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Zuba: Strong bowl options still await ND after ASU loss

| Thursday, November 13, 2014

I know what you’re thinking, Irish fans.

Last weekend was great. With no Notre Dame games, there was more time to huddle inside and enjoy other college football games on television.

Weird to have two bye weeks in a three-week stretch, but hey, roll with it. Now, Notre Dame should be ready to keep charging against Northwestern on Saturday. The Navy game wasn’t the prettiest, but the Irish have had plenty of time to rest and recover before continuing the College Football Playoff quest. What well-timed bye weeks.

Sorry, what? Notre Dame played last week? The first half was an abyss of misery as the Irish lost to Arizona State, 55-31? Are you sure?

I am sure, Irish fans.

That loss was a slap to the Irish, and as hard as it might be for fans to take, this Saturday marks the first game since Notre Dame’s playoff hopes ended.

The Sun Devils launched themselves from No. 9 to No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings with the win over the Irish. They’re solidly positioned for a shot at the playoffs with a large helping of football still left.

That could have been Notre Dame. Instead, the Irish dropped to No. 18 in the playoff committee’s rankings, and there’s virtually no way back to playoff contention.

There are positives, though, I promise. Maybe seniors who wanted to witness another national championship game won’t see a lot of sunshine in the possibilities, but Notre Dame is still a top-20 team. This isn’t a 9-4 team with a loss to Pittsburgh.

The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl are out, as these will serve as the two semifinal games in the playoffs. The Cotton, Fiesta and Peach Bowls are long shots with so many teams ahead of the Irish, as is the Orange Bowl, although the Irish have a bid there.

Even if Notre Dame misses one of these major bowls, the Irish could play their way into an intriguing matchup.

Sports Illustrated and ESPN each projected Notre Dame to play in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Oklahoma. Two dynamic offenses and the potential for the Irish to get payback for last season’s 35-21 loss? This could be good.

CBS Sports put the Irish in the Belk Bowl against LSU. A big game against an SEC team would provide an electric atmosphere and a quality test for Notre Dame.

Because remember, this team is still being tested. Although the Irish are no longer being measured under the pressure of playoff aspirations, this team has a lot of potential. This season still matters because Notre Dame does have a shot at a pretty good bowl game and because there is a lot of player development left to do.

This season’s team has outperformed the expectations of many. Underclassmen impressed, and they’ll be here for a few more years. The Irish proved they could play one of the country’s best teams — not just top 10, but top two — and excel.

If this season becomes a stepping-stone to a future playoff appearance, maybe the phrase “offensive pass interference” will stop driving barbs into Irish fans’ hearts. Or at least barbs not dipped in acid.

For now, Notre Dame fans have to deal with this current season. To write it off would be disrespectful to this year’s team, what it has accomplished and what remains for it to do.

The Irish will continue forming their bowl resume Saturday against Northwestern, then on to a home matchup with a tricky Louisville team and a journey to Los Angeles to take on a Jekyll-and-Hyde USC team hovering on the edges of the polls.

Sorry, what? Notre Dame came back from a 34-3 deficit against Arizona State but didn’t finish the job?

Irish fans, I have no comforting words about that.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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