No. 16 Notre Dame (9-3) will head to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas on Dec. 29, to face No. 19 Oregon State (8-4). Just one month ago, it appeared Notre Dame had a strong chance of securing a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. However, a surprising loss to Clemson, chaos on Selection Sunday, and a flurry of recent activity in the transfer portal have resulted in a less prominent spotlight for the Irish as they bring the curtain down on their 2023 campaign.
The Fighting Irish will be returning to the Sun Bowl for the first time since 2010. That year, they defeated Miami 33-17 while filling a slot the Pac-12 could not fill because it did not have enough bowl-eligible teams. Notre Dame is an FBS Independent program but plays in the ACC for all sports except football and is paired with the ACC for bowl games.
Notre Dame a Big Draw
The Sun Bowl announcement on Sunday was delayed by several hours. Sun Bowl Executive Director Bernie Olivas explained that the prolonged wait occurred because Florida State was snubbed by the College Football Playoff, leading to a delay in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s selection process. Not expected to be part of the Sun Bowl’s selection pool, Notre Dame landing in the Sun Bowl came as a pleasant surprise to bowl organizers. Notably, the committee did not have the Fighting Irish’s helmet on-site during the announcement.
Olivas explained that Notre Dame was not chosen for the bowl tier above the Sun Bowl, which included the Holiday Bowl, Pop-Tarts Bowl, and Gator Bowl, all of which had the first choice after the New Year’s six bowls. As all other bowls in the Sun Bowl’s tier were interested in having Notre Dame, the ACC randomly selected one from the eligible bowls. By drawing names from a hopper, the Sun Bowl emerged from the draw, competing against bowls like the Duke’s Mayor Bowl and the Pinstripe Bowl.
“It’s not only what it (presence of Notre Dame) does for the Bowl but it does for the city,” Olivas told KTSM.com in El Paso. “The last time Notre Dame was here in 2010, we had the biggest economic impact on our city ever for a bowl game. And that’s one of the reasons we have the Sun Bowl, to have a positive impact on our area. It will also draw Oregon State fans who want to see them play Notre Dame. I couldn’t be happier.”
Two Top-Ranked Teams A Rarity in the Sun Bowl
This year’s 90th Sun Bowl matchup features two ranked teams for the first time since 2008. The Irish are facing an Oregon State squad that lost its last two games, losing to Washington and Oregon. The Beavers find themselves in transition heading into the game. Head coach Jonathan Smith announced that he is bound for Michigan State. Defensive coordinator Trent Bay will be the head coach for the bowl game.
Bowl projections for Notre Dame had them in either the Reliaquest Bowl against the LSU Tigers or the Pop-Tart Bowl. The former offered intrigue for the Irish faithful. A Notre Dame-LSU pairing would have featured a matchup against former Irish coach Brian Kelly and his new team.
Transfer Portal Playing a Role
Oregon State starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, the former Clemson Tigers QB, has entered the transfer portal again and won’t play in the Sun Bowl. Oregon State’s backup signal caller Audan Chiles is entering the portal as well. That leaves QB3 Ben Gulbranson as the likely starter against the Irish. Gulbranson has attempted one pass in game action in 2023.
Oregon State will be making its third appearance in the Sun Bowl. The Beavers defeated Missouri in 2006 on a last-minute two-point conversion and they beat Pittsburgh 3-0 in 2008.
Like Oregon State, Notre Dame will also miss a host of players who have entered the transfer portal. Chief among them are wide receivers Chris Tyree, Tobias Merriweather, and Rico Flores, and tight end Holden Staes. Also entering the portal are defensive end Nana Osafo-Mensah, and center Zeke Correll. Ashton Craig replaced Correll following an injury toward the end of the season and played well as his replacement.
Notre Dame Seeks First Win Over Oregon State
Notre Dame has only played the Pac-12‘s Oregon State on two occasions, both in bowl games. The Beavers beat Notre Dame 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl to end the 2000 season. Oregon State ended the Irish’s 2004 season with a 38-21 victory in the Insight Bowl. That win followed the firing of then-head coach Tyrone Willingham.
The Sun Bowl allows Irish head coach Marcus Freeman to make it two straight victories in bowl games. Notre Dame beat South Carolina 45-38 in last year’s Gator Bowl in Freeman’s first season at the helm of the Irish.