The 2010 Sun Bowl may be one of the better postseason games out there. Just ask John Follmer, who may be the giddiest bowl official around right now.
The bowl’s selection committee chairman, Bollmer gleamed Sunday after he and his colleagues announced Notre Dame and Miami would be facing off in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 31, renewing what has historically been one of college football’s premier rivalries.
“It’ll be a great matchup,” Follmer told reporters. “In our 77 years and my 35 years as chairman, I never thought this would happen. You gotta be kidding me.”
Believe it, John. Only don’t act surprised that instead of the Irish and Hurricane juggernauts of yesteryear, you’re left with a pairing of 7-5 also-rans.
That said, there’s still plenty to be excited about the first meeting between these teams since 1990. Here are five matchups to look for in the Hyundai Sun Bowl:
Brian Kelly vs. Jeff Stoutland
Of course, the battle between the head coaches is a storyline for every game, but the fact that Stoutland will have had all of a month to assert and exercise his status as the Hurricanes’ front man makes this a bit more intriguing.
Miami’s offensive line coach under Randy Shannon, Stoutland was named interim head coach when Shannon was fired on Nov. 27. Always an assistant but never a head coach, how will Stoutland—who served as the offensive line coach at Michigan State after stints at Syracuse and Cornell—handle his new set of responsibilities, particularly with a team that was expected to compete for a BCS berth this season?
Furthermore, how will he engage Kelly, a far more seasoned head coach and tactician, in the 60-minute game of cat and mouse that often determines the winner of the game?
Miami WR Leonard Hankerson vs. Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith
Overall, the Irish were strong on defense this season, ranking 30th in points allowed and 26th against the pass. And while the Miami passing attack was far from adequate, the ‘Canes do have the playmakers on the outside to punish lethargic defenses.
Provided Miami quarterback Jacory Harris has time, Hankerson should be able to exploit some holes in the Notre Dame secondary. The 6’3”, 205-pound Hankerson doesn’t possess elite size or speed, but he finished the season 16th nationally with 1,085 receiving yards, despite Miami’s on-again, off-again passing game, which ranked No. 97.
Additionally, Hankerson does have the capability to stretch a defense, particularly vertically, having recorded five receptions of 35 or more yards.
If Notre Dame’s corners are unsuccessful at jamming Hankerson at the line, anticipate Smith supplying much of the help over the top. Smith, a 6’2”, 214-pound senior and three-year starter, is the team’s second-leading tackler and by far its most active defensive back, registering team-highs in interceptions (four), pass breakups (seven) and passes defended (11).
Notre Dame OTs Zack Martin and Taylor Dever vs. Miami DEs Olivier Vernon and Allen Bailey
This isn’t your older brother’s Miami defense, a la Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp, Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, etc., but speed still reigns supreme on this unit, complete with a pair of noteworthy disruptions at end.
Vernon (6’4”, 250) has the speed to beat tackles at the point of attack, while the stouter Bailey (6’4”, 285) has the bulk to bull-rush his way into the backfield. Both should present worry for the bookends of the Irish offensive line. Overall, the duo combined for 13 of the Hurricanes’ 37 sacks, a total that ranked third in the ACC.
Notre Dame’s front five was brilliant for much of the regular season, allowing only 19 sacks through 12 games, and Martin and Dever are big reasons why. Neither has prototypical size for an offensive tackle—Dever is the heavier of the two at 297 pounds —but each is nimble and needs to use his quickness and good hand placement to seal off either Vernon or Bailey. This will be particularly crucial in third-down situations, when Miami, No. 2 against the pass nationally, will come hard after Irish true freshman quarterback Tommy Rees.
Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood vs. Miami linebacker Sean Spence
Speaking of Rees, how much help will he receive from those surrounding him, in particular Wood, who was Notre Dame’s leading rusher with 522 yards and should be called upon heavily? Rees has thrown only 135 passes in the absence of the injured Dayne Crist, so limiting his responsibilities should be high on the list of priorities for coordinator Charley Molnar.
Waiting on the Notre Dame ball-carrier will be Spence, Miami’s leading tackler and one of the most troublesome defenders in the ACC. Spence has the ability to roam sideline-to-sideline and, with 16 tackles for loss this season, has shown a knack for getting into the opponent’s backfield.
With the mission of the Hurricane defensive line to keep the second level of the defense clean, it will be imperative that the interior of the Notre Dame offensive line get their hands on Spence, preventing him from slipping underneath blocks and filling any holes and cutback lanes.
If the Irish front can neutralize Spence’s speed and playmaking ability with yards on the ground, they will in turn negate Miami’s pass rush and take some of the heat off their young quarterback.
Catholics vs. Convicts
It’s an outdated moniker that’s nothing if not politically incorrect, but it is a label that accurately captured the emotion of this once-great rivalry, as well as illustrated what was perhaps a clash of cultures between the two programs.
The last time these two teams played one another, a majority of the players who will participate in this game were not yet born. Are they even aware of the history? When you don’t know of something, how can you possibly appreciate it?
Granted, this game won’t be played in either Notre Dame Stadium or the Orange Bowl. The deep-seeded hatred of old won’t be present. There will be no Howard Schnellenberger, Lou Holtz or Jimmy Johnson. And there certainly won’t be any Heisman Trophy candidates on the field.
That said, perhaps the Sun Bowl between Miami and Notre Dame will help revive what college football has missed for the past two decades. The teams will kick off a three-game series beginning in 2012, but hopefully this meeting will be an indication that what will be can be as good as or better than what was.