All posts by dannycunningham

Notre Dame and Michigan Renewing Rivalry

After a hiatus, Notre Dame and Michigan will renew their rivalry on the football field to start the 2018 season.

The two teams last met in the 2014 season with Notre Dame winning that matchup 31-0 in South Bend. The rivalry was put on pause due to the agreement that the Irish have with the Atlantic Coast Conference. That agreement states that Notre Dame has to put five ACC schools on the schedule every year. This forced Notre Dame into a decision between keeping Michigan, Navy, USC, and Stanford on the schedule. It would not be possible to retain schedule flexibility while having all four rivalries in addition to five ACC games.

The reunion on the gridiron isn’t permanent, but it opens the door for more future matchups. The two meetings scheduled for 2018 and 2019 are all that are on the docket for now, but that is certainly something that could change.

Obviously, 2018 a few seasons away, but looking ahead, Notre Dame certainly has made things difficult for that season. The Irish will have Michigan, Stanford and Florida State in South Bend, and road contests against Virginia Tech and the Trojans of Southern Cal. As hard as it is to predict what level teams will be playing at in future years, these programs have certainly given no reason to think they won’t be playing at a high level.

Aside from setting up a difficult 2018 schedule, this matchup brings back a little bit of life that college football was missing. That’s not to say the game suffered without the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry not there, but it will always be a welcomed rivalry.

In today’s world Jim Harbaugh has become one of college football’s most polarizing figures, both on the field and in the Twitter world as well. Harbaugh and the Wolverines are in the spotlight regularly, as is Notre Dame. Both of these games are locks to be nationally televised. The first matchup will be on NBC, as every Notre Dame home game is, and it is highly likely that Fox or ESPN will pick up the rematch in Ann Arbor the second year.

This will be a chance to renew a great rivalry with both teams trending up. As I said earlier, there is no telling how strong the teams will be when 2018 arrives, but the safe money is on both of them being relatively powerful. I could even say we will see a game with national championship implications, but I’d just be guessing as would anyone else.

It certainly was sad that Notre Dame had a tough choice to make when it came to which rival ties needed to be cut with, and the debate over whether or not they picked right will rage on forever. It is refreshing to see the Wolverines back on the schedule for Notre Dame. Hopefully this will be able to set up the teams playing at least four times a decade. The fact that the Big Ten is going to a nine game conference schedule may further complicate things as well. In order to make this happen they had to cancel a home-and-home they had previously set up with Arkansas.

2018 is a long way away, but this matchup is something for college football fans to look forward to.

I too, hope Jim Harbaugh breaks out his khaki shorts when the 2018 season gets here.

Way-Too-Early Schedule Game: Notre Dame Edition

Well, it’s that time of the year. Summer is upon us and it’s almost okay to start dreaming of the college football season. Yes, it is only June, and still way too early for a legitimate top 25 and too early to count anyone out – or in, for that matter – of the national championship race.

Where does that leave us, you ask? I think it puts us in the perfect place to play everyone’s favorite game, the schedule game.

Over the course of this column I’m going to take a look at each of the 12 opponents Notre Dame will be facing during the 2016 regular season, give a quick breakdown and background information, and make a “way-too-early” pick on the game. Sound simple enough? Good!

Week 1 at Texas – Sunday, September 4 – Austin, TX

In a rematch of last season’s opener, Notre Dame will travel to the University of Texas to take on the Longhorns to begin the season. Last year, the Irish smoked Charlie Strong’s squad 38-3 in South Bend. Just as there was last year for Texas, there is a quarterback competition heading into camp. The difference between Notre Dame’s QB battle and Texas’ is the talent level. The pressure is building on Strong at Texas, and I don’t expect the Notre Dame game to help ease any of it.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION – Notre Dame 35 – Texas 17

Week 2 vs Nevada – Saturday, September 10 – South Bend, IN

Unlike last year, the Irish won’t open up the home portion of their schedule with a marquee opponent. While that isn’t meant to be a knock on the Wolf Pack, it’s the truth. Nevada projects to be a borderline bowl team this season and Notre Dame has higher aspirations than that level. The strength of the Wolf Pack will be their offense, specifically the backfield made up of Penn State transfer Akeel Lynch and James Butler. Nevada very may well have a nice season, but I doubt that this game is one of their highlights.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION – Notre Dame 42 – Nevada 20

Week 3 vs Michigan State – Saturday, September 17 – South Bend, IN

The third week of the season may be Notre Dame’s first real test. Michigan State is coming off of a College Football Playoff appearance and the Spartans have won two out of the last three Big Ten titles. Yes, last year took a lucky bounce at the Big House and a sick Zeke Elliott at The Shoe to get their two biggest wins, they were wins nonetheless. Sparty should be heading into 2016 ranked in the top 25. It will certainly be interesting to see who replaces Connor Cook under center for the Spartans. MSU will open the season with Furman at home followed by a bye week before their trip to South Bend. A night game at Notre Dame Stadium will be the first real test for this young team.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION – Notre Dame 27 – Michigan State 20

Week 4 vs Duke – Saturday, September 24 – South Bend, IN

While the Blue Devils are traditionally known for their success on the hardwood, they have been much improved on the gridiron lately as well. The Blue Devils are coming off a win in last year’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl, however their team is not without its share of question marks. The biggest one of these may be the quarterback position. Last year the offense was driven by Thomas Sirk. Sirk was due to return to the helm this season, however he ruptured his Achilles for the second time during offseason conditioning drills in February. It is unknown if Sirk will be back and how effective he will be. If he is unable to play look for Parker Boehme to fill in. Just like their brothers on the hardwood, I think the Blue Devils will struggle with Notre Dame on the gridiron.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION – Notre Dame 38 – Duke 17

Week 5 at Syracuse – Saturday, October 1 – East Rutherford, NJ (MetLife Stadium)

Syracuse is entering a new era with Dino Babers taking over as head coach of the Orangemen. This season looks as if it is going to be a rebuilding year for Cuse, and a win against Notre Dame is highly unlikely. It would be surprising to see Syracuse in a bowl game, with many schedule predictions having them at or around four total wins. Notre Dame certainly shouldn’t be one of them.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION – Notre Dame 35 – Syracuse 3

Week 6 at North Carolina State – Saturday, October 8 – Raleigh, NC

For the second time in the first six weeks the Irish will be taking on the Wolfpack, although this breed is based in Raleigh, NC. NC State has the task of replacing Jacoby Brissett who graduated last year. Last season, the Wolfpack scored 33.2 points per game with Brissett in control. I would look for that number to drop a little bit, although I do think new offensive coordinatior Eliah Drinkwitz will do a good job keeping that number around 30. This is a tough spot for Notre Dame. The Irish haven’t recently played that well on the road (cough Virginia 2015 cough) and the Irish could be caught looking ahead to Stanford. I think this game is much closer and tougher than people think.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION Notre Dame 31 – NC State 28

Week 7 vs Stanford – Saturday, October 15 – South Bend, IN

Stanford-Notre Dame has quickly become one of my favorite rivalry games in college football. Since the rain-soaked overtime classic in 2012 this series has produced some extremely memorable games, including last year’s Stanford victory at the end of the regular season on a last second field goal. I think this game could certainly be another classic in this rivalry. If Stanford figures out how to replace departed QB Kevin Hogan in the first six weeks, then I see no reason why this shouldn’t be a great game.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION Notre Dame 21 – Stanford 17

Week 8 – BYE

They won’t win, they won’t lose. Not much to see here.

Week 9 vs Miami – Saturday, October 29 – South Bend, IN

This game hasn’t gotten much run yet, but I definitely think that this will be one of the best games on Notre Dame’s schedule. I think Miami is set to return to a product similar to their glory years, with Mark Richt at the helm. This is a tremendous opportunity to not only kick-start that resurgence for the Canes, but also to reignite the rivalry between Notre Dame and The U. Junior QB Brad Kaaya is one of the more underrated signal callers in the country. This is a game Notre Dame very well could lose. The biggest thing I think they have in their favor is that they are coming off the bye week. Truthfully, I think this one could go either way, and is a start to bringing back one of college football’s most missed rivalries.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION Notre Dame 21 – Miami 20

Week 10 at Navy – Saturday, November 5 – Jacksonville, FL (EverBank Field)

Going from one rivalry that college football misses to one of my absolute favorites. Obviously the reasoning for this rivalry are more for off-the-field traditions rather than the competitive play on the field, but the respect shown between Notre Dame and Navy is one of my favorite things to witness. This year the game shouldn’t be as close as it has been in recent years. Navy lost Keenan Reynolds to graduation and he will arguably be the program’s biggest loss since Roger Staubach. Notre Dame shouldn’t have any problem with the Midshipmen.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION Notre Dame 34 – Navy 14

Week 11 vs Army – Saturday, November 12 – San Antonio, TX (Alamodome) SHAMROCK SERIES

I don’t think that this game will be very competitive. Truthfully, I think that the most interesting part of this will be seeing how Notre Dame looks in their yet-to-be-released alternate uniforms. The Irish have yet to lose a Shamrock Series game, and I would be stunned if this is the first.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION – Notre Dame 41 – Army 9

Week 12 vs Virginia Tech – Saturday, November 19 – South Bend, IN

What does life after Frank Beamer look like for the Hokies? By this point in the season we will know the answer to that. Justin Fuente is in to replace Beamer as head coach. Fresh off coaching first round NFL draft pick Paxton Lynch at Memphis, Fuente will have his work cut out for him in deciding between Brenden Motley, Jerod Evans, and Dwayne Lawson to run the offense. Evans is a junior college transfer and many expect him to win the job. I think this is a game that Notre Dame should win, but it is one I could see them looking past with the date with USC the following week.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION Notre Dame 28 – VT 27

Week 13 at Southern Cal – Saturday, November 26 – Los Angeles, CA

If all goes according to my predictions (it likely won’t), Notre Dame will be entering this showdown in LA unbeaten, just like in 2012. That being said, I don’t think that this matchup turns out the same as it did in Brian Kelly’s third year on campus. In my opinion, USC is one of the most underrated teams in the country and this game will ultimately decide which of these teams heads to the final four and which doesn’t. I give a slight edge to Southern Cal at home, but I feel as if this one truly is a toss up.

WAY-TOO-EARLY-PREDICTION Southern Cal 24 – Notre Dame 21

I think Notre Dame will be very good this year and on the cusp of playoff contention once again. There are obviously a few games I think could be trap games as well as a few games I think are going to be toss ups. I could be right, I could be wrong, I guess we will find out in November how I did.

Why Joining the Big Ten Would be Bad for Notre Dame

Long before the Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12, ACC, and SEC gained the prominence that they lay claim to today, the landscape of college football was extremely different. In that day, there were many more independents and far less conference ties. Obviously, those days are long gone as the college football world seems to revolve around the Power 5 group of conferences as it has become known.

This has left Notre Dame as the last powerful independent standing alone. There are two other independents in the FBS, Army and Brigham Young University. Army is obviously a service academy funded by the United States government and Brigham Young is the most well-known school of the LDS Church.

Those two programs are able to stand as independents, but not thrive in the way Notre Dame is able to.

Recently, there has been much talk of conference realignment. There have been written wonderings of what super conferences of 16 schools would look like. Many of these have placed Notre Dame the Big Ten, which makes more sense regionally as opposed to the ACC which Notre Dame is a member of for all sports other than football.

Joining the Big Ten would make sense regionally, however that is where it starts and ends with Notre Dame. There is the financial reasoning where Notre Dame has shown it is able to be successful without the help of a conference money wise, and joining any conference would mean Notre Dame terminating its TV deal with NBC. Sure, the dollars generated via a conference deal would be nice, but it may not be what Notre Dame has with NBC, and they would no longer be one of a kind in that sense.

The other big reason that would be harmful for Notre Dame is the Big Ten’s scheduling procedures. Starting this season, the members of the conference are no longer allowed to play against FCS (formerly 1-AA) opponents, and each team will also play nine conference games.

The first provision would be no issue for Notre Dame, seeing as it is one of only three schools to never play against an FCS opponent (along with USC and UCLA). The second change the Big Ten is making would be a big deal for Notre Dame. Filling up nine of 12 regular season slots with conference opponents really handcuffs the way Notre Dame would be able to schedule its nonconference games. The Fighting Irish have long-standing rivalries with USC, Navy, and Stanford as well as part-time rivalries with Army and Pitt. Joining the Big Ten would obviously re-ignite the rivalries with Michigan and Michigan State (whom is on the 2016 schedule for Notre Dame), but would put the other rivalries in jeopardy.

This would specifically cause an issue with recruiting. Notre Dame is able to showcase its program on the West Coast at the end of every season with a trip to California to play either Stanford or USC during the last week. It has been typical for Brian Kelly to stay out west for a few days after the game in order to get recruiting visits in. Eliminating one, or both of these, would be a hindrance on that for the Irish.

The easy answer for a reason not joining the Big Ten is monetary, but protecting rivalries and recruiting may be just as important as the tradition of remaining independent for the Irish.

How Notre Dame Can Replace Will Fuller

Notre Dame is not often thought of as a school that needs to replace a big time wide receiver. While this has been the case following the departures of standouts such as Jeff Samardzija, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and (arguably) Tyler Eifert, Brian Kelly may be facing one of his most difficult tasks yet by having to replace recently departed Will Fuller. While Fuller will certainly be missed, and no one specific wideout may be able to replace him, Notre Dame does have plenty of assets capable of stepping up.

One player that may be most ready to break out on the scene is sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown. Last season, St. Brown played minimally, totaling only one catch for eight yards in Notre Dame’s blowout win over UMass, but did contribute on special teams before a shoulder injury ended his season.

While St. Brown might be looked at as someone to help fill the void left by Fuller, they certainly are not the same type of player. Fuller, who measured at 6’ 186lbs at the combine is considerably smaller than St. Brown is. The German born St. Brown is listed at 6’4” and 205lbs, which is closer to a Michael Floyd body type as opposed to Fuller.

Aside from St. Brown, Notre Dame is also returning Torii Hunter, Jr., Corey Homes, Corey Robinson, and CJ Sanders at the receiver position. The star power is a big question among that group. Hunter, Jr. has played well in the past, however not to the extenet that Fuller did, and newly elected Student-Body President Robinson seems to have a great deal of things on his plate and leads one to question where football stands in his mind.

The best option for replacing Fuller could potentially be St. Brown. It just so happens the receiver on Notre Dame’s current roster with the most star potential only has one catch to his name at this point. With that being said, Fuller only had six receptions as a freshman before his breakout sophomore year that included 76 receptions for over 1000 yards and 15 scores.

Notre Dame also is bringing in three wide outs with high ceilings in the recruiting class set to hit the field next fall. Kevin Stepherson is already on campus and turning heads during spring football. Javon McKinley from California and Chase Claypool from British Columbia, Canada, are set to join Stepherson when the summer rolls around.

Stepherson and McKinley are built similar to Fuller, and Claypool is built just like St. Brown.

Adding these three into an already talented receiving corps will help to make up for the loss of Will Fuller. The star power may not be there right away, but the talent to replace the former Irish star will be.

Ohio State’s Gene Smith and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh Engage in a … Twitter War

Twitter clebrated its much publicized 10th birthday this past week, and the attention has stayed on the media outlet since. First, Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar LeBron James created a buzz when he un-followed @cavs, the official Twitter account of the team he is attempting to bring a championship to, and a few other accounts. The next day more Twitter drama ensued, this time in the college football world, and more specifically the Big Ten.

This Twitter fued started after Ohio State University Athletic Director Gene Smith took a shot at The University of Michigan’s football program at a news conference.

Smith’s comments seem cruel, but they aren’t too far off base. Over the past five seasons, Michigan is 41-23, which is well below its historic standards. The other issue at hand for the Wolverines is only having one win against the Buckeyes in the past five seasons, and two since 2001.

With that being understood, University of Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh took offense to Smith’s words and took to Twitter to voice his opinion.

The Michigan fan base loved these comments, but fans and athletes alike at Ohio State did not take too kindly to the words.

Former Buckeyes Ezekiel Elliott and Michael Thomas, as well as a few others, fired shots back at the man in charge at Michigan.

Notably, Ohio State’s most vocal and recognizable Twitter figure, Cardale Jones, sat this Twitter fight out.

Due to the Buckeyes domination of the Wolverines on the gridiron over the past decade and a half the rivalry has lost some of its luster. Things do look bright for this series, much brighter than they have in previous regimes for Michigan. Harbaugh led the team to a 10-3 record in his first season, with his losses to to Utah, Ohio State, and eventual Big Ten champion Michigan Stae.

This Twitter war may not mean a lot at the moment, but ultimately is great for the Big Ten and Ohio State. Lately, the conference has not been as good as it once was. The days of the Big Ten being a football powerhouse are no more, and quite frankly haven’t been here for a long time. Ohio State and Michigan State have both been very good programs, but the conference as a whole has been lacking depth and most importantly the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.

Ohio State has taken a beating nationally as of late for their poor schedule quality. That will definitely change this year with a trip to Norman, Oklahoma on the schedule. Even with the addition of the Oklahoma Sooners to the schedule, the key might be the strength of the Wolverines. If Michigan is better the Big Ten is better. Even more than the Big Ten needs Michigan to be great, Ohio State needs them to be great.

It’s clear that the fire is still there between the two programs, it is doubtful that it will ever leave. The competition is what matters most, and that needs to return to how it once was.

After one year on the job, the feeling is that Harbaugh has Michigan heading in the right direction. Time will tell, but if the Big Ten wants to be back at the top of the college football food chain, then the conference will need more battles between Ohio State and Michigan on the field like the one the two sides had on Twitter.

E-mail Danny at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DCunninghamCLE.

Notre Dame’s Offseason QB Conundrum

During the 2015 season, the amount of adversity that Notre Dame’s football team dealt with was well documented. The Fighting Irish lost multiple starters on both sides of the ball due to injury. One of the biggest losses was quarterback Malik Zaire, who suffered a fractured ankle during the third quarter of week two at Virginia. Zaire was replaced by sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer, who performed very well throughout the remainder of the season. The question facing Brian Kelly and the rest of his staff is whether or not to re-insert Zaire as the starting quarterback.

Zaire was named the starting quarterback last summer, following the announcement that Everett Golson was transferring to Florida State University to use his final year of eligibility. There was no real competition between Zaire and Kizer, definitely not to the level there will be in South Bend between now and next fall.

The reasoning behind naming Zaire the starter originally was that he was the moderately experienced guy that gave the team the best chance to win. Is that still true?

Zaire was the most experienced guy when Golson left, but that is not the case currently, as Kizer started the final 11 games for the Irish last year.

While the experience factor is great, that doesn’t tell the entire story. Both Zaire and Kizer will be well versed in the playbook and will have the ability to build relationships with a receiving corps that is losing three key wide outs in Will Fuller, Chris Brown, and Amir Carlisle.

The main difference between the two are the running and leadership. Both of those factors may favor Zaire. He is a better runner than Kizer, as well as a much more vocal, natural leader, often wearing his heart on his sleeve, while Kizer has a tremendous pocket presence and seems to be a little more laid back on and off the field.

A team that is only returning nine total starters needs both experience and leadership from the quarterback position. Finding which player can harness enough talent to go along with that will be a challenge for Brian Kelly and his staff, there is no doubting that.

Headed into spring practice later this month, Kizer will be in the driver’s seat, but a lot can change in the month the Irish will be on the field. Smart thinking says that this situation will not be settled until later on, likely during summer practice, or quite possibly right before kickoff of the first game, the way Urban Meyer announced his starter at Ohio State last fall.

Kelly can learn how to not handle this situation by observing how Meyer handled his quarterbacks in Columbus last fall, if you have two quarterbacks, you likely have none. In many opinions the way Meyer handled things last fall possibly cost the Buckeyes a playoff berth, if not more. Kelly can’t let this be a reason the Irish are kept from an outstanding 2016 campaign.

2015 Notre Dame Football: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Every team, in every sport faces some sort of adversity throughout the duration of their season.

Notre Dame’s 127th football was certainly no exception to that rule.

The Irish dealt with the injury bug unlike any other FBS team this season, having to start 38 different players throughout the season.

The Good

Notre Dame was able to reach the 10-win mark for the second time under Head Coach Brian Kelly and the first time since the 2012 season which saw Notre Dame play for the BCS National Championship, finishing with 12 wins.

This year, Irish fans saw thrilling come from behind wins over Virginia, Temple, and USC, as well as blowout victories over Texas, UMass, and Pitt.

Sure, the losses stung, but Kelly had the Irish in the National Championship picture until the final seconds of the regular season finale at Stanford.

The “Next Man Up” attitude that the Fighting Irish were forced to take this year was both a good and a bad thing for the team.

That attitude forced many players into action that may not have seen nearly the amount of time that they did.

One gigantic bright spot in this area was Sophomore QB DeShone Kizer.

Last spring, Kizer was an afterthought at the QB position.

Notre Dame had Everett Golson and Malik Zaire competing for the starting QB position during spring practice. Kizer was taking limited reps as the number three.

Fast forward to September, Golson was starting games for Florida State, and Zaire fractured his ankle against Virginia, Team 127 was now Kizer’s to lead.

Kizer flourished in that role, leading Notre Dame’s offense to 34.2 points per game.

Another bright spot on the team was WR Will Fuller.

Fuller came into 2015 off of a terrific 2014, and proved to be just as good this year.

Fuller was one of the best downfield threats in the country this season, averaging over 20 yards per catch, and snagging 14 touchdowns.

On the defensive side of the ball, LB Jaylon Smith was one of the best players in college football this season.

Smith took home the Butkus award as the best linebacker in the country. This award was unique for Smith because he also won the high school version of this award.

Only two players have ever won Butkus award in both high school and college. The only other to do so was former Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o.

Before I finish this part of the review, I also need to throw a bone to the Irish special teams units. Notre Dame is notorious for having poor special teams throughout the years.

This season was a different story as the Irish had return touchdowns on both a punt and a kickoff by CJ Sanders.

Freshman Justin Yoon was also very effective, going 15-17 on field goal attempts and 50-52 on extra points.

Yoon made every kick he attempted following the UMass game.

The Bad

Notre Dame was expected to have a better defense than the one that Irish fans saw towards the end of last season.

At times, the defense did look very good, for example in the season opener against Texas.

At other times, the defense looked extremely porous, as it did in the Fiesta Bowl loss at the hands of Ohio State.

Defensive Coordinator Brian VanGorder took a lot of heat from fans and media for the poor performances that the defense put together at time, even though there was ample talent on that side of the ball. The talent didn’t equate into results unfortunately.

The Irish defense struggled excessively most notably against Stanford and Ohio State, giving up over 35 points in both contests.

The Ugly

Notre Dame was hampered by injuries unlike any other team in college football this season.

IMG_0170
Above is a list of players at Notre Dame that missed at least one game due to injury this season. Starters are denoted by *

 

While the next man up motto worked out relatively well, one can’t help but wonder where the Irish could have been had many key players not been injured.

The bright side of the injuries showed how much depth Notre Dame has, but in a perfect world, would prefer not to show off.

Given everything that happened with the Irish this season, I would chalk the 2015 campaign up as a success for the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame overcame tough odds to finish in double digit wins.

Next season with a great deal of talent coming back, the sky should be the limit for Notre Dame football.

E-mail Danny at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DCunninghamCLE.

Photo: Jill/Blue Moonbeam Studio/Flickr

Ohio State and Notre Dame in the Desert

Outside of the National Semi-Finals, and the Championship Game, one New Year’s Six Bowl Game stands above every other game this postseason, the Fiesta Bowl.

Ohio State and Notre Dame have not matched up against each other in exactly 10 years.

Many people expect this matchup to have a similar outcome as the battle in the desert did 10 years ago did, with Ohio State winning 35-21, in a game that didn’t feel as close as the score was.

This game is sure to be where eyes will be glued on New Year’s Day.

Ohio State and Notre Dame represent two of college football’s biggest fan bases and most historical backgrounds.

Any time two powerhouses in the college football world meet up, plenty of fanfare is sure to follow.

Meanwhile, the game should be a good one.

Ohio State enters the contest with a record of 11-1, with their lone slip-up coming at home against Michigan State by a score of 17-14.

With that being said, the Buckeyes greatly underachieved all season, and ultimately failed their only test that mattered.

Instances of the team not reaching their potential included a 20-13 win at home against Northern Illinois University and squeaking by Indiana in Bloomington.

The Buckeyes failed to look like a championship caliber team until they took a trip to Ann Arbor to close out the season, by that point it was too little, too late.

On the other side of the coin, Notre Dame was a team that also entered this season with championship aspirations, only to fall short.

The Irish lost two games, by a combined four points in 2015.

Both of those losses came on the road to teams that would end up finishing in the top six, top-ranked Clemson and sixth-ranked Stanford.

This year’s edition of the Irish came to be one known for playing with a “Next Man Up” attitude out of necessity.

Injuries ravaged Notre Dame starting in preseason camp with Shaun Crawford and Jarron Jones, and continuing all the way into bowl practice with Devin Butler. In between those casualties Notre Dame lost key players such as RB Tarean Folston, QB Malik Zaire, TE Durham Smythe, FS Drue Tranquill, and CB KeiVarae Russell.

Despite all of that, Notre Dame found its way to a 10-2 season.

This matchup between an overachieving team and an underachieving team brings the question of which team really wants to be in Glendale, AZ and which team has players looking ahead to the NFL Draft this coming spring.

My money would be on the underachieving team loaded with talent looking towards the future, and the overachieving team trying to make one more mark on this season.

Of course, neither team will be entering this game at full strength, and even with that fact, there will be an abundance of NFL-caliber talent on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium on New Year’s Day.

The key to this game for me will be how well can Notre Dame run the ball, and convert in the red zone against the Buckeyes.

The Fighting Irish will be getting back RB CJ Prosise, who was absent in the loss against Stanford. Prosise was the team’s third team running back this spring, and finished the regular season by topping the 1000-yard mark, which is no small accomplishment.

The flip side of that battle is an Ohio State defensive line weakened by injury and suspension.

Senior DT Adolophus Washington of Ohio State was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl for solicitation of a prostitute in Columbus, and DT Tommy Schutt will also be missing the game with a broken foot.

Washington was the run-stopping anchor of Ohio State’s defensive line. Even though the brightest star of the line is DE Joey Bosa, Washington may be the most important player on the defensive front.

The other area where Notre Dame will need to excel is capitalizing in red zone opportunities.

Notre Dame struggled mightily in the red zone all season, including three red zone turnovers in games against Temple and Boston College. If the Fiesta Bowl sees a performance like that, expect a Buckeye victory.

On the flip side, the key to victory for Ohio State will be the ability to take advantage of Notre Dame’s depleted secondary.

SS Max Redfield was sent home earlier this week for missing curfew, and CB Devin Butler suffered a fractured foot in practice, causing him to miss this game.

The defensive backfield will already be without starting CB KeiVarae Russell, who suffered a fractured fibula against Boston College.

Offensively for Ohio State, QB JT Barrett has not had the type of season passing as he did in his previous season.

Part of that can be attributed to having to split duties with Cardale Jones, as well as the lack of a true number one receiver.

WR Michael Thomas has been solid for the Buckeyes, although he has struggled to replace Devin Smith. Braxton Miller has been largely underwhelming following a vey explosive week one performance against Virginia Tech, and Jalin Marshall has underachieved as well.

I expect this game to be high-scoring, and much closer than the contest ten years ago.

Pick: Notre Dame (+6.5), Over 59

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl: Ohio vs. Appalachian State

September 1, 2007 is the reason that many college football fans became familiar with Appalachian State University.

That day, Armanti Edwards and the Mountaineers took a trip to Ann Arbor, MI and shocked the world with a 34-32 victory over the Michigan Wolverines.

Since then, Appalachian State has been rather quiet on the national level while they have moved from the FCS (formerly 1-AA) level to the FBS level.

This matchup against The Ohio University Bobcats will be their first postseason appearance at the FBS level.

This season ASU finished with a 10-2 record, finishing 7-1 in Sun Belt play. Their losses were by 31 on the road against Clemson and at home by 13 to eventual Sun Belt Champion Arkansas State.

On the other side, The Ohio University Bobcats finished their regular season with a mark of 8-4, good enough for second in the MAC East behind Bowling Green. Losses inside the conference for the Bobcats included Western Michigan, Buffalo, and MAC Champion Bowling Green. The other loss for Ohio was a close defeat on the road at the hands of the Minnesota Gophers.

One thing to watch in this game is how Ohio defends Appalachian State’s seventh-ranked rushing attack. The Mountaineers come in to the game averaging just under 269 yards per game on the ground, and the Bobcats are giving up nearly five yards per carry. Appalachian State should be able to capitalize on the relatively weak front seven from Ohio and move the ball at will.

PICK:

Vegas has the Mountaineers as a seven-point favorite.

Lay the points and take App State.

Time For Notre Dame To Show Up

It’s time for the Irish to show up.

Notre Dame is revered as one of the best programs in college football. The Fighting Irish have the best winning percentage of any FBS program and have a storied history.

That being said, the Irish haven’t showed up in a big moment in quite some time. Notre Dame hasn’t had a big win to hang their hat on since 2012 in Norman against Oklahoma and at home against Stanford.

Sure, 2014 saw the Irish defeat LSU in the Music City Bowl, but that LSU team was 8-5.

This season saw Notre Dame lose their two biggest games against top opponents. Yes, they both were close losses, down to the wire on the road, losing by two points in both cases, but a loss is a loss. Winning at Clemson or at Stanford would have been two big wins for any program, including Notre Dame.

There have been many times throughout the years that have given Notre Dame fans hope that they’re almost there. The talk of Notre Dame’s depth, recruiting and talent being up is all well and good, but this program needs validation.

Notre Dame needs to start winning these types of games. The program has made a habit of losing games that have given false hope to Irish fans. Losing to Nebraska in overtime in the 2000 season, the Bush Push game in 2005 against USC, the loss at the wire against Florida State in 2014, and the losses to Clemson and Stanford this year are moments like that. Those games left Irish fans walking away muttering, “They’re so close, a play here or there and that is a win.”

That very well could be true, but a loss is still a loss.

Close isn’t good enough for Notre Dame. Yes, the Irish are on the map, but they need a marquee win to tell the rest of the country that they’re here to stay.

A win in the Fiesta Bowl would be just that.

Beating Ohio State would be a win for Notre Dame that would put them back on the map.

Beating Ohio State is easier said than done.

Since Urban Meyer took over in 2012, the Buckeyes are 49-4, including winning a national championship, something the Irish haven’t done in nearly 30 years.

In fact it has been 21 years since the Irish have won a major bowl, with the last victory of that type coming against Texas A&M in a 24-21 victory on New Years Day of 1994. A loss against the Buckeyes would further that streak.

This is an opportunity for Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly to put his mark on this Irish program. The wins against Stanford, USC, and Oklahoma are big wins, but this would be on another level.

All too often Notre Dame has been a turnover, red zone mistake, or defensive stop away from winning games against elite programs.

Much has been made nationally about Clemson losing their big games in recent years. The term “Clemsoning” has even popped up. This year, the Tigers shook that, gathering two big wins over Notre Dame and Florida State. The argument can be made that Notre Dame has done more “Clemsoning” than Clemson has.

The Fiesta Bowl is the perfect opportunity for Notre Dame to shake the “Almost There” title, stop “Clemsoning,” and finally arrive.