Sharpening Notre Dame's bowl picture: The factors that matter

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The only absolute in the Notre Dame football team’s postseason destination at this point is that on Selection Sunday someone wearing a gaudy blazer will be smiling.

Likely in Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., or El Paso, Texas.

Not that TaxSlayer Bowl president/CEO Rick Catlett or Pinstripe Bowl executive director Mark Holtzman don’t have equally off-putting wardrobe. They just don’t appear to have equal footing in the first year of ND’s integration into the Atlantic Coast Conference’s bowl lineup.

In theory, perhaps, but not in reality.

No one, though — not ACC commissioner John Swofford, not Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick , not the bowl reps themselves — know exactly how reality will play out this year with all the shades of gray implied between the lines in the contract legalese.

Here are the three factors to watch as the process unfolds over the next few days of paring five options to one.

1. The Fear Factor: Notre Dame’s four-game losing streak, its uncertainty at quarterback, its trainee-heavy defense and its suddenly kvetching fan base isn’t scaring the three bowls heavily in play (Music City, Belk, Sun) and the two on the periphery (Pinstripe, TaxSlayer).

In most years, these Tier 1 bowls aren’t going to be in play for an Irish team that finishes 8-4 or better. ND, with a stronger finish, would be in the Russell Athletic, Citrus, one of the big bowls or the playoff.

So 7-5 is the expectation.

And when you start comparing ND to 7-5 N.C. State, 7-5 Boston College – even 9-3 Duke and a 9-3 Louisville team that may have to start third-stringer Kyle Bolin at quarterback — the Irish don’t look so much like damaged goods.

While the top of the postseason lineup has changed — the College Football Playoff and eight slots in the big money/big prestige bowls are merit-based and assigned by the College Football Selection Committee — the lower tiers are still a beauty contest.

And the Irish deliver in TV ratings, and, more consistently, large crowds.

Of the three bowls in play this year that the Irish have previously played in, Notre Dame produced the largest crowds in both the brief history of the Pinstripe Bowl (2013) and the eight-decade history of the Sun Bowl (2010).

“If Jack Swarbrick would sign a contract, I’d take Notre Dame right now,” said one bowl exec, whose game is out of the running.

“Even if the fans from South Bend and Chicago were too disillusioned to travel because of the finish of the season, there are Notre Dame fans in other parts of the country who never get a chance to see them in person.

“They’d love to have that chance in their own backyard. And that’s where a lot of the ticket sales would come from. They’re still a national brand. They’re still the golden helmets.”

2. The Lottery: Five bowls will constitute four entries into the ACC Tier 1 bowl lottery for a shot at Notre Dame.

The Music City and TaxSlayer bowls share an entry, since each has only three ACC/ND berths in the upcoming six-year cycle. In alternating years, the bowl without the ACC/ND entry will invite a Big Ten team.

If the Music City/TaxSlayer entry wins the lottery, the bowl equivalent of basketball’s possession arrow goes to the Music City Bowl this year. The only shot then that the TaxSlayer Bowl might have is if the Music City not only decides it doesn’t want ND, but doesn’t want an ACC team either and instead goes with, say, Iowa from the Big Ten.

The lottery is scheduled for Sunday, but some of the bowl reps at a Wednesday afternoon teleconference will push for a Friday or Saturday draw.

Where it gets interesting, and perhaps sticky, is how much of the letter of the contract is honored and how much of the spirit of it is.

The lottery is supposed to engender a conversation that takes into account what’s best for all five Tier One Bowls. Geography, avoiding regular-season rematches, and avoiding the same teams returning to a particular bowl in a short time span are all supposed to be worked through.

For example, Notre Dame heading back to the Pinstripe Bowl for a second year in a row doesn’t make sense on a lot of levels. One source offered that by ND agreeing to play in last year’s game as a free agent, the bowl forged an agreement to let the Irish off the hook in 2014 if it came to that.

The Sun Bowl may have some unbecoming factors as well. Arizona State, a team ND already played and was routed by, is a possible candidate to fill the Pac-12 side of the equation. And ND played there fairly recently (2010), while it has never played at the Belk or Music City.

Also unwritten is how much say Notre Dame actually has in the equation. But what is written is that if the team that wins the lottery doesn’t want to play nice with the other Tier 1 bowls, the contract states at the end of the day, they have the final word on Notre Dame.

The Irish just can’t return to that bowl in the subsequent five years of the six-year cycle.

3. The opponent. The Belk, Music City and TaxSlayer all would pair ND with an SEC opponent, and perhaps a really good SEC opponent. The Sun offers the Pac-12’s fifth selection, and the Pinstripe a middling Big Ten team.

If Notre Dame did have some say, what would be most important? The chance for redemption against a higher-ranked team, but also the risk of a blowout loss? Or a team that ND matched up well with, where there would be a good chance of winning, but not real chance to impress?

The worst matchup would figure to be a team with a strong offense, particularly in the running game. Among viable SEC candidates unranked Tennessee ranks 100th in both rushing and total offense. The others projected to be in play are AP No. 15 Georgia (12th rushing offense/27th total offense), No. 20 Auburn (10th/17th) and No. 23 LSU (28th/78th).

If not Arizona State in the Sun, No 24 Utah (54th/85th) figures to be in heavy in the mix. And in the Pinstripe, Penn State (116th/114th) and Maryland (103rd/108th) are projected as the top Big Ten options.

It’s not a given that the Irish will have a voice in who their opponent turns out to be, so this may be more like a wish list. But be careful what you wish for.


Former Notre Dame running back Greg Bryant, here running the ball during Notre Dame's loss to USC on Nov. 29, has committed to UAB. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)