Normally a Hawaii Bowl match-up between a 7-6 Hawaii Warriors squad and some 6-6 team from the Midwest would best be described as "meaningless" or "forgettable." Not so this year, because that 6-6 team from the Midwest is Notre Dame, everyone's favorite soap opera college football program. Love 'em or hate 'em, few are neutral on the Fighting Irish. And ESPN, which has rights to the broadcast, is making the most of it in hyping today's only bowl game at every opportunity. So the sports world will be watching tonight - and for good reason.
Certainly this game is inconsequential as far as the final BCS standings go this year, as neither of these teams threaten to shake up the Top 25, win or lose. But tonight's game has HUGE implications for the future of one of the most storied programs in the history of college football. A win tonight for the Irish would avoid the stinging (and very rare) stigma of back-to-back losing seasons for Notre Dame. If the Irish look good in a win tonight it will be an enormous step in the right direction for the program. It will mean a winning season following the 2007 3-and-9 debacle, it will mean an end to the most publicized bowl losing streak in the history of the world (finally), and it will mean that this team and these players are still committed to playing hard for each other and for Coach Weis. A win for ND would bring a measure of stability back to the program. It will (for the time being) vindicate Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick's decision to retain Charlie Weis as head coach, and will likely calm the jittery recruits who are wondering if committing to Notre Dame and Charlie Weis is a smart thing to do right now.
On the other hand, a loss in this "meaningless" bowl game could send the Notre Dame football program into a death spiral. Back-to-back losing seasons, an extension of the bowl losing streak. If, worst case scenario, the team looks flat and uninspired in a loss, questions will be raised about whether Charlie Weis has lost his team or whether he even has the ability to be an effective college head coach. Although Jack Swarbrick has decided to retain Coach Weis for now, he clearly did so in a manner that leaves open the possibility of revisiting that decision at any time. If the team looks bad in a loss in Hawaii, I think the Weis era could be over. If that happens it will be a huge setback for the program as the University scrambles to find a replacement while salvaging as much of the 2009 recruiting class as possible.
So those are the stakes in this meaningless, forgettable football game. Ho hum.
What about the game itself? On a neutral field the Irish would probably be favored by about a touchdown. In Aloha Stadium the Irish are a slight favorite (maybe 2 points). Clearly Notre Dame has "better" athletes than Hawaii. But as we have seen with this Notre Dame team, that counts for precisely "squat" (See "Syracuse"). Hawaii has a history of playing very well on their home (hard as a rock) turf, and of making things very uncomfortable for their guests from the mainland. By contrast, the Fighting Irish have a recent history of showing up at bowl games in warm-weather venues looking slow, sluggish, and sloppy. Not a great combination.
In reading the pre-game coverage of the teams, it is obvious that the Warriors will be "up" for this game. It is essentially "senior day" for them. They want to send their seniors off in style by getting a big win against a big-time program in front of their home fans. Hawaii is a senior-laden team that will be playing with a huge chip on their collective shoulders. The Aloha Bowl will be a hostile environment.
How will Notre Dame respond? That is the big question. As I sat high up in the corner of the L.A. Coliseum for the game against USC, one of the two positives I took from that game was that the team had not quit. They played against USC with some attitude and refused to be pushed around by the more talented Trojans. Although they were overmatched, they were not resigned. If they can bring that same attitude to Hawaii it will be a good start, especially since Hawaii has a reputation for being pretty chippy and cheap themselves (much like USC).
The good news for this bowl game is that we aren't playing the 2005 OSU Buckeyes or the 2006 LSU Tigers. Talent-wise, Notre Dame should be able to handle the Warriors. The teams have similar records and similar statistics, and Notre Dame has amassed its records and stats against a higher-caliber schedule than has Hawaii. On paper, this is a game that Notre Dame should win. The key question is: Will they show up? Has Coach Weis learned from his 2005 and 2006 bowl experiences how best to prepare a team to play after a layoff? Has the team practiced hard and fast and done their homework? Does the team have the pride and the desire to do what it takes to win this game?
Those are things I will be looking for. If I see a Notre Dame team that comes out focused, fast, and physical, then I'll feel that Jack Swarbrick has made the right decision for Notre Dame. But if the team looks like they ate too much at the luau, like they'd rather be home for Christmas, like winning the game just isn't that important, we'll know that Jack bricked. And that maybe he should revisit his decision.
So, you know, no pressure.