Hansen: The beauty of Notre Dame's Camping World Bowl matchup is what it may lead to

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most relevant component of Notre Dame’s Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl date with a 7-5 Iowa State team is what it leads to.

That’s not what Irish head football coach Brian Kelly is telling his team, though, or necessarily should he be.

Kelly is all about consistency of message. And he found the right chord in the hours and days following a still-inexplicable 45-14 implosion at Michigan on Oct. 26.

He couldn’t keep the loss from being a defining point for this Irish team (10-2), especially in the collective eye test of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which gave ND the same standing in its first set of rankings this season (15th) in early November as its final set, on Sunday.

But as the five-game winning streak that ensued demonstrated, the soggy setback in Ann Arbor wasn’t toxic to his program and the post-2016 culture that has produced now three consecutive double-digit win seasons.

“Well, it’s just like the last five games we’ve played, it’s about a standard of play,” Kelly’s mantra emerged during his answer when pressed about what he hoped to get out of the non-playoff bowl experience. “It’s about an opportunity where a lot of these guys will be playing for their last game with this team.

“They want to play well. They want to play for each other. They want to continue to play at a high level. They’ve done a really good job of avoiding a lot of the different scenarios that are set up about how they should think.

“They really think about preparing for the game, then going out and playing to a standard, enjoying it.”

Privately, Kelly will probably enjoy it immensely more if facing a rising star in the coaching business (Matt Campbell), the nation’s ninth-most potent passing offense and a largely un-Big 12-like defense in roughly three weeks somehow coaxes his team toward looking like a playoff team next December on Selection Sunday.

Recruiting and perhaps some philosophical schematic tweaks, a la LSU’s offense, are far bigger factors potentially.

With the former in particularly good order when it comes to adding elite speed on offense, it makes it easy for Kelly not to play the what-if game or float conspiracy theories as to why a team with 10 wins and a 3-2 record against the CFP top 25 was excluded from the New Year’s 6 lineup.

To the latter, 2019 is an outlier. In the first five playoff cycles combined (2014-18), a total of five Power 5 teams with 10-2/11-2 records were excluded and none in 2014 or 2017. This year, there are a record four on the outside looking in: Utah, Alabama, Minnesota and the Irish.

For ND to have earned an invite to the Orange or Cotton Bowl, the two New Year’s 6 games with at-large spots in this cycle, the Irish would have had to finished ninth or 10th, respectively, in the CFP rankings. Even in the AP and coaches polls, the 14th-ranked Irish weren’t close.

And would the Irish have been any better off, besides financially, in doing so? Playing a 9-4 Virginia team — that the Irish already beat by 15 on Sept. 28 — in the Orange or playing a lose-lose game perceptually against a very good Group of Five Memphis team (12-1) in the Cotton Bowl?

Maybe in one regard. The deepest line of questioning Kelly encountered Sunday over a couple of meetings with the media was about his experience when it comes to actual camping. Seriously.

Perception and reality are both powerful when it comes to Notre Dame football, moving forward. The next significant step on both fronts would be a win on a big stage in 2020.

An Oct. 3 date with Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., and potentially the first matchup with a top 5 opponent in Notre Dame Stadium in the Kelly Era, Clemson on Nov. 7, could turn out to be those kinds of opportunities.

Even going 1-1 in those games may be enough to get the Irish deep into next year’s playoff discussion and quell the nonsensical talk that joining a conference is the elixir that fixes everything.

Speaking of fixes, in three key statistical areas, the 2019 Irish aren’t that far removed. There are five metrics championship teams tends to excel in or at least rank among the top 30 nationally: rushing offense, rushing defense, pass efficiency, total defense and turnover margin.

Turnover margin is what the Irish do best. They’re third. LSU is 10th, Ohio State second, Clemson fifth and Oklahoma 110th.

Total defense is another good Irish playoff look, at No. 21. LSU is 32nd, Ohio State second, Clemson first and Oklahoma looking like a typo at 24th, up 90 spots from last season.

With QB Ian Book surging at the end, ND is 22nd in passing efficiency, with the playoff foursome all in the top 11 (Nos. 3, 5, 11 and 4, respectively).

Rushing offense at No. 46 and rushing defense at No. 72, the two areas Kelly in preseason hoped/projected would define his team positively, are where ND is furthest removed from a playoff reality.

Only LSU is not among the top 12 in rushing offense and all four playoff teams are 32nd or better in rushing defense. Ohio State and Clemson are top 10 in both.

For this particular matchup with Iowa State, ND’s No. 5 ranking in pass-efficiency defense, is significant because the Cyclones pass often and pass well. Also significant is the fact that the Irish, in part due to a late exam schedule, will break with tradition and won’t break for Christmas before the bowl game.

It just means more?

The two most nationally relevant seasons of a decade of Kelly presiding over ND football (2012 and 2018) came after bowl appearances in the very stadium they’ll play in later this month (it too is now named after Camping World). One followed a bowl loss (to Florida State in 2011), and one followed a bowl win at the end of the 2017 season (over LSU).

This rendition may in and of itself not reveal a great deal about what the Irish will look like in 2020, but processed correctly it will help them set their GPS for where they need to go in the months ahead.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly struck the right chord with this team after a 45-14 loss at Michigan on Oct. 26.
Notre Dame’s No. 21 ranking nationally in total defense is comparable to those of the four teams in the College Football Playoff.