Notre Dame football analysis: Sizing up bowl priorities

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Brian Kelly wandered in and out of big-picture land while dissecting then-No. 25 Notre Dame’s 27-20 quasi-near miss of an upset at No. 8 Stanford on Saturday night. The vibe, the lingering questions, even the most telling statistics, to a certain extent, had a rerun energy to them, cut and pasted straight from ND’s 18-14 come-from-ahead loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, Dec. 29, 2011 in Orlando, Fla. The thinking in early December two seasons ago was ND-FSU was a matchup of two promising but frustrating 8-4 teams in which each was perhaps a few pieces away from pushing its way into a national title run in the coming seasons. It happened in 2012 for the Irish. The Seminoles, meanwhile, reached the top spot in the BCS standings on Sunday and are a win over Duke next Saturday away from a date in the 16th and final BCS National Championship Game. So how far is Notre Dame away from another run? Statistically, the Irish (8-4) have regressed this season in most categories, alarmingly so in some instances, from their 12-1 incarnation of last season, with some notable exceptions — most significantly sacks allowed and the return games. There’s even more of a gap from between the 2013 Irish statistically and where the Seminoles (12-0) have evolved in the two seasons since they seemed on level footing with ND. All of which kind of pushes the question, what do the Irish want to accomplish with their bowl game? Should it be the first step in retooling for 2014? Do you ignore the future implications, reboot in January and simply look at it as a reward for 2013? Is there some middle ground? “I mean, we want to go and win our last one,” Irish fifth-year senior offensive tackle Zack Martin offered Saturday night. “We’ve got one more game together. This team has worked too hard to not go out and play the right way our last game. We’ll go where they send us, but we’d like to go where it’s sunny out.” The path of least resistance is going somewhere where it’s not sunny and warm — the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 28 in New York City.There, the Irish would realize the biggest potential payout of their bowl options ($1.8 million), get major media market exposure, play an opponent most Notre Dame fans can find on a map (Houston, Cincinnati or Rutgers if the Scarlet Knights can get to six wins), and not be too close to the end of final exams (Dec. 20). It’s difficult to find a national bowl projection that doesn’t place the Irish in New York for the holidays. But with less than a week to go until the bids are formally announced, it’s hardly a slam dunk. In fact, Martin may get his wish. Here’s a still-grainy snapshot of the Irish bowl picture, how it connects or disconnects from the 2014 season, and the thought process that could clear it all up, though steeped in the hypothetical: The Options Some that appeared viable as recently as two weeks ago — Shreveport, La., and Detroit, in particular — have faded. The remaining set includes one way-out-of-the-box scenario, the Hawaii Bowl, Dec. 24 in Honolulu. The Poinsettia (Dec. 26 in San Diego), Heart of Dallas (Jan. 1 in Dallas) and Pinstripe make the most sense from ND’s standpoint, all things considered. There were rumblings about the Irish trying to crash the ACC’s bowl lineup a year before they’re contractually open to do so, but would the P.R. backlash have been worth it? Seems like the exact opposite way you’d want to begin a relationship. Besides, the math doesn’t work. Even if the ACC, as expected, lands a second team in the BCS lineup, the league will have two more bowl-eligible teams than it has bowl slots (9), something that wasn’t apparent in early- to mid-November. Narrowing The Field The Hawaii Bowl in 2008 was such a positive experience for both the bowl and ND, it seemed to make some sense to at least explore a backroom deal to make it happen again. Of course, there were negatives, which still exist, and logistical issues, which have since only heightened. The game is Christmas Eve and contractually pairs a team from Conference USA against a team from the Mountain West Conference. ND would have to buy its way in and find a soft landing spot for the displaced team/conference. Until Friday, that looked somewhat realistic. With Mountain West power Fresno State then in line for a BCS berth, the MWC had five teams for seven spots, with Colorado State expected to make it six teams over the weekend. But when Fresno State lost to unranked San Jose State, the BCS slotting dissolved and the upstart Spartans joined the ranks of the bowl-eligible at 6-6. The Mountain West suddenly had seven teams for six spots. CUSA also has seven for six spots. So working an arrangement in which the Irish didn’t look like bowl bullies seems improbable. The earliest Notre Dame could leave for Hawaii would be a day later than the Irish did in 2008 — Dec. 20 this time. And they would miss some pre-bowl activities that are important to the game’s organizers.Dallas, meanwhile, checks some boxes for the Irish — including a potential recruiting bump in Texas, some history with ND in the old Cotton Bowl and perhaps the warm-weather preference, subject to interpretation (average high 55, low 37 on Jan. 1). One hidden plus over all the other remaining bowl options, as it pertains to 2014, is that Kelly might be able to get some meaningful practice time for suspended quarterback Everett Golson, the 2012 starter who is expected to be reinstated for the upcoming spring semester. Kelly first acknowledged early last month the notion that Golson might practice with the team in its pre-bowl workouts, when ND was still in play for a BCS spot (Jan. 1-3). But it’s important to note that Golson can’t practice until the first semester officially ends on Dec. 20 and that he can’t practice at the bowl site or play in the game. The fact the Irish have already played in Dallas this season takes some shine off the option this time. So does a potential CUSA opponent, limited exposure on ESPNU and a contested TV time slot with other bowls. Which leaves San Diego (average temps 65 and 49) and New York (40 and 28). Making The Choice The downside to New York, outside of the weather, is that the Pinstripe is part of the ACC’s bowl lineup beginning next season and so is ND. The bowl swaps out the Big 12 and American Athletic (formerly Big East) for an ACC-Big Ten matchup. So do the Irish really want to lessen a possible future matchup in Yankee Stadium by going this season? The other geographical pull is that the new ACC bowl lineup doesn’t include a bowl west of El Paso, Texas (Sun). And there might not be many opportunities to get to California in the next decade for a postseason game, since that would have to occur in a national championship or national semifinal setting. And even that’s a crapshoot.Finagling Fresno State away from the Las Vegas Bowl seems like a longshot in terms of a potential opponent, so Boise State might make the most sense. It’s not vintage Boise (8-4), but at least it’s got the right branding as far as ND is concerned. The blemishes of a date in San Diego include a 9:30 p.m. EST time slot, a $500,000 payout and little time to ramp up after exams. In fact, given that ND is highly unlikely to practice this coming week and have exams the week of Dec. 16, are the Irish really going to be able to get more than a week’s worth of practices in on campus and another couple at the bowl site? That should be enough to get ready for the game, but the unlimited allotment of pre-bowl practices, which often work as a second spring practice in terms of getting a longer look at some burgeoning young players and maybe even experimenting with some position switches, would largely be lost. Army not being bowl-eligible opened the door to San Diego for Notre Dame, but only a crack. The bowl has a contingency contract with the Mid-American Conference, and Poinsettia Bowl executive director Bruce Binkowski told the Tribune recently that he would only consider a non-MAC scenario if the displaced MAC team “could be made whole.” Here’s one way how that could work. Swap out Buffalo to the Pinstripe Bowl — great exposure for that school and a budget boost considering the travel cost and payout differences — and place the Irish in San Diego. So the logistics can work. The question again, though, is what does Notre Dame want to extract from its bowl experience? How Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick choose to answer that question will eventually drive the travel plans.  

Irish by the numbers

How the 2013 Notre Dame football team fares in the national statistical rankings compared to both its 2010-12 incarnations and the nations new No. 1 team in 2013, Florida State, NDs bowl opponent just two seasons ago.

                       13     12    11    10    FSU

OFFENSE

Rushing             80     38    54    92    30

Passing             47     71    40    34    14

Total                75     54    35    61     7

Scoring             76     78    49    67     3

Red zone         100     70    88    49     1

Pass efficiency  55      74    59    59     2

Sacks allowed    2       28    36    38    85

DEFENSE

Rushing            75      11    47    50    13

Pass efficiency  62      16    58    25    2

Total               45       7    30     50    4

Scoring            36       2    24     23    1

Sacks by         105      22    59     54   30

Tackles/loss     108      78    77    77    21

Red zone          63       7     55    35     23

SP TEAMS

Kickoff return    25      93    36     75    6

Punt return       62    116   112   100   35

Net punting      102    30     102    64  111

MISC.

Turnover margin 77    27    118     51    3

Note: Rankings are out of 123 FBS teams in 2013, 120 in 2010-12.

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, left, and Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly talks on the field before the NCAA college football game between Notre Dame and Stanford on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN