It’s December, and fans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are looking disappointedly at a less-than-full stocking. A good-not-great, ultimately disappointing season has yielded an underwhelming matchup in a matinee bowl game with a ridiculous name.
The year? 2019. What year did you think I was talking about?
In all seriousness, the similarities between this December and that year’s make it a little nostalgic for me. My first article as a staff writer here reflected on Notre Dame’s disappointing bowl placement and made semi-serious attempts to find bright spots about it. Given where we are today, I thought it’d be fun to do the same thing. So let’s get into it: what is there to get excited about in the Sun Bowl?
The Sun Bowl is the second-oldest bowl in the history of college football, trailing only the Rose Bowl. We’re Notre Dame, the school with a passion for antiquities unmatched by anyone outside the Ivy League. Who cares if it hasn’t had anywhere near the Rose Bowl’s level of prestige for most of its history? It has a long tradition of existence, and we respect that sort of thing around here.
This year’s rendition will also be a notable one, as it will be one of only a handful of Sun Bowls to feature a ranked-on-ranked matchup. Even if both teams are skeleton crews little resembling the squads that earned those rankings, it’s certainly an upgrade from the bowl’s beginnings and its typical norm.
Notre Dame has only played in the Sun Bowl once before, but that game was a pretty enjoyable one for Irish fans. Brian Kelly’s first bowl game and only the second bowl win for the Irish in over a decade, it saw the Irish completely dominate a long-lost classic opponent in the Miami Hurricanes. The 33-17 win (highlights) was the finishing touch on a genuinely uplifting comeback story to end a 2010 season that featured some of the darkest moments in program history.
Yes, it was just the Sun Bowl and the opponent didn’t get off the bus, but this game made Irish fans get a little bit closer to believing in their team again (do not ask about how that belief was rewarded the following season). Let’s hope the 2023 edition goes the same way.
The full name of this bowl is genuinely hilarious, and far better than the bland corporate sponsorship we saw in the Camping World Bowl. Kellogg purchased the naming rights for the Sun Bowl in 2019 and, rather than simply slapping their name on it and calling it a day like every other sponsor, chose to center not merely one of their cereals but the anthropomorphic tiger that serves as its mascot.
Why? I suppose it could be because players in these games would have grown up seeing the same Frosted Flakes ads that I remember, which credited Tony with incredible athletic prowess to make the retroactively bizarre case that ingesting their sugar-coated artificially fortified starch would somehow lead kids to better performance on the field. Alternately, a wheel somewhere deep in the bowels of Kellogg HQ and the arrow stopped on Tony, coming just short of Toucan Sam.
In any case, should the Irish win the postgame celebration had better feature Marcus Freeman and the bowl MVP taking bites of Frosted Flakes out of the trophy.
Revenge for the Augh
Notre Dame has played the Oregon State Beavers only two times and lost both times. It is bad enough to have a goose egg against another program, but these losses also carried some extra sting because they were key cogs in Notre Dame’s string of ignominious bowl defeats that spanned the mid-90s to the late 2000s. The 2000 Beavers (led by the 2023 Beavers’ departed head coach Jonathan Smith at quarterback, throwing to the NFL-bound duo of Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh) utterly destroyed Bob Davie’s Irish by a score of 41-9. In 2004, a Ty-less Notre Dame team took on the Beavers in the Insight Bowl and lost 38-21.
This is enough to qualify the Beavers as a minor villain of that miserable era of Irish football, and the Beavers will no doubt be jumping at the opportunity to carry that role into a new generation. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen, and start getting some payback for those aughts-era injuries.
Peanut Butter Angeli Time
On a more serious note than anything I have mentioned so far, Steve Angeli starting this game is very exciting. It will be the first time we have seen the junior quarterback play in real competition against another team - not a spring game or even garbage time, but competitive minutes that will decide the outcome of a game that goes into the official record books.
Angeli obviously has a great deal to gain from this game and may well be the most motivated player on the field for either team. Riley Leonard is coming to Notre Dame expecting to start in 2024, and if Angeli has any chance of proving him mistaken it starts in El Paso. Even if it is ultimately just his audition to start for some other team next fall, Angeli has the potential to vault his stock in that regard while leaving something of a legacy at the school he loved enough to commit to and hang around the last several years.
Regardless of Angeli’s future with the program, from a fan perspective the game will answer a lot of our questions about his abilities and what he could do/could have done for this program.
Numbers Only Fans Care About (We are Fans)
While it isn’t pretty, this game has the potential to help the Irish hit a couple numbers that still mean something to fans. The most obvious is that a win would be Notre Dame’s 10th of the season, which is still a pretty universally accepted benchmark for “good” in the eyes of most fans even if it is disappointing in a given season’s context.
Beyond that, a win here would also bring the Irish back to a .500 record in bowl games, an important line for a team often unfairly accused of never winning in the postseason. Again, it won’t give us what we’ve really wanted all this time, but it’s definitely better than nothing.
If you are a Notre Dame fan old enough to remember that first Sun Bowl win I mentioned earlier, you remember a time when a 10-win season with a bowl victory over a ranked team would have felt heavenly. The fact that it’s now a “meh”-inspiring possibility is a testament to the progress this program has made since then, and if you know that then you also know that’s a floor you have to fight to maintain. So let’s go get this one.