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Big Game Hunting: Brand-new Notre Dame coach will turn ‘D’ loose vs. Oklahoma State

Marcus Freeman has the goods — and the pass rushers — to beat veteran Mike Gundy in the Fiesta Bowl. Also: Rose, Sugar, Outback and Citrus picks.

Notre Dame v Stanford
Irish players celebrate a sack against Stanford.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Other than his 148 career victories, 17 years of head-coaching experience, 16 straight winning seasons and a handful of Big 12 and national coach of the year awards, what does Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy really have that Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman doesn’t?

OK, so there’s also Gundy’s famous hairstyle, a party-in-the-back mullet that seems intent on sticking around for as long as the 54-year-old will put up with it. And there’s the even-more-famous meme — “I’m a man! I’m 40!” — that has stuck to Gundy since he came unglued during a press conference in 2007.

Oh, but there’s this, too: a mighty impressive 10-5 bowl record.

It all adds up to slightly more than Freeman, 35, is known for as he makes his head-coaching debut in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. And what a challenging way to begin No. 5 Notre Dame (-2) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (noon, ESPN) happens to be, with the Irish having just missed the College Football Playoff and the Cowboys having come even closer. If running back Dezmon Jackson had gained another 6 inches on OSU’s last offensive play in the Big 12 title game against Baylor, the Cowboys probably would’ve busted into the final four.

“You turn on the film, you watch [OSU’s] offense and their defense, especially, play extremely hard, extremely physical — it’s a challenge,” Freeman said. “The ability to match that intensity, to match that physicality and how hard they play, will be a huge challenge, but I think we’re up to it and that’s what we’re going to have to do if we want to have success.”

Gundy’s teams typically have been known for their track-meet offenses, but this one rides on the back of a fast, hard-hitting defense that allows a puny 278.4 yards per game. That’s a stern challenge for Irish quarterback Jack Coan and for the Irish running game, which will lean on backs Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs with Kyren Williams having opted out.

It’s also a big blow to be without safety Kyle Hamilton, another opt-out, but that’s postseason college football in 2021. Wait, make that 2022.

Notre Dame has lost its last four trips to the Fiesta Bowl, which doesn’t really mean anything. Notre Dame also experienced ultimate glory in the Fiesta Bowl, capping the 1988 national championship season by beating West Virginia. But that doesn’t really mean anything, either, does it? Of course not.

Kentucky v Notre Dame
Marcus Freeman
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Irish pass rush — 40 sacks this season, one off the school record — sure means something. Matter of fact, go ahead and call it the key to this game. Cowboys QB Spencer Sanders looked shaken against Baylor, which harassed him into throwing four interceptions. There’s your game plan, folks: Turn Isaiah Foskey (10 sacks) and the boys loose, make Sanders uncomfortable and fly around so much it blows his coach’s hair back some more.

But Freeman doesn’t need anyone to tell him this. He’s the architect of this Irish defense. Worth noting: He also has had a huge hand in the success of playoff team Cincinnati, whose defense he coordinated from 2017 to 2020. This guy is good. Irish, 23-17.

OTHER NEW YEAR’S DAY BOWLS

Arkansas v Georgia
KJ Jefferson
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Outback: Penn State (+2½) vs. No. 21 Arkansas (Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN2): The opt-out issue is biggest at wide receiver, with each team down its best guy in the Nittany Lions’ Jahan Dotson and the Razorbacks’ Treylon Burks. But the Hogs have more of their guys in the lineup, enormous sophomore QB KJ Jefferson is a star in the making and coach Sam Pittman has his mojo working. Pig Sooie, 28-23.

Citrus: No. 15 Iowa (+3) vs. No. 22 Kentucky (Saturday, noon, Ch. 7): It’s hard to beat Big Ten offense, baby. And by “Big Ten offense” we mean Kentucky QB Will Levis (a transfer from Penn State) and wideout Wan’Dale Robinson (a transfer from Nebraska). You also have to like Wildcats coach Mark Stoops, who went to — you guessed it — Iowa. Big Blue, 24-16.

Rose: No. 6 Ohio State (-4) vs. No. 11 Utah (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN): No knock on the players doing it, but this opt-out business is such a bummer when we’re talking about the Rose Bowl. It used to be the biggest, best stage in college football, national-title implications or not. Now the Buckeyes will take the field without several healthy starters, including star receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. It seems like a much bigger deal to Pac-12 champ Utah. Utes, 34-31.

Sugar: No. 8 Mississippi (-1½) vs. No. 7 Baylor (Saturday, 7:45 p.m., ESPN): The names on the marquee belong to NFL-bound QB Matt Corral and his coach, Lane Kiffin, who seeks attention a lot more than Baylor’s Dave Aranda would ever dream of. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — both Kiffin and Corral have made the season more fun. The steely Bears are ready to make them earn every inch, though. Ole Miss, 27-24.

Last week: 6-3 straight-up heading into Friday’s playoff games, 6-3 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 95-44-1 straight-up heading into Friday’s playoff games, 75-63-2 vs. the spread.