SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked No. 8 by the College Football Playoff selection committee and will play No. 7 Ohio State in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl (Glendale, Ariz.) at 1 p.m. ET on New Year's Day.
Notre Dame’s Nov. 28 loss to Stanford effectively eliminated it from contention for the four-team playoff, with spots in the tournament going to No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Michigan State and No. 4 Oklahoma. Even if the Irish had beat Stanford — which won the Pac-12 and is ranked No. 6 — there’s no guarantee it would’ve jumped Oklahoma in the final playoff standings released Sunday.
Instead, Notre Dame will settle for what, at least on the outside, looks like a compelling alternative in facing college football’s defending champions in Arizona on the first day of 2016.
“There’s still a bad taste in our month,” quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “We understood that our mission was to get to a national championship and our last game was a loss. This is definitely an opportunity for us to go and wash that taste from Stanford out a little bit and from this regular season and clean ourselves up and go prepare to win another game.”
It’s Notre Dame’s first bid to a New Year’s Six bowl in the second year of the playoff format. Notre Dame last played in a premier bowl game, outside of the 2013 BCS Championship, in 2007 when it lost to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
Notre Dame hasn’t won a premier bowl game since the 1993 Cotton Bowl, having lost the Fiesta Bowl three times (including the 2006 game against Ohio State), as well as the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl once. The Irish also were blown out by Alabama, 42-14, in the 2013 BCS Championship.
“Heck yeah,” coach Brian Kelly said when asked if winning this New Year’s Six bowl carries added importance. “Winning this is important. It's important. Not being there in a while and not playing well in (2013) on a national stage, you know, it's very important for us to play well and win the game.”
Under Kelly, Notre Dame is 3-2 in bowl games, with wins in back-to-back years over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl and LSU in the Music City Bowl.
Ohio State is 11-1 and missed out on the Big Ten Championship — and the College Football Playoff — but virtue of its three-point loss to Michigan State last month.
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Notre Dame and Ohio State have met five times. The Irish beat the Buckeyes in 1935 and 1936, then lost both ends of a home-and-home in 1995 and 1996. Ohio State beat Notre Dame, 34-20, in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl.
The Irish and Buckeyes will play a home-and-home series in 2022 and 2023, with the first game being played at Ohio Stadium Sept. 3, 2022 and the return on Sept. 23, 2023 at Notre Dame Stadium.
But without Michigan, Michigan State or Purdue on its 2015 schedule, Notre Dame was in position to go a season without playing a Big Ten team for the first time since 1916. The Fiesta Bowl affords Notre Dame a shot not only at the Big Ten, but a chance to test itself against Urban Meyer and one of college football’s strongest programs.
“It's well-coached, very good athletes on both sides of the ball, physical style of football, running the football I think is the thing that Ezekiel Elliott has obviously shown that, a quarterback (J.T. Barrett) that is multi-talented in his ability to run it and throw it,” Kelly said. “So I think it starts with that physical dimension, physical front. Joey Bosa coming off the edge, a pass rusher. Physical front, physical offensive line, running the football. That's what kind of stands out as the demeanor of an Ohio State football team, physical, and then just well-coached in all areas, including the special teams.”