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Notre Dame’s offensive coaching a ‘collaboration’ through Camping World Bowl

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While confirming the reports of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s dismissal, Irish head coach Brian Kelly had no choice but to also acknowledge Notre Dame’s success in Long’s three seasons, particularly 2019 and its 37.1 points per game, ranking No. 13 in the country.

“Anytime that you’re scoring points at the level that we were, you’re pleased in that respect,” Kelly said Saturday. “There were some other things that, certainly, I wasn’t as pleased with.

“Overall, this is not an offense that lagged in the back half of many categories. It was in the top half or the top third of many. Is that the only way you judge an offense? Probably not. … But by and large, the product and what it resulted was pretty darn good.”

Nonetheless, Kelly felt changing up the staff “was in the best interest of the program.” Given the quick turnaround heading into the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28, Kelly did not want to put off the decision until after Wednesday’s Early Signing Period. The Irish, in fact, had their first bowl preparation practice on Saturday.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s offense excelled under Chip Long, except when it mattered

For the next two weeks, quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees will handle the passing game and running backs coach Lance Taylor will handle the running game. Kelly said he has not decided who will call plays against Iowa State. That likely will not be Kelly, now or in the future. When Long arrived, Kelly handed over play-calling duties for the first genuine time in his career. The success that followed sealed that decision for good, it seems.

“I’m not calling plays, I will not call plays,” Kelly said. “That’s not my role. I’ve moved past that role. I will certainly be much more involved in the organization of the offense and clearly making sure that our room is where I want it to be, and I think it is.

“I will be there to lean on and consult with, but this will be a collaborative approach, with the lead coming from Lance and Tom.”

When the time comes to find a permanent offensive coordinator, unlikely to be before the bowl game when listening to Kelly, only one factor will be considered, a cliche when hearing it but also the factor that led to Long’s ouster.

“We had an offensive coordinator who was extremely successful, and I did what I thought was best for the program,” Kelly said. “So I’m going to again do what’s best for the program. That doesn’t mean default back to hiring just to hire somebody. We’re going to do what’s in the best interest of this football program.”

If that sounded like a vague denial of the rumors Rees has already been selected for the job, Kelly confronted that even more bluntly.

“I’ve got a great staff, as well, but no decision has been made. I know there’s a lot of speculation that one of the coaches has already been named. That’s unfounded. That’s simply not true. We’re going to do a  thorough evaluation and search and find what I would consider the best coach that fits Notre Dame.”

Whomever that is, the Irish offense will change only so much. Kelly’s system has long leaned on the pass, straying toward the run in Long’s first year only thanks to an unrivaled offensive line led by two top-10 draft picks. That passing game approach will not become a thing of the past, both because of Kelly’s preferences and because this is 2019 and college football has moved away from ground-specific attacks.

“It’ll be subtle, but there will be some differences,” Kelly said. “I think every offensive coordinator has their own touches to the way that the offense would look. Again, the base structure is fundamentally going to look mostly the same, but there’ll be some nuances there that I think when you look at it closely, that you’ll see the differences.”

Until then, it’ll be Rees and Taylor in Orlando.

Projecting Notre Dame’s Awards Season

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Notre Dame will host its annual season-end awards banquet tonight, an occasion less vital to recruiting than it used to be — before the implementation of the Early Signing Period, a three-day stretch commencing this coming Wednesday — and more a celebration of a largely-successful season.

For the most part, the night’s awards amplify one last chance for seniors to get recognized in front of their peers. Of the 17 or so superlatives, at least 10 will likely end up with seniors. Then again, given the nature of college football, upperclassmen tend to produce the most, too.

Let’s rattle through those awards, at points noting both who should get honored and who likely will instead. All guesses are welcome, though no prize will go to the most accurate.

MVP, both deserved and projected: If this does not go to senior receiver Chase Claypool, there should not even be an awards ceremony. Then-junior quarterback Ian Book won MVP last year, but Claypool’s consistency this season should belie the natural positional pecking order.

Claypool could still crack 1,000 receiving yards this season, with 891 to date on 59 catches, adding 12 touchdowns. He repeatedly churned for extra yards, after making highlight-reel catches. How’s this for a stat — Claypool had as many tackles (5) as he did scoreless games.

Offensive Player of the Year, both deserved and projected: This could obviously go to Claypool, as well, but the different awards exist to get a few more names mentioned, and there is nothing wrong with that on a night marked for fun and laughs more than anything else. In place of Claypool, Book should walk away with this hardware.

It would be more appropriate if there were an “Offensive Play of the Year” award, because as absurd as Javon McKinley’s spinning and bouncing touchdown was against New Mexico, Book’s seven-yard draw in the final minute against Virginia Tech may have saved the Irish season.

But for thoroughness’ sake, here’s McKinley’s score once more …

Defensive Player of the Year, both deserved and projected: A bit of a trickier one, this space gives the nod to senior defensive end Khalid Kareem, finishing the season with 45 tackles, including a team-high 10 for loss with another team-high 5.5 sacks. He had nine more quarterback hurries, forced three fumbles and recovered one for a touchdown.

Kareem was as much a workhorse as a defensive lineman can be, constantly nicked up, but never missing action. He finishes his career with 13 sacks, pending the bowl game, maybe not an outlandish total but one that shows his consistent pressure throughout his career.

Impact Offensive Player of the Year, deserved: Junior tight end Cole Kmet had 482 yards and six touchdowns on 41 catches in only 10 games. If giving this designation solely by the meaning of “impact”, Kmet’s was immediate and distinct. In his return from a broken collarbone, three of the first four Irish plays at Georgia went to Kmet, gaining 33 yards on them.

“We feel like he’s a difference-maker as a player,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said following that 23-17 loss. “He kind of set the tone in the game with a physical run early on and then he got everybody feeling like this is the way we can play this game. He opens up a lot of things for us.”

Impact Offensive Player of the Year, projected: Parts of 2019 were a struggle for fifth-year receiver Chris Finke, finishing with 35 catches for 410 yards and four touchdowns. Injuries limited him more than was let on, and a safety blanket aspect of the Irish offense instead became a hit-or-miss utility. Nonetheless, his name will likely be called at some point tonight, and here would fit.

Impact Defensive Player of the Year, deserved: Statistically, perhaps fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal’s role was not all that noteworthy, finishing with 72 tackles with nine for loss and adding one fumble recovery. But his emergence, unexpected as it was even once the season began, gave Notre Dame’s defense an added set of wrinkles, ones needed for defensive coordinator Clark Lea to deploy his best 11 players at points.

It is hard to imagine now, but two games into the season the Irish coaching staff was still somewhat skeptical of giving Bilal more snaps, and understandably so. Then he flashed early against Georgia and never looked back.

“We’re really seeing some strong improvement from Bilal,” Kelly said the next day. “He played really well. He continues to emerge as somebody that we feel is not even merited getting off the field.”

Impact Defensive Player of the Year, projected: Senior safety Alohi Gilman has earned hearing his name tonight. Maybe that is sappy, maybe that is simplistic, it is still true. Due to an unexpectedly solid linebacker corps and the play of freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, Gilman’s stat line was modest — 66 tackles with three for loss including one sack and one interception, as well as two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. But when he made a play, it was noticed, which is some version of the definition of impact.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, deserved: This gets tough. The South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James has tracked 33 false starts by the line this year, which hints none of the linemen should get an honor, to be utterly blunt. If Kmet counts, then give it to him.

If not, then the options are seemingly limited to the three starters healthy all season, and among them, junior left guard Aaron Banks played the best, while sophomore center Jarrett Patterson was more reliable than may have been expected of a first-year starter.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, projected: A few awards down the list here, there is a two-way tie that is impossible to break. Giving this to fifth-year offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland helps solve the quandary, and will elicit the round of applause Ruhland has earned.

RELATED READING: Ill-advised, unexpected and needed, Trevor Ruhland fills in

Defensive Lineman of the Year, both deserved and projected: If Kareem collects the Defensive Player of the Year award, then it fits to hand this to senior end Ade Ogundeji. Expected to have a reserve role this season, a hefty one but reserve nonetheless, injuries forced Ogundeji into the fray in a leading gig. He responded with 32 tackles including six for loss with 3.5 sacks and one fumble return for a touchdown.

Ogundeji may not get the preseason hype in 2020 that senior Julian Okwara did in 2019, but brace yourself for a decent amount of it. He showed that kind of talent this fall, even moving to tackle for the regular-season finale due to more injuries.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, deserved: As much confidence as there was in Patterson exiting the spring, expectations for him were still muted by the reality of the sophomore being a first-year starter as a fresh tackle-to-center convert.

He never failed in the role. It is hard to genuinely gauge his success given the offensive line’s ebbs and flows, but Patterson should get more credit for his debut season than he has.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: Which clip of sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy should be embedded below? The 51-yard dash against USC that announced his arrival? The 70-yard touchdown reception against Navy which truly proved Book can drop a deep ball on the mark? The 61-yard touchdown rush against Boston College when he was only touched as he crossed the goal line? The 43-yard completion at Stanford that got the Irish out of dangerous territory and on their way to a decisive touchdown?

It should be the last of those, an underrated play that helped spark the rout of the Cardinal, but digging out one non-scoring reception on FOX is a big ask when that USC score is available at the relative fingertips …

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, so many candidates: At least three names deserve this moment, so as long as one of the three of them gets it, no one should cry foul.

Junior linebacker Drew White went from springtime cautionary tale (Don’t go skiing while on scholarship, kids.) to Notre Dame’s leading tackler with 75, including eight for loss and two sacks, not to mention two fumble recoveries. He played fundamentally, consistently and mistake-free. If there is a greater testament to Lea’s coaching acumen than White’s development, we have yet to see it.

Not that White was the only linebacker Lea burst onto the scene, with junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah finishing with 71 tackles, including 9.5 for loss with 2.5 sacks and four pass breakups. By season’s end, Owusu-Koramoah’s performance demanded more snaps, at the expense of Bilal and/or White, which spoke more to his development than to anything about their play.

But then there is Hamilton, a freshman with four interceptions, six breakups and 39 tackles. His rise was the least unexpected and given his (Warning: About to state a fact of life here …) two more years in the program in an increasingly starring role, let the hardware fall to White or Owusu-Koramoah.

Special Teams Player of the Year, deserved: Who else celebrates a punt coverage tackle so aggressively he momentarily injures himself? Sophomore linebacker Bo Bauer earned himself a reputation this season.

Special Teams Player of the Year, actually deserved as well as projected: Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer went from preseason concern to November reliability. He deserves significant credit for the win against USC, going 3-of-3 in that 30-27 victory.

Pietrosante Award (leadership and courage), deserved and projected: As long as this goes to either Ruhland or fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford, someone deserving has been named. Given there is a legitimate avenue to recognizing Ruhland elsewhere, as mentioned earlier, Crawford likely ends up with this bit.

If this season had ended with one or two more glamorous moments from Crawford, then the anecdote of his injury against Virginia would have found Irish lore. Having already suffered three season-ending injuries in his career, his elbow went the wrong way to end September. According to Kelly, as the training staff reached Crawford, he told them something to the effect of, “Fix it, fix my elbow, I’m walking off this field, I’m playing again.”

And he did.

“He’s one of the toughest-minded and I’ve never seen anybody — our training staff is shaking its head that he’s already out of a sling and moving his elbow,” Kelly said the following week.

Yes, the following week. Crawford’s elbow betrayed him Saturday and Kelly said such the following Thursday. Find a better display of courage on a football field.

Humble & Hungry, deserved and projected: Though without the injury history, senior defensive end Jamir Jones put the team before himself just as Ruhland did. The humility needed to give up another year of football to pick up the slack in light of injury should get Jones this earned round of applause from his teammates.

Father Lange Iron Cross (weight room), deserved and projected: Presuming this story is at all accurate, and knowing the author, it is, then this should be an easy prognostication …

Other awards:
Irish Around the Bend for community service
Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year
Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Kevin Austin, perhaps?

Notre Dame’s offense excelled under Chip Long, except when it mattered

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Chip Long authored the two highest-scoring seasons of Brian Kelly’s time at Notre Dame, along with two of the four best-gaining offenses. Those are inexact measures of an offense’s effectiveness, but they are still the black-and-white results on paper.

The Irish offense produced with Long as its offensive coordinator. Broadly, this cannot be argued. Yet, he and Notre Dame parted ways Wednesday.

Time will be spent discussing philosophical differences, speculating about clashes in approach and fretting about the coaching form of nepotism. The reasoning for Long’s departure may be more fundamental than all of that: For the Irish to take the next step firmly into college football’s top tier, its offense needs to improve.

Notre Dame has gone 32-6 in the last three years, covering Long’s tenure. In the 32 wins, it averaged 38.03 points per game. In those six losses, it averaged 13.5.

Maybe this split came as the result of Long failing to learn “the other things that go along with being the leader of this offense.” Perhaps it is a piece of recruiting the proverbial six-star quarterback. It could have come from disputes over staff.

Or that could all stem from the simpler issue: When it mattered most, Long’s offense did not show up the last three years. Not against or at Georgia. Not at Miami or at Stanford. Certainly not against Clemson or at Michigan.

The Irish defense always at least held its own. When the Hurricanes routed Notre Dame in mid-November 2017, offensive turnovers led directly to 24 points; without them, the 41-8 outcome may have been in some doubt. At Michigan this past fall, the defense found its footing for a significant portion surrounding halftime, holding the Wolverines to 21 yards on 21 plays across six drives. Long’s offense filled that period by gaining 11 yards on 13 plays.

A portion of that issue obviously must be put on Kelly, as all things tied to the program do to at least some degree, but when he was calling plays, the Irish at least scored 28 points against Ohio State in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl, 36 against Stanford weeks before that and 22 in a storm at Clemson that October. They managed 27 at Florida State in 2014 and 30 at Oklahoma in 2012. The offense was not the sole reason Notre Dame fell short as it has been the last three years.

Something had to change offensively to have the best chance of not wasting what could be a generational amount of skill-position talent on the Irish offensive roster next season. That talent will be best showcased with a veteran quarterback at its helm, so Notre Dame must still hope senior quarterback Ian Book, the aforementioned proverbial six-star, opts to return to South Bend rather than finish his collegiate career elsewhere.

That leaves a change at offensive coordinator as the best chance to feature Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy, Cole Kmet and Tommy Tremble, Jafar Armstrong and Chris Tyree.

Splitting this need from the vague ideas of staff chemistry, player relations and coaching philosophy is impossible. Those intangibles could have been sourer than a feral skunk but deemed the sweet smell of success if the Irish were in their second consecutive College Football Playoff thanks to one more touchdown in Athens. Then again, they could be the underlying reasons for the stagnant struggles in pivotal moments, including much of the time between the hedges.

In a profession as passionate and evolving as college football coaching, turnover and reinvention is inevitable, if not preferable. After all, it was a total revamp of Kelly’s staff that sparked this three-year run following that 2016 debacle.

Long added to Kelly’s long-standing offense. To pull from one of Tom Rees’ first interviews as Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach, back in 2017’s spring, before any evidence of Long’s ability had been seen in a competitive environment …

“You still see the same structure of the offense, and now coach Long comes in and adds his mix into it,” Rees said. “It’s been a great job of learning from him and seeing what he’s really applied, the finer details that he’s coached up.”

The need now is for the next Irish offensive coordinator — be it Rees, running backs coach Lance Taylor or someone from the outside — to add some of his own flavor to the system. He will have plenty of ingredients to work with between (presumably) Book, receivers Austin, Lenzy and sophomore Lawrence Keys, tight ends Kmet (if he spurns the NFL) and Tremble, a deep if not proven running backs group, and six returning offensive line starters.

In hopes of adding to that stockpile, there will now be six days of Irish worry about the current high school seniors expected to sign their National Letters of Intent on Wednesday. That concern would not be so poignant if the offensive class was not so talented, consisting of nine players of which two can claim five-star status and five more are consensus four-stars.

Those 17- and 18-year-olds, though, are more familiar with this part of college football than the fans are. They know they are unlikely to finish their careers playing for the same coaches that recruited them. Notre Dame prospects, in particular, are not sold on the staff, but on everything else the University offers. If being blunt, on some level anyone currently being recruited by the Irish realizes Kelly might not be around four years from now.

That’s part of recruiting, and the odds are all nine commits sign on the dotted line early Wednesday morning, along with their eight defensive counterparts.

Given their five-star profiles, running back Chris Tyree and receiver Jordan Johnson could play roles in Notre Dame breaking out in a high-profile game next season, which would be a first under not only the next offensive coordinator, but also under Long.


One aspect of Long’s offenses that should not be taken for granted was his ruthless effectiveness in the red zone. The Irish scored touchdowns on 71.81 percent of their red-zone possessions across the last three seasons. To give context, that three-year standard would have ranked No. 20 in the country for just this season.

WHAT’S NEXT
Before discussing Long’s replacement, this needed to be written to discuss Long’s exit. When the conversation turns to his successor, and the debate rages around the possibility of Rees, no one should assume he will be Kelly’s “yes man.” Even back in his playing days, Rees was often seen arguing with Kelly on the sidelines.

“Tommy wasn’t a guy who was going to back down if he thought he was right,” former Notre Dame offensive lineman Mike Golic, Jr. said when Rees was hired. “Both of them could certainly have that heated conversation and then come back and understand that is just part of the working environment there.”


Yes, this domino was the first in mind when after the regular-season finale this space wrote, “… an inconsistent offense will remain confounding until flashing reliably with Lenzy and Kmet in nine months, presuming this coming month does not rob the Irish of too much of the stability so many programs envy.”


Comments should be back up and running after being absent for the better part of two days. That hiccup was very much not expected in this content management system update. If there are any further issues, please continue to email them to insidetheirish@gmail.com, and thank you to those who did Wednesday to help troubleshoot the commenting issues.

Reports: Notre Dame and offensive coordinator Chip Long to split ways

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After a season in which No. 15 Notre Dame both averaged 37.1 points per game and yet fell short of broader offensive expectations, the Irish are expected to find a new offensive coordinator, per reports.

Chip Long has served in the role for three years, arriving as part of the staff shakeup following a 4-8 showing in 2016. FootballScoop.com first reported his looming departure, with Irish Illustrated confirming it. Whether this is Long’s choice or Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s depends on the reading of those two reports, though the effect will be the same.

Both reports say Long will not coach the Irish in the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State on Dec. 28, meaning play-calling duties likely land in the lap of quarterbacks coach Tom Rees, who will also be a candidate to be Long’s long-term replacement.

While points and yards per game are inexact measures of offensive progress, it cannot be argued Notre Dame produced under Long, twice setting Kelly-era records for points per game.

2017: 34.2 points per game; 448.4 yards.
2018: 31.4 points per game; 440.1 yards.
2019: 37.1 points per game; 429.2 yards.

The year with an on-paper downturn, 2018, made Long a Broyles Award finalist, the award recognizing the country’s best assistant coach, for his work navigating a quarterback shift to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush.

But Book’s inconsistent 2019 unraveled much of that goodwill in all corners. While he finished with 33 touchdowns against only six interceptions, he also completed less than 60 percent of his passes, after setting a Notre Dame record with a 68.2 completion percentage in 2018. Book, and the Irish offense as a whole, bottomed out at Michigan when he went 8-of-25 in a 45-14 blowout loss. From there, the offense regathered itself to finish the season strong, averaging 37.8 points per game in the final five contests.


In much less notable personnel news, senior linebacker Jonathan Jones has reportedly entered the transfer portal. That is more a housekeeping item than anything else as his career was marked more by off-field chemistry than on-field impact, finishing with 10 tackles in 37 games.

Leftovers & Links: How close was Notre Dame to the Playoff?

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For all the misplaced angst over No. 15 Notre Dame’s berth in the Camping World Bowl, a destination outside anyone’s control in a season when college football was unprecedentedly deep at the top, none of the frustration seems to think back to the Irish loss at Georgia in mid-September.

The way the season panned out across the country, it is entirely reasonable Notre Dame would be heading to the Peach Bowl on Dec. 28 as the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff opposite No. 1 LSU if the Irish had made one more play in Athens.

It is obviously an exercise in the hypothetical, but it goes to show just how close the margin of error is between the Playoff and a date near Disney World.

If Notre Dame had won between the hedges, it would have finished the season no worse than 11-1 with wins over a top-10 Georgia, No. 22 USC, No. 23 Navy and No. 24 Virginia. The only other one-loss team in consideration for that final playoff spot, Oklahoma boasts a pair of wins against No. 7 Baylor as well as a victory against No. 25 Oklahoma State.

The debate between the two teams would have been worthwhile and lengthy, but presuming the Irish at least showed up at Michigan in this hypothetical — with more at stake, a feasible possibility — they likely would have gotten the No. 4 seed in place of the Sooners.

More than a lamentable “What if …?”, this illustrates the fine line between success and angst in a sport with a small sample size of 12-13 weekends in the fall.

Losing by six points on the road in the environment that was the primetime chaos at Sanford Stadium was seen as a step in the right direction for Notre Dame, broadly speaking. Afterward, the lack of a running game stood out, exacerbated by a concussion sidelining Braden Lenzy. Nonetheless, the Irish had the ball with a genuine chance to win in the final minute.

“We were one possession away, one play away from winning the game,” senior receiver Chase Claypool said afterward.

Little did Claypool, or anyone, know they were one possession away, one play away from reaching the Playoff.

It’s a hypothetical, but it is not an outlandish one, in retrospect.

Instead, Notre Dame has to answer the typical motivation questions tied to a bowl game outside the New Year’s Six, let alone outside the Playoff.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly responded to those wonderings Sunday by pointing out the dynamics afloat since his team fell apart in the rain in Ann Arbor. Since that debacle, Notre Dame has been clearly out of the national title picture and the basic argument wonders what else there is to play for.

Despite that irrational view, the Irish have rattled off five increasingly-dominant wins.

“It’s just like the last five games we’ve played,” Kelly said. “It’s about a standard of play. 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.”

Even that is making too much of a perception perpetuated from only the outside.

“It’s really not about a lot of those different narratives other than these are 18-to 21-year-olds that are really focused on preparing and wanting to play well, enjoying being with their teammates for the last time this year, and not to make it much more complicated than that.”

A Counting Down the Irish revisionist oversight
In Friday’s review of the preseason “Counting Down the Irish”, one name was not given proper credit, a mistake pointed out by jojo3057.

Senior defensive end Jamir Jones finished the season with 24 tackles, including 6.5 for loss with 4.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries, all in a season in which he was expected to play no more than four games. Jones’ contributions in 2019 should certainly have put him among the most vital players in hindsight.

Any Monday troubles on this site?
A new version of WordPress took over hosting duties of “Inside the Irish” on Monday, rendering many functions unavailable for a portion of midday Monday during the transition. Apologies for any inconvenience, though what exactly what was available and unavailable is somewhat a gray area.

If anything seems yet amiss, please do the favor of passing the feedback along to insidetheirish@gmail.com.

For that matter, rather than spend any of the next 17 days idly creating arguments why Notre Dame should lose to Iowa State, feel free to send in some mailbag questions to fill the time.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Notre Dame’s decade compares favorably to rivals’
Counting Down the Irish in review: Disappointments? Surprises?
No. 15 Notre Dame, Iowa State to meet in Camping World Bowl
With perspective, Camping World Bowl a worthy destination for No. 15 Notre Dame

OUTSIDE READING
Ranking the bowls from 1-39 ($)
The 150 greatest coaches in college football’s 150-year history
All-Freshman Team
New Mexico to pay $825k buyout to Bob Davie