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Owens: Predictable matchup, unlikely location (Dec. 27)

Andrew Owens | Tuesday, December 27, 2011

It would have been completely rational for someone to predict Notre Dame and Florida State as bowl opponents during the preseason. Heck, each team would’ve gladly signed up for this matchup, though no one expected it to come in the Champs Sports Bowl instead of a BCS game.

After a combined 43 turnovers and eight losses later, each team stumbles into the bowl game with thoughts of “what if?”

What if Seminoles redshirt junior quarterback E.J. Manuel had not suffered a shoulder injury in the third quarter of Florida State’s 23-13 loss to then-No. 1 Oklahoma on Sept. 17? What if they did not garner over four times as many penalty yards (124) as rushing yards (29) in the 35-30 loss to Clemson the following week?

For Notre Dame, 2011 can be summed up in two words: missed opportunities. Whether it was a Jonas Gray fumble returned for a touchdown and a 14-point swing against South Florida in week one, a fourth-quarter collapse at Michigan the next week or another 14-point swing, this time against USC to seal a Trojan victory on Oct. 22, the Irish consistently were their worst enemy.

But, with 8-4 regular seasons and no BCS bids, the mental aspect of this matchup will be key. Both teams are very talented (hence the high preseason expectations), but, all too often, bowl games boil down to which team has the better mindset.

This is the second consecutive season the Irish have faced a bowl opponent from the Sunshine State, but this is a very different matchup. In last year’s Sun Bowl, Miami had an interim coach and clearly did not want to show up in the uncharacteristically cold El Paso weather with little on the line.

This year, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher, like Irish coach Brian Kelly, is finishing his second season and is keen on finishing this season on a high note heading into a critical third season. It’s unlikely either team will be a no-show as the Hurricanes were last year.

For Notre Dame, the Champs Sports Bowl is as much a prelude to 2012 as it as the final chapter of 2011. No, not because of the importance of a bowl victory for momentum — outside of recruiting, a bowl victory typically does very little for a team’s future. The Irish demonstrated that in September with consecutive losses to start the season after a 4-0 finish and bowl win to conclude 2010.

As much emphasis as Kelly has placed on notching a ninth victory, this game is a tryout-of-sorts for next season. Is sophomore quarterback Andrew Hendrix in a position to supplant classmate Tommy Rees as Notre Dame’s starting signal caller? Can junior Theo Riddick complement junior Cierre Wood at running back and will he remain at the position for his senior season? Who can step up as a viable playmaker to compensate for the loss of senior receiver Michael Floyd (and junior tight end Tyler Eifert if he enters the NFL Draft)?

While not all of these questions, if any, will be answered Thursday, the game is yet another opportunity for the Irish to put the botched snaps and blown coverages behind them and secure its most impressive win of the season. Then again, the same can be said for the Seminoles.