Notre Dame’s Opponents: The Fiesta-Peach Anomaly in a top-heavy year

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Most years, going 10-2 will be enough to land Notre Dame in a New Year’s Six bowl. The prevailing angst about this perceived slight stems from an anomaly in the Playoff semifinal rotation, not from an agenda against the Irish or from an oversight in the ACC agreement.

Half the New Year’s Six bowls have conference contracts while the remaining three pull from the rest of the top 12 when not hosting semifinals. The 2019 anomaly, one that will next appear in 2022, is that both the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl are hosting semifinals, leaving only one true at-large opening available, guaranteed to face the highest-ranked Group of Five team.

This issue will arise exactly once every three years in the current system. The rest of the time, going 10-2 should assure the Irish a spot in Dallas or Phoenix or Atlanta. For that matter, if the SEC were not so vastly superior to the Big Ten this season, Notre Dame could be heading to the Citrus Bowl rather than the Camping World Bowl, as is almost certainly the case in 2019.

The committee is not jobbing the Irish; the partial membership with the ACC is not failing its intentions; Notre Dame should not turn down a bowl game because it is heading to Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28. This is simply a reality of that Fiesta-Peach turn in the rotation.

If anything, maybe this complication should have been foreseen when setting up the cycle. Pairing a conference-contracted bowl with a free agent bowl as the semifinal sites each year would have been possible, and it could have been done while keeping one game in the Eastern time zone and one in the Central or Pacific each year.

This is where the intention was to illustrate the anomaly by plotting bowl matchups across the last two years of New Year’s Six bowls with those respective semifinal sites factored in. Instead, doing so reliant on a chalk-filled final three weeks to the season brought to the surface another reason the Irish will not come near sniffing those headlines.

This college football season is more top-heavy than usual. Not only are three teams undefeated and likely to remain so — that was supposed to be a 2018 abnormality, there had been only three undefeated teams to reach the first four Playoffs combined — but even with that becoming at least a two-year possibility, the real shift in 2019 is how many Power Five teams will finish with no more than two losses.

2014: One undefeated team after the regular season; 8 total with two or fewer losses.
2015: One undefeated team; 12 with no more than two losses.
2016: One undefeated team; 7 with no more than two losses.
2017: No undefeated Power Five teams; 10 with no more than two losses.
2018: Three undefeated Power Five teams; 8 with no more than two losses.
2019: Three projected undefeated teams; 13 projected teams with no more than two losses.

That last number breaking 11 changes this argument. If that becomes the usual, then a 10-2 Notre Dame will need better wins than No. 23 USC to bolster its own standing within the rankings. The Irish, presuming two more wins this season, will likely finish ranked at No. 11 or 12.

When the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl host the Playoff, like last year, finishing No. 11 will be good enough to get an invite to the Peach Bowl. When the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl host the semifinals, a la 2017, No. 11 will result in heading to … the Camping World Bowl.

The difference? The Orange contractually needs to make room for a middling ACC team when not hosting the Playoff if Clemson is in the Playoff.

Let’s amend the original thesis to … Most years, going 10-2 will be enough to land Notre Dame in a New Year’s Six bowl because its schedule will hold up better and because the rest of the country will not, logically speaking.

All that is to say, Notre Dame’s slim hopes of reaching the Cotton Bowl remain unchanged. If both Pac-12 Playoff contenders win this weekend, slim will be reduced to utterly improbable. Considering No. 6 Oregon is favored by 14.5 at Arizona State and No. 7 Utah is favored by 22 at Arizona as of early Wednesday a.m., things may already be utterly improbable.

Operating under the belief both the Ducks and the Utes reach the Pac-12 championship game 11-1, the Irish have no discernable path back to Dallas. The simple roadblock features the Pac-12’s best going to the Rose Bowl and the loser taking the Cotton Bowl at-large slot.

The alternate possibility includes the Pac-12 champion in the Playoff. In that scenario, no number of coming losses would knock No. 4 Georgia or No. 5 Alabama behind Notre Dame. One would head to the Sugar Bowl while the other filled in the Orange Bowl. All it would then take to 100 percent deny the Irish any Cotton hopes would be No. 11 Florida beating Florida State on Nov. 30.

The Camping World Bowl it will be then. Cynics find delight in scoffing at any bowl short of the Playoff but dismissing the Dec. 28 contest is foolhardy. It will open the day of semifinals, on ABC opposite the Cotton Bowl on ESPN. Which will get more eyeballs, No. 12 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 Iowa State on ABC or No. 9 Utah vs. No. 16 Memphis on ESPN? (Those rankings are rough approximations of future events.)

Even if it is the latter by a slim margin, this will likely be the third consecutive Camping World Bowl to feature a top-25 matchup and fourth in five years.

Iowa State needed a last-second field goal to hold off Texas’ upset bid Saturday, winning 23-21. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)

Yes, now-No. 22 Iowa State took the practical lead to be the Irish opponent with its last-second victory against Texas on Saturday. No. 21 Oklahoma State may take exception to that, but the Cowboys would have to upset Oklahoma to remain in the driver’s seat, while the Cyclones will need to top Kansas and Kansas State.

Louisville (6-4): The Cardinals reached bowl eligibility with a 34-20 win at North Carolina State. Now they host a reeling Syracuse (4 ET; ACC Network) as 9-point favorites. A combined point total over/under of 62 suggests a 35-26 finish.

New Mexico (2-8): The Lobos lost 42-29 at now-No. 20 Boise State, getting out-gained 509 yards to 292. They will now play a rescheduled contest against Air Force (2 ET; ESPN3). The Falcons are favored by 22 with an over/under of 55.5, but frankly, it is hard to envision New Mexico scoring 17 against a triple-option offense.

No. 4 Georgia (9-1): The Bulldogs survived their toughest remaining regular-season challenge with a 21-14 win at now-No. 15 Auburn. Georgia got out to a 21-0 lead before Kirby Smart became overly cautious and allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns. If he can avoid doing that again, the Bulldogs should hold off Texas A&M (3:30 ET; CBS) as 13.5-point favorites. The over/under of 45 points sets a relatively high-scoring bar of 29-16.

Virginia (7-3): The Cavaliers come off an idle week with Liberty’s arrival (12 ET; ACC Network Extra). Don’t underestimate the Flames; there is a reason they are only 17-point underdogs. But Bronco Mendenhall’s defense should make good on the 36-19 score projected by a 55.5-point over/under.

Bowling Green (3-8): This space did not see fit to preempt the newest rankings with this weekly recap just to preview the Falcons 66-24 drubbing at the hands of Ohio on Tuesday. That makes it Opponents 110, Bowling Green 27 in the last two weeks.

No. 23 USC (7-4): The Trojans raced past Cal, 41-17, thanks to freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis’ four touchdowns and 406 yards on 29-of-35 passing. USC ends its season a week early against UCLA (3:30 ET; ABC) as 13.5-point favorites. Given Slovis’ successes and UCLA’s SP+ defensive ranking of No. 81, maybe the over/under of 63 and its expected result of 38-25 is conservative.

No. 13 Michigan (8-2): The Wolverines outscored Michigan State 27-3 in the second half en route to a 44-10 walloping and now carry that momentum to Indiana (3:30 ET; ESPN) as 9-point favorites with an over/under of 53. Michigan is on a roll right now, so a 31-22 win might be underwhelming.

Virginia Tech (7-3): The Hokies blanked Georgia Tech, 45-0, giving up only 134 yards and forcing defensive coordinator Bud Foster to reiterate he will retire after this season. Before he does that, though, Virginia Tech will lean on its defense against Pittsburgh (3:30 ET; ESPN2) as 4-point favorites with an over/under of 46.5 hinting at a 25-21 result.

Duke (4-6): The Blue Devils fell apart against Syracuse, 49-6. They will try to redeem themselves at Wake Forest (7:30 ET; ACC Network), but as touchdown underdogs, that may be a pipe dream.

Navy (7-2): The Midshipmen already have more important things to do than worry about last weekend’s 52-20 loss at Notre Dame. Their AAC title hopes hinge on winning against No. 25 SMU (3:30 ET; CBSSN). Navy is favored by 3.5 with an over/under of 68. The Mustangs will not be afraid to get involved in a 36-32 shootout.

Boston College (5-5): The seventh and final opponent to meet the Irish coming off an idle week, the Eagles are 19.5-point underdogs with an over/under of 64 setting up a fourth 40-point outing from Notre Dame, matching last year’s total.

Stanford (4-6): The Cardinal’s bowl hopes are on life support after falling 49-22 at Washington State despite 504 passing yards from Davis Mills. Throwing for 500 yards is worth only so much when the team rushes for six yards on 10 carries. Stanford is a field goal favorite against Cal (4 ET; Pac 12 Network) in a game some would consider — I apologize for nothing — “big” despite its meager over/under of 41.5.


Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024


Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Clemson v Notre Dame
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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.