Notre Dame preparing for opener against heavyweight Ohio State

The game at Irish coach Marcus Freeman’s alma mater could feel like the Super Bowl.

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Marcus Freeman was at the helm during Notre Dame’s loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl after Brian Kelly’s abrupt jump to LSU.

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Marcus Freeman’s first regular-season game as Notre Dame’s football coach couldn’t have been placed in a bigger spotlight: A prime-time matchup against his alma mater.

Did we mention that alma mater is Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State?

“It’s great for us because there is no lack of motivation from our guys,” Freeman told ESPN. “So we can continue to remind them of the great challenge that we have Sept. 3.

“Being an ultimate competitor, you want to play the best. So what better way to -measure your team than go play a team like Ohio State?”

These teams will meet for the first time since the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. And this opener certainly will have a bowl-game feel to it.

“Marcus Freeman does a very, very good job,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “They have a great team coming into Ohio State.

“All those things kind of have our guys’ attention. So there is a little bit more attention to our guys just knowing what a big game we have to start the season off with.”

Freeman played linebacker at Ohio State from 2004 to ’08 before working on Luke Fickell’s staff as defensive coordinator at Cincinnati for four years before joining coach Brian Kelly’s staff at Notre Dame in the same role in 2021. After Kelly bolted for LSU, Freeman was named Kelly’s replacement Dec. 3, leading Notre Dame to a loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Facing Ohio State in Week 1 of his first full season might feel like the Super Bowl for Freeman and his players.

“You remind your guys there are 12 guaranteed opportunities,” Freeman said. “That’s how you look at it in college football. It’s one game, and every game’s a Super Bowl, and so it starts Sept. 3. After that game’s over, we’ll refocus and get ready for the next week.” 

Asked about Notre Dame’s status as an -independent football program amid rumors of the Fighting Irish following in the footsteps of USC and UCLA and joining the Big Ten, Freeman said that the program “loves being independent” and is “built on being -independent.” 

“But I know they will never put our program in a position to fail,” Freeman said of Notre Dame’s leadership. “So if we have to join a conference, I’m sure we will.” 

A plus for Freeman is retaining Tommy Rees as offensive coordinator. Freeman and Rees must quickly figure out their quarterback situation. Tyler Buchner rushed for 336 yards and three touchdowns but threw just 35 passes as a true freshman last season.

Buchner will rely mostly on tight end Michael Mayer, one of the top tight ends in the country after catching 71 passes for 840 yards and seven touchdowns. The wide receiver group is one giant question mark.

Defensively, former Temple and Miami coach Al Golden replaced Freeman as coordinator. He inherits a strong defensive line — anchored by defensive end Isaiah Foskey — but must figure out a spotty secondary. 

In terms of Notre Dame’s place in the four-team College Football Playoff system, Freeman said the Fighting Irish are built to compete in the current format. 

“Absolutely, and we won’t make excuses for what we don’t have,” Freeman said. “We have everything we need to truly maximize our potential and compete against the best teams in the country.”

Still, Notre Dame is a two-touchdown underdog in that season opener at Ohio State.

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