Even for a sport that revels in its absurdity, college football’s postseason is a special case of major league nonsense. Recognizing that a large-scale, March Madness-style tournament would be impractical, college football resisted a playoff system for most of its history. So instead, we got a series of one-off games between teams that had done well over the course of the season called bowl games. Sometimes these counted for the national championship, sometimes they did not. It’s all wonderfully messy. Eventually, there were so many bowls and they were so chaotic that the sport instituted a real postseason championship. But the bowl system survived, since the ultimate goal of a national title remained out of reach for most of the country. A bowl win was, for many, a more reasonable, attainable goal.
Today, with an established playoff structure, an early signing period putting pressure on coach hires, the transfer portal, and NFL opt-outs, the bowl games are somewhere between a real postseason and a glorified exhibition. And they are pure chaos. Frequently, teams will play in games with gutted rosters and temporary staffs as teams make early offseason transitions, meaning that the games are the sporting equivalent of throwing paint at a table cloth to make art. It’s marvelous. They are completely unpickable, barely analyzable, and absolutely captivating, if sometimes only for the train-wreck value.
It also adds to the air of nonsense that many of these are sponsored by obscure or ridiculous corporate sponsors, ranging from Bad Boy Mowers to… Jimmy Kimmel? If you are an alien observing college football for the first time, bowl season is probably the most difficult part to wrap your head around. Yes, we promise, the snack cracker game is a big deal. No, really.
So what did we get in 2022? The most delightfully wild series of games we’ve seen in a long long time. We had Kansas’ first bowl outing in fifteen years go to triple overtime. We had a wild ending between Oregon and North Carolina. We had Iowa winning despite scoring a single offensive touchdown. We had bowl games in baseball stadiums (one featuring two teams with the same head coach) and foreign countries. We had ones with great names like the Gasparilla Bowl and sublimely ridiculous sponsors like the Duke’s Mayo and Cheez-it Bowls. Fun stuff, top-to-bottom.
Of most relevance to this space, though, is Notre Dame’s classic, maddening, riveting, infuriating Gator Bowl win over South Carolina. Unofficially for the title of “Best Team to Beat Clemson,” I had frighteningly little optimism heading into the game, especially without Michael Mayer, Isaiah Foskey, and Drew Pyne. South Carolina seemed to have all the momentum, more to play for, and more interest. When the Gamecocks came out swinging early, and the Irish looked like they had spent a little too much time on the Jacksonville beach, my suspicions seemed confirmed. South Carolina scored in all three phases in the first quarter, something that Notre Dame had used to springboard their pummeling Clemson. It didn’t look good.
But then, somehow, this team missing its most-of-the-season quarterback and its two best players won the dang game. It was far from pretty — Tyler Buchner, who showed the version of himself we all want him to be at times before looking like he has in fact barely played football recently at others, threw two pick sixes, there was a horrendous fake field goal in a rare miss for Brian Mason, and Spencer Rattler had some silly throws — but the Irish dug deep, made some adjustments, and won. Three teams threw two pick sixes on New Year’s weekend, and Notre Dame was the only one that somehow won the game. That says… something I guess? Tommy Rees’ baffling goal-to-go play call that led to the second pick-six aside, the offense hummed in the second half, while the defense largely bottled up Rattler & co., in maybe Al Golden’s most impressive outing as DC to date. Good stuff abounded after a pretty bleak opening quarter.
The game was really the season in a nutshell — a horrendous start followed by some smart coaching (and a little bit of dumb coaching), good players taking over, and a refusal to quit leading to success that wasn’t what we had hoped for but is enough to build on. We knew coming in the Freeman hire might work like this, even if we weren’t prepared for quite how bad it looked early (though, as it turns out, Marshall actually might not have been that bad of a loss!). The football program knew it might take an immediate step back to take a step or two forward down the road. Everything about this season has been good, but not great, but hinting at better things to come. Recruiting looked like this as well — Marcus Freeman signed the best Notre Dame class in a decade, yet it was so close to being even better. The Gator Bowl captured that same energy on the field. Tyler Buchner showed tremendous upside and also why he could use a year of development without the pressure of being a starting QB. The wide receiver room and next generation of tight ends showed promise, but a need for some seasoning. The defense showed an ability to tighten the screws when needed and also that they have a lot of work to do on fundamentals. In short, good vibes, lots to work on. The ideal bowl win, really.
One of the big knocks against the current playoff system, of course, is that the actual semifinal games tend to be big duds. Notre Dame has certainly been on the receiving end of playoff blowouts to national champions, both of whom were among the greatest teams in college football history. Simultaneously, the college football media at large tends to devalue the non-Playoff bowls as unimportant, so we are left with the worst of both worlds — most postseason games are “meaningless,” while the ones that are meaningful suck. (Of course, every game is exactly as meaningful as you want it to be, but we’ll save that for another day.)
So of course, New Year’s Eve gave us perhaps the best eight hours of football we’ve seen in recent memory. Prior to watching the Fiesta and Peach Bowls unfold, this section was going to be a good deal of philosophizing about bowl games, opt-outs, and their current place in the college football ecosystem, but college football did what it so often does and gave me the most marvelous chaos to talk about in its place.
I’ll work backwards, just so we can spend a little more time marinating in the untempered glory that was the Fiesta Bowl. The waning hours of 2022 were spent watching an incredible back-and-forth affair between a somehow underdog Ohio State team and a Georgia team looking to establish themselves as the new college football dynasty. Ohio State looked like they were playing with house money as they seemed firmly in control for large stretches in front of what was basically a Georgia home crowd. Then Georgia rallied and scored a go ahead touchdown with just under a minute to play. But, all the Buckeyes needed was a field goal, and boasted one of the most explosive offenses in the country. They drove down into field goal range, and set up a potential winner just as the clock struck midnight. It sailed wide right as 2023 started, knocking the Big Ten out of the playoff altogether and starting the year on an excellent note. It served as a fitting conclusion to a day that started with a marvelous Fiesta Bowl outing.
Speaking of events in the desert…
For most of the season, M***igan looked like a team with a real shot to win it all. Showing marked improvement over last year’s Big Ten champion and Playoff team (or maybe not, since they didn’t play a good enough schedule to tell), the skunkbears seemed primed to take advantage of a year in college football where there appeared to be a lot of good teams and few, if any, great ones to win their first consensus title since Truman’s presidency. It helped that Utah’s Pac-12 title win over USC gave them a favorable playoff matchup against TCU, which was pegged in this year’s “Cinderella that inevitably gets crushed” role. So all M***igan needed to do was win as easy a semifinal as you can get and play for it all in a game that could go either way.
Things went wrong early and often for the skunkbears. Two pick sixes. A goal line fumble. Two more stuffs inside the five. M***igan looked completely lost and unprepared. It all resulted in a first half without touchdowns as TCU built a substantial, but not insurmountable, lead. (Skunkbear fans will complain first and foremost about reffing, of course — because the refs made them throw two pick sixes and give up 250+ rushing yards. But I am currently watching the replay as I write this, and the receiver’s shin is down as he catches the ball outside the endzone. Sorry folks.)
After halftime, though, was where the non-schadenfreude fun began, as the third quarter set a playoff record for total points as the teams traded blows. The Frogs were able to keep M***igan at arm’s length, always finding an answer but never quite getting comfortable. Things settled down a bit in the fourth, as M***igan’s offense started to look too methodical (and their clock management look very inept!) despite being down by multiple scores. Still, they got the lead down to six, and the skunkbears had the ball with a chance to win in the closing minute… before a botched snap doomed any last-ditch effort they might’ve made. And that was it. A game everyone pegged as a quick win was one of the most catastrophic losses in M***igan history, blowing their best chance at a national title in a generation. Notre Dame and M***igan are both 0-2 in the playoff now, but Notre Dame hasn’t lost as a favorite, let alone handed a conference its first ever win in the event. A truly masterful choke job by Harbaugh’s squad.
Thank you, TCU, for this marvelous holiday gift. From the bottom of all our hearts, thank you.
In non-football news, hockey saw its first action since early December over the New Year’s weekend, which resulted in — surprise surprise — another split! With a slew of tough Big Ten games the rest of the way, hockey will have plenty of opportunities to pick up enough quality wins to sneak into the NCAA field, but will have to string together some more consistency as they current hover at .500 on the year. It’s an interesting position for a squad that has been pretty reliably strong over the last several years, but Jeff Jackson is far and away the best coach in program history and if anyone can get this squad over the playoff line, he can.
Men’s basketball continues to mount a largely disappointing campaign, as a veteran group lacks a true inside presence to mount effective defense and is too inconsistent offensively to win many shootouts. The lowpoint this month came against a previously 3-10 (!) Florida State team in Tallahassee, as the Irish let the Seminoles get hot and had no answer before an ill-advised and ill-fated attempt at a winning basket in the closing seconds lost the game. The team appears to have no ready answers, and the long slog of ACC play looms.
On the other hand, women’s basketball is looking to be every bit the national title contender they used to be. The UConn win has injected all sorts of energy into the program, as they’ve rattled off five straight wins including another top-ten pickup against Virginia Tech. Just about the only near-blemish was a too-close-for-comfort game against Miami, an opponent that has given the Irish fits as far back as the late McGraw years. Even playing far from their best, though, Notre Dame found a way to win on the road, and that’s what great teams do.
I spent my New Year’s Day watching the Irish absolutely bludgeon Boston College, and one thing that really jumps out about this team is how everyone elevates everyone else’s game. Obviously Olivia Miles is the assist queen, but because everyone on the floor is a legit scoring threat they all have the ability to draw the defense and get a teammate open. And so often, they find that open woman. When they are locked in, the whole team operates like a well-oiled machine, each player’s game meshing with everyone else. It’s beautiful basketball.
What’s kind of incredible about what Niele Ivey’s squad is doing is that they are still a very young group. Only one starter, Dara Mabrey, is a senior, and the only other key contributor out of eligibility after this year is bench big Lauren Ebo. Maddy Westbeld is key as a junior, but has two years of eligibility left (counting the 2020-21 Covid year) and Sonia Citron and Olivia Miles are sophomores. The prospect of the core of this team being together for another year or two is just so exciting as a fan, and there’s so much fun basketball to come in South Bend.
Speaking of youth, allow me to formally welcome Cassandre Prosper to college basketball.
For all of the recruiting angst the football program has been through recently, women’s basketball has been humming along, with Ivey securing the commitments of three top-20 players — the only program to do so. Prosper in particular was a late close for the Irish, and elected to enroll and play early. And as far as anyone could tell from her twenty or so minutes of playtime to date, she will barely need any transition time. Prosper is making an immediate impact and showing why she was such a coveted prospect, scoring a key block against Miami and leading the team in rebounds in her Purcell Pavillion debut. Listed at 6’2″, Prosper plays closer to 6’6″. She looks right at home guarding, and even threw in a three-pointer as her first college basket for good measure. In short, Cass is gonna be *good.* If Prosper’s incoming classmates can match this impact, Notre Dame is going to be a force to be reckoned with over the next few seasons.
Maybe Marcus Freeman can ask for some advice on how to close on a five-star. Would love one of those next time. Pretty please?
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