Notre Dame's BCS hopes were officially dashed Saturday night, disappearing into a cold and windy November evening like an errant Tommy Rees pass.
The Irish's 28-21 loss to a mediocre Pitt team exposed the frailty of Brian Kelly's nicked-up team, while also subjecting them to the murky waters of lower-level bowl affiliations.
The road to the BCS still needed to go through Palo Alto, a route that looked all the more harrowing after Stanford shocked Oregon this week. But with the loss to Paul Chryst's Pitt squad, the Irish now head into a nightmare scenario that could have Notre Dame spending Christmas in Detroit.
Earlier in the week, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick gave some insight into Notre Dame's conundrum when looking at bowl scenarios, talking with the South Bend Tribune about the factors that go into playing in a non-BCS bowl.
Finding the right opponent, location and date might make for some tricky negotiations, considering Notre Dame's final exams don't end until Dec. 20. Says Swarbrick:
Date is really important to us, especially its relevance to final exams and how all that works...You look at all those factors, there’s sort of an interesting process that goes on at that level of bowls, where a lot of people are talking and trying to figure out what the best pairings are and how to make them work.
You participate in those discussions and hope you can produce a result that can provide the best opportunity for your student-athletes. But the first goal is to not be in that position.
The Irish are in that position because of a disappointing loss ensured by a fatal cocktail of back-breaking turnovers, other costly mistakes and a few controversial calls, none larger than the ejection of Stephon Tuitt for targeting Pitt quarterback Tom Savage as he attempted to scramble for a first down.
Focusing on the officiating might be easiest, as the Irish gave up touchdowns after questionable penalties extended Pitt drives for touchdowns. (Tuitt's personal foul and ejection converted a failed third down; a pass interference penalty on fourth down on Bennett Jackson extended another drive.)
That hardly explains how the Irish could take such a big step backwards offensively and play wildly uneven football, with both Rees and captain T.J. Jones making critical mistakes.
Jones' monster day was sullied after he coughed up the football inside the Pitt 10-yard line after a beautiful 34-yard catch. Rees' big plays downfield were long forgotten after he made a horrible decision in the fourth quarter to throw across his body into the end zone, an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by Pitt's Ray Vinopal for a touchback. Rees compounded that mistake on his very next throw, a high floating pass in the direction of tight end Troy Niklas that was also intercepted by Vinopal, whose return set up what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown for the Panthers.
The Irish will have two weeks to dissect all that went wrong before trying to bounce back in a must game against BYU on Senior Day. But let's take a look at where the Irish stand as of now in the bowl picture, as we try and guess where Notre Dame ends up this postseason.
Among the American Athletic Conference bowl tie-ins, many have pointed to the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City as a potential destination for the Irish. Right now it looks like five AAC teams will fill bowl vacancies, with Rutgers needing one more win. Notre Dame has already filled Yankee Stadium once for a football game, and game organizers might not even have the chance to choose Notre Dame over Rutgers.
The ACC will let Notre Dame be a part of the conference's eight bowl tie-ins next season, but it could fill them all on its own, especially with Pitt snatching a key victory this weekend. The Irish could sneak into the Military Bowl or the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, though late December in Annapolis or Shreveport doesn't exactly getting travel agents licking their chops.
Next you've got to look at the Big Ten's eight tie-ins and then start wondering if Northwestern can pull out two wins against the trio of Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois. Indiana is in an even tougher spot with Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue ahead. They're hardly fighting for enviable destinations, with the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, the Heart of Dallas Bowl played in the old Cotton Bowl and the Texas Bowl played at Reliant Stadium in Houston. But they're options for a football program that won't be able to be too picky.
Luckily for Kansas State, they've got Kansas still on the schedule. A win by K-State over the Jayhawks should help Bill Snyder's Wildcats punch their postseason ticket. But the Big 12 might leave some vacancies the Irish could fill, namely the other side of the ledger in the Pinstripe Bowl and the Texas Bowl.
Finally, if you're looking for the most likely destination (at this point) it could be the Poinsettia Bowl on December 26. With Army already ineligible, expect Swarbrick to start maneuvering to get the Irish to finish their season in San Diego, likely playing against a Mountain West opponent like San Jose State or potentially Boise State.
That's life as an independent right now, one of the large reasons Swarbrick made the decision to sign a scheduling agreement with the ACC that begins next season, the same year as college football's four-team playoff.
The Irish already knew they had an uphill battle in front of them, saddled with two early losses and a defense that just can't seem to stay healthy. Tonight's loss to Pittsburgh puts them in an even tougher spot, complete reliance on others to determine their postseason fate.