Notre Dame entered the 1989 season as the defending national champions and nearly made it two in a row under head coach Lou Holtz.

The Fighting Irish opened the season with a Kickoff Classic win over Virginia, which vaulted them to the top spot in the polls. Notre Dame stayed there until November 25, when the Irish traveled to seventh-ranked Miami. The Hurricanes won 27-10, dropping Notre Dame to fourth in the polls. But the Irish routed top-ranked Colorado 21-6 in the Orange Bowl, leaving it up the pollsters, who ultimately selected one-loss Miami over one-loss Notre Dame.

Quarterback Tony Rice finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting while sophomore wide receiver/kick returner Rocket Ismail earned All-America honors.