Has it really been less than a month since Brian Kelly hopped on a plane to head to Baton Rouge? With all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the football program these days, it certainly seems a lifetime ago that Kelly was even in charge in South Bend. However, the Fiesta Bowl is fast approaching on Saturday, and it behooves us all to stop to consider what a win would actually mean for the program moving forward.
To get the obvious out of the way first, a win over #9 Oklahoma State would get the dubious “major bowl losing streak” off the backs of the Notre Dame program. It truly is crazy to think that Notre Dame has not won a New Year’s Six-type bowl since the 1994 Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M. I think fans, coaches, and players alike are all sick of hearing about the blowout losses that tend to happen to Notre Dame in these types of games. A win on Saturday can finally put that tired narrative to bed and continue to generate the positive momentum that has been surrounding the program for the past month. Although a win is a far cry from a national championship, Marcus Freeman has the chance to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in a little over twenty years.
Additionally, being able to pull off a victory on Saturday should further signify that the talk of the program’s strong culture is more than simply lip service. Many teams would have cracked at the beginning of December following all of the drama. Instead, it seems as though everybody has banded together and not let external factors become a distraction. This mindset should excite fans heading into next season. The standard has been set over the past several seasons, and each senior class has been passing the torch with success to the class below. Despite the quarterback carousel throughout the season, the issues with the offensive line, an injury to the best player on the team (Kyle Hamilton), and being without the heart and soul of the team against Oklahoma State, this team has continued to remain focused on the task at hand.
Furthermore, a win on Saturday should solidify the Irish as being “back at the head table” in college football. There is a chance that Notre Dame will finish as high as #3 in the final AP Poll, which would be the highest ranking in the final poll since 1993. Clearly, the program is in the best position it has been since the Lou Holtz era. One of the biggest (self-inflicted or not) obstacles to Notre Dame’s success has been recruiting. However, recruiting appears poised to be taken to new heights by Freeman and his staff. Couple the rock-solid culture with an influx of talent in the coming recruiting classes and Notre Dame will continue to inch closer and closer to the school’s first national championship since 1988. A win over Oklahoma State, plus the win over #1 Clemson last season, with chances to defeat Ohio State, Clemson, and a revived USC program all in one season in 2022, and suddenly the Irish can return to being one of the dominant forces within the sport.
Lastly, a win simply helps continue the groundswell of good vibes around the program. This matters for a couple of reasons. First, Marcus Freeman is going to have a few key hires to make on his staff in the offseason. Although it may not be the biggest factor, it certainly is much easier to sell the program coming off of a major victory as opposed to another loss on a big stage. A win also should aid in recruiting purposes as the staff looks towards the 2023 class and begins laying the groundwork for the 2024 class. Again, a debut loss for Freeman will not sink him. However, the pitch to recruits might become a little bit easier if he can point to a dominant victory in the Fiesta Bowl. Great players want to compete for championships, and Freeman needs on-field results to point to why the Irish are closing in on one. One could argue that victory on Saturday only proves the point that Notre Dame was playing like one of the best four teams in the country and may be one of the most improved teams from start to finish across all of college football this season.
Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl arguably will be the most hyped non-national championship-impacting bowl game Notre Dame has ever played in. There will inevitably be growing pains as Marcus Freeman makes his coaching debut. I personally believe that the Irish are going to finish the year with a resounding victory and start the Freeman era with a bang.