DALLAS -- With a last-second field goal by Boston College's David Gordon five days before Thanksgiving, the rematch that virtually everyone wanted to see today, Notre Dame vs. Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, became the rematch that almost no one wanted to see, Notre Dame vs. Texas A&M;, in the Cotton Bowl.
Particularly unenthusiastic when they arrived here on Christmas Day were the Irish, who bruised the Aggies' egos, 28-3, here last New Year's Day and would seem to have little motivation to do it again.
So Notre Dame's coaches and players have tried this week to create some, talking up the national championship that they say should belong to them if they, ranked No. 4 in the nation at 10-1, defeat No. 7 Texas A&M;, also 10-1, and No. 2 Florida State beats No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and No. 8 Florida beats No. 3 West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl.
That, the Irish contend, would leave voters in the Associated Press and the USA Today/CNN polls with a clear choice between Notre Dame and Florida State, and they are not too bashful to boast about their 31-24 victory over the Seminoles Nov. 13.
It is a logical argument, one that Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz rejected four years ago, when he campaigned for his team after an Orange Bowl victory over No. 1 Colorado despite the late-season Irish loss to Miami. The voters disagreed, crowning Miami.
"I'll admit, I was wrong then," Holtz said. "The voters were right. Absolutely, it should come down to head-to-head competition."
Leave it to Holtz to manipulate the circumstances for his benefit.
But even with all the discussion of the national championship implications, the Irish have given the impression in interviews that their hearts are not into this game.
Perhaps they left them on the field at South Bend, Ind., Nov. 20, when Gordon's 41-yard field goal as time expired gave Boston College a stunning, 41-39 victory and dropped the Irish from No. 1.
"We're coming in after a downer," Holtz said. "I'm just so doggone tired of looking at that one play on television. I'm not sure we played anybody else.
"I think our football team is going to play well, but I can't guarantee that. This is the first game since the Michigan game [in the season's second week] that we don't have the momentum and enthusiasm that kept us on a roll. I don't know how good we are."
Notre Dame linebacker Pete Bercich, who dropped a potential interception that would have ended Boston College's game-winning drive, said he does not believe the Irish will ever live down that loss.
"Even if everything works out in our favor and we're voted No. 1 unanimously," he said, "two weeks later, people are going to be asking us, 'What happened against Boston College?' "
"It was just one goofy day," he said. "I don't know if the stars were lined up funny or something."
If the Irish find themselves again star-crossed, Texas A&M; is capable of winning.
The Aggies lost only to Oklahoma, 44-14, at Norman, Okla., but that came during a week in which they were distracted by the revelation that the NCAA was investigating their football program again. The results of that probe are expected to be announced next week.
The Aggies have represented the host Southwest Conference in the Cotton Bowl in six of the past nine seasons, including three in a row.
It is primarily because of their weak sisters in that conference, however, that the Aggies receive little national respect, despite a 32-4 record in the past three seasons.
But some damage to the Aggies' reputation has been self-inflicted. When they have had an opportunity to prove they belong among the national powers in recent years, they have failed. They did not score a touchdown in either of the past two Cotton Bowls, a 10-2 loss to Florida State and the 28-3 loss to Notre Dame.
Texas A&M; coach R. C. Slocum admitted that his players were embarrassed after they were manhandled by the Irish, but he has decided in retrospect that a team with quarterback Rick Mirer and running backs Jerome Bettis and Reggie Brooks, starters this season as NFL rookies, would have humbled a lot of opponents.
"People were analyzing our program and deciding that we had to get bigger and stronger guys because Brooks and Bettis ran all over us," Slocum said. "It's kind of amusing now that Bettis had 240 yards [actually 212] against the New Orleans Saints. I noticed that until last weekend he was the leading rusher in the whole NFL. So I guess the whole NFL will have to evaluate their programs because Bettis is running on them."
Slocum, however, realizes that his protestations fall on deaf ears.
"You can make some arguments, but people don't often talk themselves out of their predicaments," he said. "For us to get out of it, we're going to have to play our way out."
Holtz fears the Aggies will begin today. He gives them the edge in inspiration.
It is difficult to argue after a conversation with Texas A&M; defensive end Sam Adams, who said: "When I pass away in many, many years, I'll be able to lay my soul to rest if I can say I
beat the University of Notre Dame."