The college bowl season is always a mystery for prognosticators. Some schools are just thrilled to be in any bowl game just tell us when and where. Schools whose big dreams were dashed late in the season can end up in second tier bowls with little at stake but honor and a watch. The week of bowl frivolity with the sponsors and bowl officials is not a big motivator for top performance. The Michigan Wolverines were within a beat down in Columbus of being in the CFP Final Four. The Buckeyes obliterated the Jim Harbaugh redemption tour. Michigan went from a potential Orange Bowl to the Peach Bowl. The Peach Bowl team showed up and Florida drubbed them as 7 point underdogs. Wazu almost had the same fate battling a feisty Iowa team in the Alamo bowl after losing the Rose Bowl bid to rival UW. Washington State had not been back to the Rose Bowl since the Ryan Leaf era. Playing in the Alamo Dome on December 28, is not like playing in the Grand Daddy of them all at the historic Rose Bowl. The Huskies shut down the two-point play for the win over the Cyclones. The ISU fan base did put a hurt on the beer concession for a second consecutive bowl game after bankrupting the Busch Light concession at last year’s Liberty Bowl.
With all of the upsets, surprises and story lines, Yard staff felt that the Boise State Boston College bowl game was the biggest story line. It was the biggest game story because there was no game. Boston College had taken a 7-0 lead but game officials pulled the plug as biblical weather rolled into the Dallas metro area. The decision was made for the right reasons and the welfare of fans and players at the venerable Cotton Bowl stadium. It was not The Cotton Bowl that was played at Jerry World Saturday night that was canceled. It was the First Responders Bowl at the original historic venue that was cancelled. With all of the cost, fan travel, and lost revenue, it takes an Act of God to cancel a bowl game. It would seem that it would at least take an act of Congress to cancel the First Responders bowl! The First Responders rush into the calamity not away from it. The Cheez-IT Bowl, yes there is one of those, could have been cancelled with hardly a couch potato protest. First responders everywhere were shocked by the cancellation of their bowl because of inclement conditions.
Another story line throughout the bowl season is the number of players who opt out of their team’s bowl game to save themselves for the NFL draft. In 2003, Miami Hurricane star Willis McGahee was a consensus top five pick in the draft. Legions of Hurricanes were populating NFL rosters from those teams. The Hurricanes of 2000-2003 were one of the top programs in the country winning the national championship in 2002 at the Rose Bowl over Eric Crouch and Nebraska. Marching into Phoenix for the 2003 Fiesta Bowl national championship game, riding a 34 game winning streak, Miami and McGahee seemed unstoppable. They both were stopped that night by the Ohio State Buckeyes and a freshman named Maurice Clarett. McGahee suffered a late game injury that would jeopardize his NFL career. He was able to recover two years later and play for nearly a decade in the NFL but never got the first round payout. It gave every future star player pause on the risk of an injury in a bowl game before getting that first NFL contract. The 2003 Fiesta Bowl game was for the national championship. WV Mountaineer Will Grier opted not to play in the 2019 Camping World Bowl and WV got pasted by Syracuse. WV had higher aspirations when the season began and when they waned, it became about Grier’s aspirations. Syracuse was just happy to be there and romped.
Notre Dame had another fine season under Brian Kelly. Notre Dame has had and will continue to have fine football seasons with Kelly as their head coach. Going undefeated, is extremely difficult in any regular college football season. ND alumni has to get real about their expectations about pursuing another football championship. Undefeated University of Central Florida would probably have given a better showing in the Cotton Bowl than the Irish did against Clemson. Clemson had to suspend their best defensive lineman and the second stringer was better than any of ND’s starter O line. Yard staff does not see many of the players on Clemson, Alabama or Oklahoma who even considered Notre Dame. The Irish get their fair share of talent from the Midwest and the parochial schools but the SEC and ACC get most of the talent they pursue. They are not concerned with splitting atoms at Clemson or Alabama, they are worrying about splitting the corner and the free safety on a fade route. Notre Dame might not be splitting atoms either but they are a premier academic institution and have been since 1842.
College football did not arrive in South Bend until 1887. Their historic football pedigree was burnished during the Knute Rockne era that began in 1918. These were the teams with the legends of George Gipp and the Four Horseman. Rockne’s teams would win ND’s first three national championships and start the first national rivalry with USC. Rockne was followed by Frank Leahy and after some down years Ara Parseghian. Leahy won an astonishing 86% of the games over an 11- year career. He had four national titles and six undefeated seasons. Ten lost years after Leahy retired, the feisty Ara Parseghian arrived in 1964. Ara restored order and added two more national championships and let Rudy dress for games. There was the surprise Dan Devine era 1977 title when a hero evolved from a scrawny kid from New Eagle, PA named Joe Montana. Devine also let Rudy play in a game. There was the 1988 saliva filled championship from granny Lou Holtz. It has now been over 30 years since the Irish have been even gotten close to a title. Their fans have endured beat downs by Ohio State, LSU and even Oregon State. That was before their two CFP appearances where they have been outscored 72-17. Saturday’s performance was probably the worst. They were a good team with a bad finish. Post graduate fan recalibration needs be a course offered through the extension program for Alums and other ND fanatics.
Post Script: Much has been made of it but Clemson freshman QB Trevor Lawrence was spectacular in the Notre Dame game. He was raining big play strikes all over the field against the Irish much heralded secondary. Besides channeling Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass from Remember the Titans, he has been playing like Sunshine in leading this team. He was the number one rated QB in the country last year coming out of HS. He looks the part. Alabama is much better than ND but Oklahoma rolled up 481 yards and 34 points on the vaunted ‘Bama defense. Clemson has as explosive an offense as the Sooners and a much better defense. Go Tigers!
The Rest of the Story: Miami senior Willis McGahee was a consensus top five NFL pick during the 2002 season. Maurice Clarett was an upcoming Buckeye freshman. Their paths crossed in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl as previously mentioned. McGahee suffered a nearly career threatening injury that took him years to recover. Clarett scored two touchdowns including the game winner in that Fiesta Bowl. He was the toast of Columbus following the Buckeye’s upset. Clarett declared himself for the NFL draft after the season even though the rules then and the rules now did not allow football players of his age to declare. He fought the NFL and lost. It has been known to happen. By 2004, Clarett was out of football and finally arrested in 2006 with four loaded guns in his SUV with Kevlar on. McGahee would rush for almost 9,000 yards in the NFL. Clarett would never rush for one.