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Mulvena: Camping World Bowl sheds light on where ND stands

| Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Camping World Bowl. Ahh, what a delight. Two teams at the top of their sport battling it out in the crisp refreshing Florida air on a sunny afternoon. A model of the fierce competition that underlines college football. Exemplary fan spirit. The height of college football. 

Not so much. 

The lack of motivation surrounding this contest, which was overshadowed by the oncoming playoff games of the day, made it feel like an appetizer for the real football to come on Saturday night. But not a good appetizer, like pigs in a blanket or something, more like that ambiguous spinach dip your aunt made for Christmas that everyone “loves,” yet always ends up getting thrown away with plenty to spare.

We can talk for ages about the Camping World Bowl in the scope of other bowl games or make jokes about how it means nothing all day. But what can we actually take from this? At the end of a 10-2 season, what does this bowl victory against a Power Five opponent really tell us?

Iowa State was actually the perfect bowl opponent for Notre Dame. In a season full of questions surrounding Notre Dame’s place in the college football world, especially after the Michigan loss, a bowl game offers the Irish a chance to see how things stack up.

It can be hard to judge Notre Dame in comparison to the Power Five, especially in a season with a talent-packed SEC and a competitive Big 12, and Irish fans are often left feeling slighted or misjudged when the rankings are released.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble stiff arms his defender during Notre Dame’s 33-9 win over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Florida on Saturday.

Let’s say Notre Dame played Alabama in a bowl game. Sure, a win over Alabama would be great, but a more-likely loss probably wouldn’t tell us much. Even though the team was left out of the playoff this year, Alabama is no doubt in the top tier of college football. A loss to Alabama shouldn’t necessarily signal trouble for the Notre Dame fan base.

Now let’s say Notre Dame played San Diego State. Nothing much really to learn there. What about Pitt? Power Five team, but a win or a loss over Pitt probably wouldn’t sway anyone’s opinions about the state of Notre Dame football.

But Iowa State, tied for 3rd place in a Power Five conference with some good talent this year, and a team that played a close game against Oklahoma, Baylor and Iowa, should prove a decent test. Coming from a conference with a traditional focus on high-powered offense, the Cyclones can make things happen in the air and on the ground. They might not have the best defense Notre Dame has faced all season, but it’s a solid unit, among the top 50 in the nation in total defense.

The point is that Iowa State is a good, respectable team in a solid Power Five conference, one which has sent a team to the College Football Playoff three of the last five years and has had a number of contenders along the way. So I think we can take something away from what was no doubt a commanding win for Notre Dame. Although a non-playoff season seems to hurt a little more after last year’s loss to Clemson, all is not lost.

I myself have made some pretty bold claims about the state of Notre Dame football this season, and I stand by them, but I think this victory pushes back on our temptation to make things out to be worse than they really are after a “mediocre” season. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s defense is solid — it has the potential to hang with the best in the nation. The offense has its kinks, but in the first game without Chip Long in a while, it managed to make some big plays on the ground and in the air. The special teams unit made some big plays once again. And in the end, the Irish came out with a 24-point victory over a good opponent — a good Power Five opponent.

Of course, I don’t mean to say all is well just because of a Camping World Bowl victory. As we all know, it’s still the Camping World Bowl.

I think Notre Dame football has a long way to go before truly being among the top tier as it used to be, and I believe it ought to make some changes to get there, but let’s walk away from the Camping World Bowl with a little faith in the foundation of it all.

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

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