Tim O'Malley: The Irish players are quite a bit more excited than the Notre Dame fan base. The senior class of 2013 -- Brian Kelly's bridge class that included Charlie Weis recruits -- won 36 games together, most since the 1995 seniors graduated under Lou Holtz.
There's enough of them in starting positions that a win is paramount to conclude their collegiate careers. (It was actually the topic of post-game conversation outside the Stanford locker room in the wake of the team's season-ending defeat.)
You'll likely get a sampling of requisite bowl season stragglers among the underclassmen, that's natural after playing for a BCS Championship last season, but I'd be surprised if ND lays an egg on Dec. 28.
2.) How would you describe the season Tommy Rees had? Rutgers has one of the worst statistical pass defenses in the country. Can he excel against that?
O'Malley: That's good news/bad news for Irish fans. At first blush, Rees destroys teams that struggle vs. the pass and has issues vs. athletic defenses that can make him put the ball in tight windows.
Using the eye test, Rees played well vs. Temple, Michigan (one crucial mistake), Purdue, Arizona State, USC, Air Force, Navy, Brigham Young and Stanford. He struggled mightily vs. Michigan State and Oklahoma and contributed greatly to a late defeat at Pittsburgh with awful interceptions. (Though he was but one of 50 reasons Notre Dame lost to a terrible Panthers team.)
In decent weather, against a poor pass defense, Tommy Rees will put up 300-plus yards and multiple touchdowns -- but he's always prone to interceptions when asked to pass too often. In other words, Rutgers' defense might be fortunate it doesn't defend the pass well, because it will tempt Kelly to air it out, and to be blunt, the Irish lose when they pass the ball too often during Kelly's four-year tenure: 33-4 when they run more than 30 times; 3-12 when they rush 30 or fewer.
The Irish are exceptional in terms of protecting Rees, and the senior's pre-snap adjustments are a big part of that. But if the Scarlet Knights make ND's offense pass-first, it's to their (historical) advantage.
O'Malley: Shumate was the People's Choice to start at safety from the outset of winter conditioning. He earned starts in four of the first six games, missed two thereafter (including USC) due to a hamstring injury, and after returning to action, was subsequently suspended (along with fellow safety Eilar Hardy) for the season-finale in Palo Alto for being late to a team meeting.
His production was sporadic, far below what Irish fans hoped for and doubtless less than expected from the staff, though we were repeatedly told that Shumate's understanding of the position wasn't deep enough to warrant a full-time role. Look for two upperclassmen to start ahead of him in Yankee Stadium, but he'll play plenty.
Because of his slight frame, Fuller was the season's surprise contributor in an exceptionally deep receiving corps. But the Philadelphia product can run, and more important, track the ball at full speed and win vs. one-on-one coverage. He hit Michigan State for a crucial 37-yard grab in his first career (meaningful) snap and was regarded as one of three "third" receivers for the offense along with fellow freshman Corey Robinson and sophomore Chris Brown.
Fuller started three games, Oklahoma and USC among them. He has the inside track for one of the team's top two or three spots in the rotation next season.
4.) Louis Nix already has an agent, and is heading to the NFL. How does that change what Notre Dame wants to do on the defensive line?
O'Malley: It doesn't, because he was unable to play with a surgically repaired knee. Nix missed both the BYU win and Stanford loss due to the injury so his absence is more of a puzzler in terms of its timing:
He can't travel with the team or be with the team for the last couple weeks of his college career. It's assumed Nix didn't know the rule and signed when he made up his mind to forgo a fifth season for the NFL. He had been the epitome of a team player during his time at ND and a locker room, staff, and fan favorite, so it appeared Kelly was genuinely disappointed the 340-plus pounder wouldn't be involved in the trip.
By contrast, junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt's status is of upmost importance. Unlike Nix, Tuitt hasn't graduated and is weighing that and a senior season in South Bend vs. NFL riches. If he's made up his mind prior to the game (whether he announces it publicly, or not), it will obviously impact his effort in the contest.
Kelly has had great success with juniors returning for their senior seasons, losing only Kyle Rudolph (2010) and keeping Michael Floyd (2011), Tyler Eifert (2012) and Manti Te'o (2012) in the fold. Nix is the first graduated senior of note to forgo a fifth season under Kelly.
5.) Do you expect Notre Dame fans to take over Yankee Stadium?
O'Malley: They'll do well with crowd support as always, but they really would have dominated a warm-weather venue such as San Diego post-Christmas, or the Dallas (Heart of Texas Bowl) on January 1.
Irish fans -- alumni and otherwise -- traveled en masse last year to Miami for the BCS Championship. Alabama's contingent was dwarfed by Notre Dame's (apparently that's not the most important ingredient in a victory). I assume that pilgrimage knocked a few thousand out of the mix for this season's downer of a bowl bid. But Notre Dame and New York city always pair well.
While there were more story lines for die hard Irish fans vs. Houston (or in another bowl) playing the "hometown" team will make the vibe inside much more exciting for those in the inevitably packed house.