academies in the same season.
The Notre Dame captains say they don't pay attention to any of those things, that the team long ago bought into Weis' philosophy of focusing on each week and not worrying about the big picture. They say the biggest positive is despite their struggles, there have been no signs of dissension, no finger pointing.
"Obviously we've had a lot of disappointing games this year and things have not gone the way that we wanted them to go," center John Sullivan said. "But the one constant has been this team togetherness and collective will to work hard."
Weis, like a lot of fans, has repeatedly placed the blame on himself.
"Not that behind closed doors I don't share the wealth, or share the blame, but I think rather than pointing a whole bunch of fingers I think you better start and evaluate yourself first and see all the things you could have done better to make it better," he said.
The Irish did do some things better last week. They slowed down the Navy rushing attack and had their best running game of the season. Those are things the Irish can build on, Weis said. What they really need, though, is a victory.
"Something good has to happen for them to start growing," Weis said.
A lot of good things have happened for Air Force this season in Calhoun's first year as coach.
The Falcons already have assured themselves of their first winning season since 2003 and could earn their first bowl berth since 2002.
Much of the credit belongs to Chad Hall, the only player to lead his team in rushing and receiving. Hall has rushed for 1,122 yards this season, more than twice as much as the 508 yards Notre Dame has rushed for. He ran for a school-record 275 yards against Army last week, which is 2 yards more than Notre Dame had in its first eight games.
The Irish are turning to freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen again to lead the offense. After watching from the sidelines for two games, Clausen is back as the starter.
The Falcons will be seeking their second victory at Notre Dame Stadium in the past 11 years. Until Navy last week, the last time the Irish lost at home to a military academy was to Air Force 20-17 in overtime in 1996.
Meanwhile, Calhoun is still trying to figure out how his team is favored against a team that he believes is bigger, faster and more talented.
"Matchup-wise, one by one, you don't find any (advantages) for us," Calhoun said. "If it's size-wise, speed-wise, early enrollment-wise, there's not a single one that that's going to be the case."
The oddsmakers disagree.