The #5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the #9 Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day in a match-up of two programs that have seemed to hit a ceiling in recent years. Under Brian Kelly, ND was able to consistently get into the biggest games, but every time they did, they got utterly routed.
Under Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State has consistently been able to reach the game or two before the big game, but never maybe to take that next step up. Perhaps this New Year’s Six bowl game will be the start of a journey up to the next rung of the college football ladder.
The Fighting Irish (11-1) should have more motivation to win than Ok State (11-2) as they want to show onlookers that their new head coach Marcus Freeman is the right guy to lead this team.
Freeman, 35, officially took charge of the program earlier this week, becoming just the second African-American head coach in Notre Dame football history. Any time you go in house, it is the easiest route to take, the path of least resistance, but it was probably the right thing to do in this case.
Freeman is a rising star, and he’s more than ready for the power five conference level head coaching job right now. While it was not surprising at all to see Brian Kelly, the winningest coach in ND history leave his own team behind for the postseason it was still shocking to see any Irish head man leave South Bend, for any destination, period. Even if it is LSU.
“I am ready to get to work,” Freeman said Monday at his initial formal public presentation as the new head coach.
“My sense of urgency is for right now. It’s to make sure that this team is prepared on January 1st in the Fiesta Bowl to be victorious against Oklahoma State, and that’s where our focus will be.”
The Irish are -2.5 favorites for this showdown in the Arizona desert, with the over/under set at 45.5. ESPN matchup predictor projects the Irish have a 52% chance on emerging triumphant in the greater Phoenix area on New Year’s Day. Their last visit here, in 2016 (following the 2015 season) did not go so well.
The Irish were blown out by Ohio State in a strange game that saw both teams’ best players exit very early. For ND, outside linebacker Jaylon Smith seriously injured his knee, and that cost him millions of dollars in his initial NFL contract, as his NFL Draft stock fell immensely.
On the other side, another blue chip NFL prospect, Joey Bosa was ejected for targeting. The Smith scenario provides a teachable moment for Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, who is projected to be a top five overall pick in next April’s draft. It is not certain whether or not he’ll be fully healthy for this bowl game, and even if he is full go, he may not play. Freeman said nothing has been decided yet, and it’s unclear whether Hamilton will risk it or not.
“He knows he has the full support of his head coach,” said Freeman.
“Whatever is best for Kyle Hamilton, I’m in full support of.”
A lot still remains in flux for Notre Dame, a program currently in the midst of a major transition. Freeman said he will not name the new defensive coordinator until after the Fiesta Bowl, and he hasn’t decided if he’ll be calling the plays or not against Oklahoma State.
“I think this week when I’m on the road, I’m ready to get recruiting, and I’ll kind of figure out what’s going to be the best for our staff, where I can put my attention to,” he said.
“Because what I won’t do is I won’t cheat those players. If I can’t give them my full attention, if I can’t make sure they’re prepared, then I’ll have somebody else call the plays.”
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Bank (TheSportsBank.Net) and author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” as well as “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”