The scene is Palo Alto, CA. Local time is about 7:30pm. The temperature is in the mid-50’s. Notre Dame’s placekicker, Justin Yoon, trots out on to the field in Stanford Stadium to attempt a field goal. The kick is good and the Irish go up 20-17 with 1:23 left in the third quarter.
Not bad, eh, Irish fans? Your team is 9-2. They have a three point lead midway through the second half on the road against a rival that is currently ranked 21st in the country. Not bad at all, especially considering the fact that Notre Dame finished a disappointing 4-8 last season.
A win against Stanford would have placed the Irish back into the College Football Playoff conversation, albeit as a bit of a long-shot. It would have ended the team’s four-game losing streak in regular season finales. It probably would have given the passionate fan base a dose of faith (and maybe a sprinkle of some sedative) in the leadership and overall direction of the program.
Stanford drives 70 yards in less than three minutes and scores a touchdown to take the lead. After the Irish were forced to kick a field goal on their previous possession, this one hurts. However, it’s only a four point game. This Notre Dame team has shown that they are capable of responding to adversity. Just a week earlier, the Irish overcame two different seven point deficits to defeat Navy.
“Ouch!” said the Irish offense. “What was that?” they asked themselves. It was the turnover bug. They just got bit.
On the very first play on the next Notre Dame drive, Brandon Wimbush throws an interception. Stanford scored a touchdown three plays later to extend their lead to 11. Even though there was 12:21 left in the fourth quarter at this point, the game felt like it was over.
To make matters worse, CJ Sanders receives the ensuing kickoff, gets hit hard, and fumbles. Stanford recovers the ball and scores yet another touchdown four plays later. The Irish managed to drive down to the edge of the red zone after that, but that drive ended with another Wimbush interception.
Notre Dame loses their final regular season game for a fifth straight year, this one by a score of 38-20. So where do we go from here?
The Irish are 9-3 and heading to a bowl game. Current projections have them playing in either the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State or the Citrus Bowl against LSU. Both of those bowl games are held in Camping World Stadium in Orlando, FL. You may not recognize the name of that venue, but the Irish have been here before.
While Florida may seem like a great destination for a winter bowl game, Brian Kelly has not had success in the sunshine state during his tenure at Notre Dame. Under Kelly, the Irish are 0-4 in games played in Florida. One of those losses was to Florida State in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, which was held in what is now Camping World Stadium.
College football coaches may not be superstitious, but college football fans sure as heck are. My guess is that most Notre Dame fans will not feel very confident watching their team play another game in Florida.
Regardless of the opponent or venue, this upcoming bowl game will have a significant effect on the perception this year’s team and the program as a whole.
After starting 8-1, Notre Dame was ranked 3rd in the country. They were in the middle of the playoff race and seemingly in control of their own destiny. Then they ran into a buzz saw in South Florida. While the loss to Miami (FL) was devastating, it seemed like it could be an outlier.
The close win over Navy barely moved the needle on the fan confidence meter, but the game against Stanford seemed like an opportunity to put the recent struggles behind all of us. Instead, it was a book end to a month that Irish fans would like to forget. Notre Dame lost two of its last three games and is now a far cry from a New Year’s Six bowl game this season.
The upcoming bowl game presents a golden opportunity to this coach, this staff, and this team. The preseason was filled with talk about the disaster that was 2016. That season left a bad aftertaste in the mouth of the fan base. At the end of October, It seemed as if we had finally washed away that aftertaste. Out of nowhere, a large belch brought that aftertaste right back. This bowl game could serve as a shot of Listerine and some antacid.
Although it may seem like just another game, how you finish a season matters. It matters more than just another mark in the win or loss column. A win can create real momentum heading into the off season. A win, to me, would feel like the year was a significant step in the right direction. A win would also give Brian Kelly his third 10-win season as Notre Dame’s coach, and maybe cool off his seat a bit.
On the other hand, a loss in this bowl game would be demoralizing. Losing three of the last four games of this season would offset all of the excitement and positivity that came from this year’s games against Michigan State, USC, and NC State. It would also raise concerns that the systemic problems that lead to the disappointing 2016 season still exist. A loss would make the following off season feel like an eternity, and I’m pretty impatient when it comes to waiting for college football season to return.