The following matchups are ranked arbitrarily. My criteria is simple and in order:
-- Likelihood that the matchup could actually happen
-- National appeal
-- Appeal for Irish fans
-- Likelihood of an ND win
-- Likelihood of a great game, regardless of the winner
-- What Notre Dame gains from a win vs. the result of a loss
FLORIDA STATE (PEACH BOWL)
The Seminoles can claim ACC #2 status assuming Clemson takes care of North Carolina in the ACC Championship game. The Tar Heels would then be bumped to the Russell Athletic Bowl where they likely belong.
-- Plusses: Two top tier programs…a two-decade (albeit intermittent) rivalry…familiarity breeds contempt…a guy named Golson that’s one injury away from partaking in the storyline of the 2015 bowl season.
-- Minuses: Dalvin Cook? Seriously, there aren’t many unless you’re just looking for new blood across the field.
-- Projecting the Favorite: Notre Dame in a relative Pick ‘Em
IOWA (FIESTA BOWL)
An Iowa loss to Michigan State would likely put Ohio State in the Rose Bowl as the Buckeyes would (again, “likely”) finish ranked ahead of the Hawkeyes thereafter. Iowa would then fall to the Fiesta Bowl.
-- Plusses: A matchup tailor-made for Notre Dame’s defense.
-- Minuses: Not many. This would be a gift from the bowl gods in terms of a quality but eminently beatable foe.
-- Projecting the Favorite: Notre Dame by 4.5
MICHIGAN STATE (FIESTA BOWL)
See Iowa, above.
-- Plusses: A rivalry renewed (and on tap for next September as well)…a relatively good matchup for Notre Dame’s defense…familiarity and healthy contempt.
-- Minuses: Not many though sometimes new blood or a unique opponent is the better choice for bowl season.
-- Projecting the Favorite: Michigan State by 2.5
OHIO STATE (FIESTA BOWL)
From my purview the toughest matchup for Notre Dame outside the four playoff teams – and including at least two of them. This matchup is only possible if Iowa and Michigan State engage in a classic Saturday night, thus rewarding the loser with a Rose Bowl bid…dropping the Bucks to the Fiesta.
-- Plusses: THE marquee matchup of bowl season. In fact, it’s more appealing than Clemson vs. the nation’s #4 team from a ratings point of view.
-- Minuses: When fully engaged, Ohio State is the second best team in the nation and the team most capable of beating the perceived best (Alabama). I think the Buckeyes would be all-in to go against the Irish.
-- Projecting the Favorite: Ohio State by 7.5
CLEMSON (PEACH BOWL OR FIESTA BOWL)
A loss to North Carolina in the ACC Championship game could send the title-contending Tigers to the Peach Bowl IF North Carolina could then slip into the Final Four. At-large, No. 5 Clemson could also take on At-large Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, though that’s admittedly a long shot.
-- Plusses: Revisiting an outstanding matchup from earlier this season…A chance for the Irish to avenge one of two defeats that kept them from the playoffs…a new “conference” rivalry would begin to materialize.
-- Minuses: A rematch without playoff implications would feel a bit empty….Losing twice to the same team would be a bit dispiriting.
-- Projecting the Favorite: Clemson by 3.5 to 4.5 points
BAYLOR (FIESTA BOWL), OR…
Baylor could receive a last ballot bump – ahead of TCU – when the Bears inevitably beat Texas by 50 this weekend in Waco. The Big 12’s #2 team will go to the Sugar Bowl to face SEC #2 with either the Bears or Horned Frogs left to await invitation to the Fiesta Bowl…or worse.
-- Plusses: Notre Dame would score 50-plus points in a bowl game, breaking a program record
-- Minuses: Notre Dame would allow at least 50 points in a bowl game, breaking a program record
-- Projecting the Favorite: Baylor by 4.5 points
…TCU (FIESTA BOWL)
A matchup of the best pre-season quarterback – Horned Frogs senior Trevon Boykin – and the biggest surprise at the position this season in Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer. It is assumed that either TCU or Baylor will head to the Russell Athletic Bowl rather than be selected as a third Big 12 team ahead of a third Big 10 team for a New Year’s Bowl.
-- Plusses: They’re not Houston…
-- Minuses: Not an ideal matchup for Notre Dame (similar to battling the wide-open passing attack of the Baylor Bears).
-- Projecting the Favorite: TCU by 2.5 points
NORTH CAROLINA (PEACH BOWL)
An outstanding showing against the Tigers (in defeat) Saturday night could convince the ACC brass to make UNC #2 in their conference pecking order rather than Florida State. This is an unlikely matchup for the Irish with more attractive considerations in the Desert.
-- Plusses: If you like points on the scoreboard, I can guarantee them.
-- Minuses: Lacks panache…a rematch from last season…A win by Notre Dame would mean far less to the program than an ignominious ending to an otherwise outstanding season that would result in defeat.
-- Projecting the Favorite: Notre Dame by 6.5
HOUSTON (FIESTA BOWL)
The ultimate “no win” situation for Notre Dame, a program light years ahead of the Cougars in terms of national appeal. This might be the only matchup in which human nature would be difficult for the Irish players to overcome – that is, they’d potentially be less than 100 percent engaged.
With a win in Saturday’s AAC Championship game over Temple, Houston would finish 12-1 and could (would likely?) be invited instead of either Baylor or TCU. If Temple were to win Saturday…it’s hard to imagine a lower-ranked 11-2 Owls team getting the invite over Baylor or TCU. And there’s zero call for an ND/Temple rematch.
-- Plusses: A lot of Joe Montana to Kris Haines highlights and probably a cool new chicken soup ad for the contest.
-- Minuses: Everything else
-- Projecting the Favorite: Notre Dame by 7.5+