1:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Notre Dame -2, Over/Under: 45
Happy New Year to everyone from the good folks here at Oracle Sports, and if you’re like us then you’ll be spending the holiday with A LOT of college football, with a great matchup between the (No. 9) Oklahoma State Cowboys and the (No. 5) Notre Dame Fighting Irish taking centerstage this afternoon in the Fiesta Bowl from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. In many ways, 2021 has become what its predecessor was supposed to be for Oklahoma State (11-2, 8-2 in Big XII), who were mere inches away from earning what would have been their eleventh conference title and their first since 2011. Indeed, last year was supposed to be the year that the Cowboys peaked, only for a number of pitfalls to present themselves along the way; after rushing for 2,094 yards and twenty-one touchdowns in 2019, (Junior Tailback) Chuba Hubbard appeared in just seven games due to injuries, while (Sophomore Quarterback) Spencer Sanders also missed time with ailments of his own, with an improving defense committing far too many breakdowns in their three defeats. Oh, and through it all there was this thing called the COVID-19 pandemic that you may have heard of. With that said, (Head Coach) Mike Gundy’s charges still managed to finish a solid 8-3, winning their final two games, including a 37-34 victory over Miami (Fla) in the Cheez-It Bowl, building precious momentum heading into 2021. However, the Pokes were very much a question mark coming into this season. How would Gundy replace both Hubbard and (leading Receiver) Tylan Wallace? Could Sanders prove himself durable enough to be the long-term starter? Will an Offensive Line, that was a trainwreck a year ago, build the requisite chemistry to protect their Quarterback? Will the defense continue its growth? That’s A LOT of questions, and the good folks out there in Stillwater will take comfort in the fact that their football has answered nearly all of them with a resounding “yes”. Replacing Hubbard and Wallace seemed daunting at first, but new playmakers have emerged to fill the void as (Utah State transfer) Jaylen Warren (237 CAR, 1,134 YDS, 4.8 Y/A, 11 TD) has flourished in his first season in the program with 1,134 rushing yards and eleven touchdowns on a healthy 4.8 yards per attempt, while (incumbent Wideouts) Tay Martin (70 REC, 942 YDS, 13.5 Y/R, 7 TD) and Brennan Presley (40 REC, 482 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 5 TD) have become bigger threats in the passing game. As for Sanders (61.3%, 2,468 YDS, 7.2 Y/A, 16 TD, 12 INT), the ceiling has always been sky-high for the dual-threat, and he managed to stay healthy this year, even though his decision-making has remained erratic; Sanders saw both his completion percentage (from 62.8% to 61.3%) and yards per attempt (8.1 to 7.2) decline from a year ago, while throwing sixteen touchdowns opposed to a career-high twelve interceptions (14 TD and 8 INT in 2020). He has returned to being a bigger threat in the run game (543 YDS, 6 TD), which is where the improved Offensive Line has come into play. Even after losing (Tackle) Teven Jenkins to the NFL Draft, this group came together to pave the way for a rushing attack that averaged 181.8 yards on 4.1 yards per carry. All that aside, the greatest proponent of Oklahoma State’s success this year has been the play of (Defensive Coordinator) Jim Knowles’ defense. In 2019 they allowed 26.8 points per game (61st in FBS) on 412.8 total yards and 5.8 yards per play, only for them to allow 23.5 points (34th in FBS) on 379.0 total yards and 5.3 yards per play, while leading the nation in both third down defense and defensive touchdowns. With eight returning starters, 2021 has seen a dramatic leap from this unit, who have allowed the school’s fewest points since 2009 at 16.8 points per contest (8th in FBS) on 273.6 total yards and 4.3 yards per play. In a league like the BIG XII where there are so many prolific passing offenses, you have to get creative defensively with the variety of fronts and coverages that are thrown at them, and Knowles has proven to be one of the best, which is why he has recently been tabbed as Ohio State’s new Defensive Coordinator. The Broyles Award finalist (which goes to the nation’s top assistant) has overseen the growth of a number of playmakers on this side of the football, including Seniors, Malcolm Rodriguez (118 TKL, 16 TFL, 3.0 SK, 4 FF, 2 FR, 2 PD, 1 TD), Kolby Harvell-Peel (62 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 2.0 SK, 3 INT, 2 PD), and Brock Martin (38 TKL, 12 TFL, 7.0 SK, 1 FR), though the youth has been served too with (Freshman Edge-Rusher) Collin Oliver (28 TKL, 15 TFL, 10.5 SK, 1 FF) leading the Pokes with 10.5 sacks. Three of their last six opponents have been relegated below 100 yards of total offense (and that’s in the Big XII, folks), though their magnum opus was ironically in the latest edition of Bedlam in which they bested bitter rival, Oklahoma for the first time in seven meetings in an epic 37-33 triumph. Despite giving up thirty-three points and 441 total yards, the Cowboys made play after to play to keep the relentless Sooners from retaking the lead late in the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble, three punts, and stopping them on fourth down in their final two possessions deep into the host’s territory to claim victory. Knowles’ troops sacked (Oklahoma Quarterback) Caleb Williams six times and pressured him on countless others, while picking him off twice and stripping the Freshman of the football on one of those sacks. Rodriguez was literally EVERYWHERE in this one, racking up eleven tackles, three for loss and a pair of sacks along with a defended pass, while the aforementioned Oliver joined him with two sacks of Williams, including the final one that ended the affair altogether. And though they would be tackled inches short of winning their first Big XII Championship in a decade, they find themselves competing in their first New Year’s Day bowl in six years. In seventeen years in Stillwater, Gundy has taken them to sixteen consecutive bowls owning a stellar 10-5 record (.666%) heading into today’s matchup with Notre Dame (including five wins in his last seven), which will coincidentally mark the first ever meeting between the two programs.
Meanwhile, as Gundy continues to reign well into his second decade in Stillwater, today’s Fiesta Bowl marks the beginning of a brand-new era in South Bend as Notre Dame (11-1) will take the field for the first time under the leadership of their new Head Coach, Marcus Freeman. That’s right, folks, the largely successful Brian Kelly era came to an abrupt end following the Fighting Irish’s 45-14 victory at Stanford in the regular season finale on November 27th, as the 60-year-old would announce just three days later that he would become the new Head Coach at LSU. Indeed, it must have been a strange sensation for a program as venerable as theirs to see their leading man leave in favor of one of that has experienced plenty of issues lately, though nonetheless counts themselves as a powerbroker within the SEC. Apart from that betrayal, Kelly was very good for Notre Dame, posting a 113-40 record in a dozen seasons with the program, including seven 10-win campaigns, two trips to the Playoff and an appearance in the 2012 National Championship Game. Furthermore, the Irish have posted the fifth-highest win percentage since 2017 under his watch (.857), with a 54-9 record during that period even including a strange ACC Championship in last year’s bizarre season in which they were uncharacteristically affiliated with a conference due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And after losing fourteen starters from that unit, including four Offensive Linemen, their top two receivers, their leading tackler, two starting Defensive Ends, and the winningest Quarterback in the long, storied history of the school, there was a serious sense that Kelly had indeed maxed out in many areas, which may have played a role in his decision to ultimately seek out a new challenge. With that said, he still guided his side to a fifth-straight 10-win season, with their lone loss coming in a 24-13 affair against (No. 4) Cincinnati in South Bend back in early October. Even with the rebuilt Offensive Line, the ground game was still effective, eventually finding it’s legs after a slow start; Notre Dame averaged just 80.8 rushing yards per game on 3.4 yards per attempt through the first five outings, which included a miserable performance against Wisconsin’s smothering defensive front where they were relegated to a scant THREE yards on thirty-two carries. However, things changed quickly following that aforementioned loss to the Bearcats, as (Sophomore Tailback) Kyren Williams (204 CAR, 995 YDS, 4.9 Y/A, 14 TD) led the charge for a run game that compiled a vastly improved 202.4 yards on a much healthier 5.4 yards per attempt over the final seven contests, with last year’s leading rusher accounting for 100.8 yards during that period. The same can be said of (Senior Quarterback) Jack Coan (67.6%, 2,641 YDS, 8.3 Y/A, 20 TD, 5 INT), who arrived in South Bend as a transfer from Wisconsin, where he started eighteen games in three years in Madison. Solid if unspectacular, Coan proved to be a good fit for Kelly’s system and a worthy successor (if only a temporary one) to Ian Book, turning in his finest campaign as a collegiate Quarterback with career-highs in a slew of categories including passing yards per game (220.0), yards per attempt (8.3), and touchdowns (20). And hey, after spending three years with the Badgers, you can bet that he had zero issues playing in a run-heavy offense. On the opposite side of the football, Kelly came into 2021 having to replace (former Defensive Coordinator) Clark Lea, who had been hired as Vanderbilt’s Head Coach before last year’s trip to the Playoff, and ironically tabbed Freeman to succeed him, with the highly regarded 35-year-old eventually replacing Kelly. Arriving from Cincinnati where he spent four years furthering their rapid ascension as the Bearcats’ Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach, Freeman ran a mixture of Lea’s schemes and his own to great success; the Fighting Irish allowed just 18.2 points per game (10th in FBS) on 338.8 total yards, including 212.0 yards against the pass on 6.7 yards per attempt, and another 126.8 yards versus the run on 3.7 yards per rush. However, you could see him really starting to transition towards his preferred 3-3-5 stack scheme over the second half of the season, in which his troops held their final four opponents to a combined TWENTY-THREE points and below 300 total yards. Junior Safeties, Kyle Hamilton (34 TKL, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 4 PD) and D.J. Brown (37 TKL, 1 TFL 3 INT, 1 PD) are arguably the finest tandem that you’ll find in the country, with the former rising up draft boards thanks to the switch to the base nickel defense. After leading the team in tackles the last two years, (Senior Linebacker) Drew White (49 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 1.5 SK, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 TD) adjusted well to the new scheme, while (Sophomore Defensive End) Isaiah Foskey (47 TKL, 9 TFL, 9.0 SK, 5 FF, 2 FR, 1 PD) enjoyed a breakout campaign with a team-best nine sacks and tackles for loss along with five forced fumbles. As a result, Freeman suddenly finds himself leading one of the greatest programs in the history of the sport, with some of the most extensive resources at his disposal and given how highly sought after he was even prior to his arrival, there is every reason to believe that he will keep the ball rolling into this bold new era. Will he be able to beat the Alabamas, Ohio States, and Clemsons of the world though? Few manage to even do that these days, but sport is nothing if not cyclical, so who’s to say that Notre Dame don’t reach another level under his watch? In the meantime, he’ll get his start today in what is thirty-ninth bowl appearance for the Fighting Irish (19-20), their eleventh in the last twelve years and fifth straight. Furthermore, it’s their fourth New Year’s Day bowl in six years, though they’ve won just one of them with their last trip to the Fiesta Bowl ending in a 44-28 thrashing at the hands of the Buckeyes six years ago.