Notre Dame must take needed step toward future success in Friday's Gator Bowl

Michael Wanbaugh
South Bend Tribune

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Here in what’s known as the “Bold City,” with shores along both the St. Johns River and Atlantic Ocean, Notre Dame’s football team has high hopes Friday of lobbing a proportionally weighty message that ripples through the elite undercurrents of college football. 

Not that many seem to be paying attention in the nation’s most populous city that somehow manages to feel more like downtown South Bend than South Beach. The locals are more excited about the rarity of their first-place Jaguars as potential NFL playoff tickets go on sale Friday than the ho-hum 78th annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl that kicks off at 3:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve eve.  

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But that doesn’t mean nobody’s anticipating what type of punctuation the 21st-ranked Irish will put on their up-and-down 8-4 regular season as they take on perennial Southeastern Conference afterthought South Carolina (8-4).

Marcus Freeman is most interested.

"The most important thing is winning," the first-year head coach said during a Thursday morning press conference inside TIAA Bank Stadium. "That's going to give us the most momentum. ... Our focus is right now."

Freeman took a moment before speaking with the media to survey the stadium, staring intently at the field with a handful of his players. Don't tell him this is a "meaningless" game.

It’s a fun matchup, but hardly college football clickbait when the four-team College Football Playoffs kicks off the next day. That's where Notre Dame strives to be and Freeman knows that success in Jacksonville is a stop along the way. 

Notre Dame has played in what is now considered a New Year’s Six game 25 times in its history, but hasn’t won one since 1994’s Cotton Bowl. South Carolina has never played in one.

This Gator Bowl is important for Notre Dame, not because of the weight of its past but rather the promise of its future. What direction are the Irish really heading? How can they parlay the positives of 2022 and learn from the negatives. Can they end with an exclamation mark instead of a question mark? 

Notre Dame linebackers Bo Bauer and J.D. Bertrand inspect bags as they fill them with food for children at Wednesday evening's community service event. Members of the University of Notre Dame football team worked with the organization Blessings in a Backpack to fill 500 backpacks with food for needy children Wednesday, December 28, 2022, at the Omni Amelia Resort Convention Center. Both the Fighting Irish and the South Carolina Gamecocks took part in the community service project at separate locations ahead of Friday's TaxSlayer Gator Bowl to be held in Jacksonville, Florida.

It’s all right here in front of them in winter balm of North Florida.

"When you prepare to play a team, you want to prepare to play the best," Freeman said. "The last two games (South Carolina) has shown they can beat any team in the country."

Those would be No. 5 Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson in back to back weeks to close out the regular season. The Gamecocks are building their own future under second-year head coach Shane Beamer and this game is just as big to them as it is to Notre Dame.

Irish coaches and most players arrived Monday — a few were victims of travel delays — and set up practice camp at Fernandina Beach, Fla. Quarterback Tyler Buchner made it on time as he knocks off the rust of a 10-game absence due an injured non-throwing shoulder.   

The starter for the first two games of the season, Buchner has been all business in his accelerated recovery that is weeks ahead of schedule. Freeman said Monday that Buchner is the presumed starter against the Gamecocks after Drew Pyne left the team earlier this month via the transfer portal for Arizona State. Pyne went 8-2 as the starting QB. 

Notre Dame QB Tyler Buchner (No.12) practices at Fernandina Beach High School in Amelia Island on Monday, Dec. 26th, 2022.

Fair or unfair, the Gator Bowl will be a pivotal game for Buchner — 0-2 as an Irish starter — as he tries to solidify himself as a viable option in what is expected to be a crowded spring quarterback competition with incoming four-star freshman Kenny Minchey and potential Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman.  

Whatever Buchner does Friday he’ll have to do without Notre Dame’s leading receiver, as consensus All-American tight end Michael Mayer opted out of the game to focus on preparation for the NFL Draft where he’s projected as a high first-round pick. 

Mayer led the Irish with 67 catches for 809 yards and nine touchdowns. He leaves the program after three seasons holding every major statistical record for the position. Notre Dame will also be without its all-time sack leader Isaiah Foskey, who is entering the NFL Draft. Injured cornerback Cam Hart and defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola will also be sidelined.

That makes this bowl game even more important for underclassman looking to make a push up the depth chart in 2023, a point senior linebacker JD Bertrand was sure to make Friday.

"It's an exciting time for a lot of young guys to get these opportunities in this bowl prep time," the senior co-captain said, "and to be able to display their talents and play their best."

And have fun. It's the post-season after all, and bonding off the football field can be just as important as gelling on it. The Irish have made the most of a low-key Bowl Week in the Sunshine State. After practice Tuesday the Irish took their hacks at Topgolf.  

On Wednesday a group of players climbed aboard for a tour of the USS Orleck, a Naval destroyer commissioned in 1945 that is now a museum docked downtown, just blocks away from TIAA Bank Stadium. 

And to kill time in the hotel, some players made a video on what to do if approached by an alligator — "shout out Steve Irwin."

It wasn’t all sightseeing and social media as the team also spent Wednesday filling 500 children’s backpacks with food items for the First Coast Chapter of the Blessings. 

Sure, the desired final destination for the last game of the year will never be Jacksonville, Fla., but Freeman and his staff are determined to make this a learning experience and a building block.

"I want this group to be the example for our future groups," Freeman said of this Gator Bowl team. "I want this group to be the one who says, 'here's the example, here's why you continue to trust your coaches and continue to work no matter what the outcome is each week.

"A victory in this Gator Bowl," Freeman continued, "would be a tremendous example of what we continue to use to propel this program."

It's time to be bold.

Michael Wanbaugh 
South Bend Tribune Sports Editor

Michael Wanbaugh is sports editor of the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune.

78th Annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl 

  • Who: No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4) vs. No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) 
  • When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. EST 
  • Where: TIAA Bank Field (67,164), Jacksonville, Fla. 
  • TV/Radio: ESPN, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: Notre Dame is a 4.5 -point favorite  
  • Series: Notre Dame leads 3-1 
  • Last meeting: South Carolina won 36-32 in South Bend in 1984.