Saturday's loss to Syracuse has the long-term future of the Notre Dame football program up in the air, but it also has the immediate future of this team's bowl prospects in question.
A win over Syracuse would have almost assuredly been enough for the Gator Bowl to select the Irish as its Big East representative. While the Irish's chances at the Gator Bowl are virtually zero without a win over 29-point favorite Southern Cal this weekend, a loss, coupled with a Rutgers win over Lousiville on Dec. 4 will completely remove Notre Dame's chances at both the Gator and the Sun Bowl.
NCAA rules will not allow any of the bowls with Big East tie-ins to select a 6-6 Notre Dame team over a 7-5 Big East squad. The Irish only have agreements as a Big East affiliate for the Gator Bowl and the Sun Bowl. The Sun Bowl pits a Pac-10 team against either a Big East or Big 12 team depending on the conference of the Gator Bowl selection.
The Big East already has six bowl-eligible teams for its six allotted bowls with Louisville having a chance to become the seventh. But if the Cardinals do not become eligible against the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers would become the sixth seven-win team in the Big East and eliminate the Irish from being picked for either the Gator Bowl or the Sun Bowl unless they pull the upset in L.A.
Either way, if the Gator selects a Big East team, the Irish will be unavailable for the Sun because it would then be required to pick a Big 12 squad to play against the Pac-10.
If Notre Dame is not eligible to go to the Gator or the Sun then it will become an option for a bowl whose conferences were unable to fill the allotted slots, of which there are a few and could be more.
Quick recap: If the Irish somehow beat USC, the Gator Bowl will open back up for them. If Notre Dame loses AND Rutgers also falls, the Irish could end up in El Paso after all and would even be eligible to go to the Gator Bowl, although they would not be the pick.
But if Notre Dame loses AND Rutgers wins or the Gator Bowl picks a Big East team, Notre Dame will be headed to some other game.
So what other destinations could the Irish be heading to? Also a bit confusing.
Notre Dame would be available to any bowl that cannot select a team from one of its affiliated conferences. As long as the remaining bowl-eligible teams in the conference still have an available bowl, any of the non-BCS games could pick the Irish. At 6-6 games may not fall over themselves to invite the Irish like they usually would, but Notre Dame is always an attractive option.
The Big Ten has already qualified seven teams for its seven spots while the Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Western Athletic also have enough bowl-eligible team to fill their allotments.
The ACC has eight teams eligible for its nine spots and will get its ninth unless Clemson, Virginia and North Carolina State all lose their final games. Conference USA has six bowl tie-ins and only four teams that are currently eligible. But the conference is likely to fill those spots with three teams still alive, including Southern Mississippi, who will play 1-10 SMU, and Memphis, who battles 2-9 Tulane.
So Notre Dame will probably be looking to replace a team from either the Big 12, SEC or Pac-10.
The Big 12 currently has seven teams for its eight spots and it will stay that way unless Colorado beats Nebraska on Friday. Even if the Buffaloes beat the Cornhuskers, a spot will likely be open if either Oklahoma or Texas reaches the BCS National Championship Game. With one or two spots probably left vacant by the Big 12, the Irish could end up in the Holiday, Alamo, Insight, Independence or Texas bowls.
The SEC is affiliated with nine bowl games but currently has just eight eligible teams. Unless Auburn upsets No. 1 Alabama, the SEC will have at least one open spot and probably two as the Crimson Tide and Florida will likely be playing for a trip to the National Championship in the conference title game. The Irish could fill a spot for the SEC in the Chick-fil-A, Music City, Liberty, Papajohns.com or, again Independence Bowl.
The Pac-10 will definitely have at least one spot open as they have just five teams qualified for seven games. UCLA and Arizona State are both still alive, but only one will make it as they both have to win two contests and will face each other on Friday. There is also a good chance neither will qualify as the Wildcats will play instate rival Arizona in their final game and the Bruins playing USC in their final contest. A third spot could open up if the Trojans somehow work their way into the title game or earn an at-large BCS berth if Oregon State goes to the Rose Bowl.
The Holiday Bowl is again another possible destination along with the Hawaii, Poinsettia and Las Vegas bowls.
With all of these variables and open games, it is hard to predict which game would choose to snatch up the Irish and their fan base, which should help improve attendance and ratings even in a down year.
Ultimately, it may not be his decision to make, but Charlie Weis said on Sunday that it would be unlikely that the Irish would decline an invitation to a bowl game, even a lesser-tier one.
"The downside of not going to a bowl game is the extra practice that you miss to develop your younger players," he said. "No one's jumping up and down to go to a bowl, if you were to lose the (USC) game and end up 6-6, no one is jumping up and down to do that. But at the same time that's multiple practices and development that could be going on that you end up losing out on and I think in your program's sake I think it ends up hurting you in the long run."