Many people will call any bowl game that isn’t in the College Football Playoff meaningless or just an exhibition. For Notre Dame though, their Citrus Bowl showdown with LSU on Monday is anything but meaningless. The Irish have a lot on the line when they square off with the Tigers in Orlando and the outcome could help shape another critical off-season for the Irish.
10 Wins is a Big Deal for Notre Dame, This Year
A year after finishing an embarassing 4-8, ending 2017 with 10 wins – albeit after a November swoon – would be a very big deal for Notre Dame. We can argue all day long about how Notre Dame shouldn’t have ended the season like they did, but when all is said and done, 10 wins after 4 wins is a huge improvement.
A 10th win will give Notre Dame a good boost on the recruiting trail as the Irish look to lock up a few more elite prospects for 2018 and start focusing on 2019 with only a handful of spots remaining to fill in February thanks to the early signing period. A bowl loss would mean ending the season with three losses in five games and would only feed the narrative of the “same old Notre Dame” that the Irish staff have to fight off. A win and Brian Kelly and staff can sweep over the 4-8 mark in 2016 by selling the story of it being sandwiched between two 10 win seasons.
Ten wins should never be the goal for Notre Dame, but it should be a barometer of success. At Notre Dame, with 13 games to play, anything less than 10 wins should be considered disappointing. If the Irish can head into the off-season on the heels of a 10 win season and look back at wins over Michigan State, USC, NC State, and in this scenario LSU; they are going to have an extra pep in the step throughout off-season workouts.
Just getting to 10 wins isn’t the accomplishment that it once was, but if Notre Dame were to win on Monday and finish 10-3 with a victory over LSU on their resume, it’s hard to imagine the Irish not moving back into the top 10. Should they finish in the top 10, it would be just the third top 10 finish for Notre Dame since 1994 (2005 and 2012).
Notre Dame Needs to Beat a Good Defense Again
The Notre Dame offense looked like it was on its way to being a juggernaut in October. The Irish were running all over supposed elite defenses like NC State on their way to being firmly in the CFP hunt. Then November happened and Notre Dame struggled to do anything offensively against Miami and looked anemic against Stanford outside of a few short passes that turned into long touchdowns after the catch.
The Notre Dame offense is still a work in progress we have learned and now they will face a really good LSU defense. The narrative in October was the offense was unstoppable. The narrative in November was the Irish couldn’t do anything against good defenses. With a month of preparation for LSU we’ll have a better idea of which is more true even with Notre Dame missing three of its top four receivers because of injuries and suspensions.
Notre Dame needs to show signs of improvement on Monday – especially in the short passing game which is a staple of the Chip Long offense. Notre Dame looked inept trying to run any short passes – specifically any sort of wide receiver screen. Seeing Notre Dame successfully execute a few of those after the month of bowl prep would be encouraging heading into 2018.
Brandon Wimbush Needs a Big Game
Thanks to a forgettable performance against Stanford, Brandon Wimbush finished his first season as the starting quarterback for Notre Dame completing less than 50% of his passes. In today’s game, completing less than 60% of your passes is considered below average. Completing less than 50% of your passes is downright brutal.
We know Wimbush has a world of raw talent. We know he can make all of the throws in practice. And we know that he can make jaw dropping plays with his legs when things break down. What we don’t know yet is if he can protect the football well enough to become an elite quarterback or if he can beat a defense with his arm alone. There have been glimpses of his ability to do that. Wimbush didn’t have gaudy stats on the road against the Spartans in September, but he was efficient. Against Wake Forest Wimbush showed flashes of being able to rely on his arm.
One area that has killed Wimbush this year is the deep ball. He’s had receivers like Equanimeous St. Brown wide open down field multiple times only to miss fire on them. In fact, if you went back and rewatched every game and counted all of those instances, St. Brown could easily have another 4-5 touchdowns this year and another couple hundred yards receiving. If Wimbush can come out early and hit on one of those, it could build his confidence for the rest of the game. It will be a challenge to do so without Kevin Stepherson’s speed at his disposal, but Notre Dame will still likely attempt one early.
Brian Kelly has been steadfast in support of his quarterback, but if Wimbush struggles again on Monday and plays anything like he did against Stanford, it’s hard to imagine the quarterback position for 2018 not being up for grabs in the off-season – especially with an elite freshman like Phil Jurkovec arriving on campus in the summer.
A win on Monday won’t erase the 41-8 loss to Miami or the blown 4th quarter lead to Stanford, but it would likely cap off a top 10 season a year after one of the worst seasons in Notre Dame football history. When Notre Dame limped into a similar bowl game against LSU in 2014, the Irish responded with their best game of the season and left Nashville as winners of the Music City Bowl. The following year, Notre Dame came up just a few points shy against Stanford and Clemson from being in the playoffs. A win on Monday could propel Notre Dame towards another successful off-season aimed at improving on all of the work they’ve done since last January.