Bowl Games

<P>l games are in many respects a one-game season. In Notre Dame's case winning, losing or not playing in a bowl game has had little to say about the season that has followed. Similarly, Notre Dame's performance in its last game of the regular season has had nothing to say about whether N.D. wins its bowl game or not.</P>

course, there are plenty of good reasons to want N.D. to win the Gator Bowl against North Carolina State. Probably the best ones are emotional. The tremendous effort put forth this season by seniors like Arnaz Battle, Shane Walton, Jeff Faine and others just seems too precious to waste with a loss. Moreover, N.D.'s best coaches have been good bowl coaches, so winning a bowl game (it would N.D.'s first bowl win since the Cotton Bowl following the 1993 season) would represent yet another clear break with the immediate past.

Since resuming bowl play in 1969, here is how N.D.'s coaches have fared in bowl games:

Ara: 3-2

Devine: 3-1

Faust: 1-1
Holtz: 5-4

Davie: 0-3

Total: 12-11

Winning or losing the first bowl game hasn't meant much. Ara, Holtz and Davie lost their first bowl games and Devine and Faust won theirs.

Interestingly, this Gator Bowl will be only the second time that N.D. has gone into a modern bowl game sporting a better regular season than its opponent. Ironically, the only other time was the 1976 Gator Bowl where 8-3 Notre Dame defeated 7-4 Penn State 20-9. Six times N.D. has entered bowl games with the same record (or functionally the same, I treated 10-0 N.D. and 11-0 Alabama in 1973 as having the same record) and 16 times Notre Dame has entered the bowl game with a worse regular season record than its opponent. This is a testament to the fact that N.D. has always proved to be an attractive and tough bowl opponent and has played difficult regular season schedules. So, for example, after the 1992 season when 9-1-1 N.D. played 11-0 Texas A&M, Notre Dame was a slight favorite and the 28-3 final score left little doubt that Notre Dame was the better team.

In those rare years in which N.D. has entered bowl games with the same or better record than its bowl opponent, N.D. has fared somewhat better than those years it hasn't. Here's how the records break down:

N.D. better: 1-0

N.D. same: 4-2

N.D. worse: 7-9

Winning or losing the last game of the regular season also hasn't affected N.D.'s chances of winning the bowl game. Largely because N.D. usually plays a tough season ending game, the Irish have entered their bowl game off of a loss just as often as they have off a win. In N.D.'s 23 bowl seasons prior to this year, 11 times the Irish have gone in with a win, 11 times with a loss and once with a tie. Seven times the loss (and the lone tie) has been to U.S.C., twice the loss has been to Miami, once Air Force and once to Boston College. Even brutal losses like the 55-24 loss to U.S.C. in 1974 and the heartbreaking 41-39 loss to Boston College in 1993 have been followed with bowl wins. Here is how the bowl record breaks down by N.D.'s last game performance:

Win: 5-6

Tie: 0-1

Loss: 7-4

Notre Dame's performance in the bowl game has been only a weak indicator (probably not statistically significant) of its performance the next year. Moreover, some of N.D.'s best seasons have come off of bowl losses. The 1973 and 1988 national championship seasons followed bad losses in bowls (40-6 to Nebraska and 35-10 to Texas A&M respectively). The 1970 one-loss #2 finish came off of a 21-17 Cotton Bowl loss to Texas and the surprising 9-2 regular-season campaign of 1995 came off of a bad loss to Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. Here is the aggregate of N.D.'s next year's regular season performance depending upon whether the Irish have won or lost their bowl game or if they failed to play in one:

Win: 100-32-2 (.765) (9.2 wins per 12 games)

Loss: 85-36 (.702) (8.4 wins per 12 games)

No Bowl: 71-28-2 (.713) (8.6 wins per 12 games)

Thus, the difference between winning, losing and not participating in a bowl game has been less than one win per season the subsequent year.

As for Willingham's record at Stanford in bowl games, it's mixed. After the surprising 7-3-1 regular season of 1995, Willingham's Cardinal lost a tough 19-13 Liberty Bowl to a good 8-3 East Carolina team. The next year, however, Stanford tore apart Michigan State 38-0 in the Sun Bowl. In the Rose Bowl following the 1999 season, Stanford was seriously outmanned (three of the Cardinal's best players were hurt) by Ron Dayne-led Wisconsin, but Stanford gave it a spunky effort and led at halftime before falling to the heavily favored Badgers 17-9. Last year in the Seattle Bowl Stanford was a slight favorite over a decent Georgia Tech team and lost 24-14. So in four bowl games Willingham was only 1-3, though Stanford did outscore the opposition by an aggregate 14 points and the game plan and the intensity displayed in the Rose Bowl were particularly impressive.

As a side note, it's quite remarkable that many Stanford fans judged Baer to be an only average or below-average defensive coordinator. In 1999, Baer's first year as Willingham's defensive coordinator, Stanford limited to 17 points a Wisconsin team that had scored 40 or more points 6 times (including 42 against Ohio St., 59 against Indiana, 40 against M.S.U. and 41 against Iowa). In 2001, Stanford held every non-conference opponent (Boston College, San Jose St., Georgia Tech and Notre Dame) below its scoring average. Stanford was 22-13 for Baer's three-year stint as Willingham's defensive coordinator and with his stellar defense this year at N.D. his record as Willingham's defensive coordinator is now 32-15. Stanford's defense this year in its 2-9 campaign in Baer's absence was almost exactly a touchdown per game worse than it was last year, though actually its offense took the worse hit, going from averaging over 35 points per game to just over 20.

In any event, Baer's record is certainly one to give N.D. fans confidence that the defense will be well prepared. If the offense can show the kind of game planning and execution that we saw against Florida State and its other strong outings, there's every reason to think that N.D. will play well.


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