Capece: Fiesta Bowl is Notre Dame’s most important game in recent memory
Colin Capece | Friday, December 31, 2021
The emergence of the College Football Playoff has no doubt diminished some of the shine that bowl season used to have. Everyone knew during the BCS era that only one game really mattered, but supplementary bowls still felt like they had a purpose. Fans still cared about the traditional conference matchups in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, coaches changing teams stuck around to lead their players one final time, and even the two squads playing for pride in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl put on an entertaining show for the fans. The Playoff has expanded the narrative that bowl season only matters for a select group of teams, and the proposed Playoff expansion that will happen at some point in the future might just be the death knell for the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl and the like.
But despite missing out on a third Playoff appearance in the last four seasons, Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl matters a lot to Notre Dame. I argue this is actually the most important game the Irish have played since the 2013 BCS National Championship game. You might be saying “But Colin, what about the last two trips to the CFP, or the ACC Championship game, or the miracle 47-40 victory over Clemson?”
Nope. This game is the true benchmark for this Notre Dame team. Here are four reasons why:
1) The Freeman Era begins
Will Marcus Freeman prove his ardent supporters correct, or will he look overmatched as a first-time head coach? That’s the question the former defensive coordinator has to answer correctly if he wants to inspire confidence in the program moving forward. The timing of this game means that the outcome will influence the next nine months leading up to the 2022 season. Not to state the obvious here, but with all of the excitement surrounding Notre Dame’s new leader, he has to deliver a victory in his first game. Getting the so-called monkey off the back of this new coaching staff will immediately prove that Freeman is the right head coach for this program and not just a victim of circumstance, and the Irish will avoid having to answer questions about it in the offseason.
Freeman so far has said and done all of the right things, but this is his first opportunity to show the college football landscape he can coach for real against a quality opponent in Oklahoma State. While the Irish technically aren’t playing for anything and will be without their two best players in junior running back Kyren Williams and junior safety Kyle Hamilton, this might as well be the CFP National Championship for Freeman and his staff.
2) New players will contribute
Speaking of veterans missing for the Irish, a number of players will have the opportunity to show they can be key contributors in 2022. With Williams out, Freeman said on Monday that it will be running back by committee against the Cowboys. Freshman Logan Diggs will have the chance to build on the increased workload he received at the end of the regular season. Sophomore Chris Tyree will have the chance to show he’s more than a change of pace and can handle a feature back role. Freshman Audric Estime will also get some touches and needs to be efficient if he wants to be in the fold next season.
At the safety position, senior D.J. Brown will look to use the experience he gained filling in for Hamilton in the second half of the regular season. Sophomore Ramon Henderson will get his shot to show he can also hold down the position next season. The Fiesta Bowl will also have important ramifications for the quarterback position, as there will be a legitimate competition in the offseason. Graduate student Jack Coan will be the starter, but freshman Tyler Buchner will likely get a chance to play. We may even see sophomore Drew Pyne depending on how the game evolves. Up and down the roster, Freeman will get his first opportunity to evaluate the key position battles that will shape the Irish next season.
3) The Irish can break the big game curse
Notre Dame’s ineptitude in big games under Brian Kelly was well documented. Under the guy who seemingly left South Bend because athletic director Jack Swarbrick couldn’t provide him with a spinning video room with flashing lights (watch this absurd commitment video and you’ll know what I mean), Notre Dame went just 4-11 against opponents that were ranked in the top 10 at the time Notre Dame played them. Two of those teams (2012 Michigan State and 2018 Stanford) finished their respective seasons unranked. So, the Irish have really only beaten two out of 15 top-ranked opponents in the last 12 years. Not to mention the Irish haven’t won a New Year’s Six bowl game since Lou Holtz was still coaching.
This game could be an enormous tone-setter for Notre Dame and show everyone involved that this new coaching staff isn’t full of smoke and mirrors. Beating No. 9 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl will display that the Freeman-led Irish aren’t going to underperform under the bright lights and will instead be well prepared for the challenge. Recalibrating the expectations for this program is an incredibly important first step in competing for a national championship sooner rather than later as Freeman has suggested.
4) Notre Dame needs something to build on heading into 2022
Notre Dame needs to win on Saturday because of the powerhouse they play nine months from now. If you’re an avid fan of the Irish, you’ve likely looked ahead to the 2022 schedule. To open the season, Notre Dame heads to Columbus, Ohio to play Ohio State led by junior quarterback and Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud. Notre Dame starts the campaign with not only one of the most elite programs in the CFP era, but also with the team Freeman played for more than a decade ago.
Trying to win your first game after being on the job less than a month is tough enough, but trying to do so with the added storyline of playing against your alma mater adds even more pressure. Much like the Cincinnati game did in 2021, the Ohio State game will no doubt decide whether the Irish make the Playoff or not. I like Notre Dame’s chances in that game a lot more if they can ride the momentum of their first New Year’s Six bowl win in nearly thirty years the entire offseason. Ohio State isn’t on the same level as Oklahoma State but having to continue to answer questions about whether or not the Irish can win big games will only make Freeman’s job more difficult. The Irish need a clean slate in this regard if they want to beat one of college football’s best programs.