It is now official. Fans will not have to wait until 2012 at Soldier Field to see Notre Dame and Miami do battle in a resurrection of the “Catholics vs. Convicts” rivalry.

In terms of exhibitions – and that is what bowl games are – this game has the makings of being truly entertaining. But more than that, for Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish, it is one more opportunity to establish itself, especially offensively, in Kelly’s system.

Notre Dame has had its struggles this season, both on and off the field, and those have been well-documented. But one thing the Irish have shown, with the exception of an awful performance against Navy, is progress.

Defensively, Notre Dame has actually looked to be on this side of serviceable and even good at times. In their past three games – all wins – the Irish held their opponents to less than four yards per play, an outstanding turnaround from a team that gave up nearly seven to Michigan in its second game of the season. They’re also forcing turnovers. Notre Dame is 7-2 when picking off at least one pass and 0-3 when they don’t record an interception.

That could prove to be huge for the Irish in this game, seeing as the offense will have its hands full with probably the most formidable defense they have faced all season. Freshman Tommy Rees, who has done well, will still be kept reigned in by Brian Kelly to prevent mistakes against Miami, which has allowed the second-lowest average yardage through the air in the nation this season and has picked off 16 passes in 12 games. Their seven passing touchdowns allowed is tied for best in the country with Ohio State.

Where the Hurricanes are vulnerable defensively is in the running game. They rank 81st against the run and as Cierre Wood continues to evolve from a runner into a tailback, he will face not greater opportunity to shine than this one. If he can remain patient and allow his blockers to do their jobs, he could be in for a big game, possibly even his first 100-yard rushing effort of the season.

It will truly be a test for a young quarterback against a very good defense and a young running back against one he could hurt, but on top of everything else, it is a test for Brian Kelly. In order to win this game, the Irish must play conservative football, which is not Kelly’s strong suit. He loves being aggressive in going after wins and sometimes that can lead to his demise, as it did against Tulsa. A win there and Notre Dame would head into bowl season with a much better looking – albeit not great – 8-4 mark.

Kelly has to do in his mind what Rees will have to do on the field – take what Miami gives him and not take a lot of chances. If both are able to do that, the Irish will succeed and, more importantly, it will show that the Irish have, indeed turned the corner.

Let the record(s) show…

A lot has been made about the Notre Dame schedule over the years, with nay-sayers accusing the Irish of putting together weak schedules full of pushovers.

As the season draws to a close, let’s take a look at what Notre Dame opponents accomplished this season:

Purdue – 4-8
Michigan – 7-5, Gator Bowl
Michigan State – 11-1, Capital One Bowl
Stanford – 11-1, Orange Bowl
Boston College – 7-5, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Pittsburgh – 7-5, BBVA Compass Bowl
Western Michigan – 6-6
Navy – 8-3, Poinsettia Bowl
Tulsa – 9-3, Hawaii Bowl
Utah – 10-2, Las Vegas Bowl
Army – 6-5, Armed Forces Bowl
USC – 7-5 (Excluded from bowls for two years)

Now I know that this is a less-than-scientific way to go about judging thing, but I have to think a lot of people would be hard-pressed to find a schedule that possesses 10 bowl-eligible teams – 11 if USC was not sanctioned – and 9 teams accepting bids, including a BCS bid.

But just because the schedule was a good one doesn’t mean necessarily that Notre Dame was good. Of those games, Notre Dame only beat one opponent with nine or more wins – Utah.

The combined record of teams the Irish lost to was 47-13, a winning percentage of .783 . The combined records of teams they beat was 47-36, or .566. In order for Notre Dame to truly be considered a good team again, it has to find a way to win big games against ranked opponents on a consistent basis.

Don’t forget to submit your questions for next week’s Maza’s Monday Mailbag to mazasmusings@gmail.com.

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