Notre Dame-Ohio St. Preview
Three points and four points. That's the difference between Ohio State and Notre Dame not reaching the College Football Playoff as undefeated teams and instead meeting in the Fiesta Bowl on Friday.
Though the matchup in Glendale, Arizona, might feel like a consolation prize to the No. 7 Buckeyes and eighth-ranked Fighting Irish, it has the feel of a playoff game.
''This is my last game, so it's a championship game to me,'' Buckeyes senior left tackle Taylor Decker said. ''I don't think any of the `New Year's Six' (games) have lost their luster just because you're not playing for a championship.''
Ohio State and Notre Dame sat third and fourth in the CFP rankings Nov. 17 behind Alabama and Clemson, which at that point had handed the Irish their only loss, 24-22 on Oct. 3 after Notre Dame failed on a 2-point conversion with seven seconds left.
The Irish beat Boston College at Fenway Park on Nov. 21, but the three-point win caused them to drop to sixth in the next CFP rankings. However, that was two spots ahead of the Buckeyes after they lost 17-14 to Michigan State on a 41-yard field goal as time expired to have their 23-game winning streak snapped.
That defeat wound up costing Ohio State a shot to defend its national title because the one-loss teams the Buckeyes were chasing - Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma - all won out to reach the playoff along with unbeaten Clemson.
''This is an exceptional group that came up a few seconds short,'' coach Urban Meyer said.
Notre Dame also still had a chance at finishing in the top four as it headed to Stanford for its finale Nov. 28. The Irish took a one-point lead with 30 seconds left only to watch the Cardinal hit a 45-yard field goal with no time remaining to pull out a 38-36 win.
''We're two plays away from being undefeated and being the No. 1 team in the country,'' coach Brian Kelly said.
Those results left Ohio State (11-1) seventh in the final CFP rankings and Notre Dame (10-2) at No. 8, setting up their sixth meeting and first since the fourth-ranked Buckeyes beat the No. 5 Irish 34-20 on Jan. 2, 2006 - also in the Fiesta Bowl.
''This is an opportunity to play a national championship-caliber of a game, an opponent that is definitely one of the best in the country,'' Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer said.
Kizer is one of many who had to step in for the Irish due to injuries to key players. The sophomore took over in the second game at Virginia after Malik Zaire went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
Kizer hit Will Fuller on a 39-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left to give the Irish a 34-27 win over the Cavaliers. That victory came one week after Notre Dame lost Tarean Folston, who led the team with 889 rushing yards in 2014, to a torn ACL in the opener against Texas.
Senior C.J. Prosise became the No. 1 running back and rushed for 1,032 yards and 11 TDs, but even he missed two games late in the season because of injuries, including the finale. Freshman Josh Adams replaced Prosise in those contests and rushed for 141 yards against Wake Forest and 168 at Stanford.
Cornerback KeiVarae Russell, nose tackle Jarron Jones, safety Drue Tranquill, linebacker James Onwualu and tight end Durham Smythe were among other players who missed time due to injuries.
Jones and Smythe have returned to practice and hope to play in the bowl game, while Prosise and Onwualu are expected to be available.
''They just keep going and they keep moving forward. That's kind of the mentality of this group,'' Kelly said.
Ohio State wasn't hit by the injury bug, but it had plenty of other issues.
There seemed to be a story surrounding the starting quarterback position every week, and junior running back Ezekiel Elliott put himself in the news after complaining about a lack of carries following the loss to the Spartans and saying he was leaving for the NFL after the season.
Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes to the first-ever CFP championship last season after J.T. Barrett got injured, and he opened 2015 as the starting quarterback. The inconsistent Jones was replaced after seven games by Barrett, who got the nod against Rutgers on Oct. 24 but was then arrested during the bye week on charges of driving while impaired.
Barrett was suspended for the following game against Minnesota before returning to start the final three.
''You second guess and over analyze everything,'' Meyer said. '' ... Now it's just let's go play our tails off one more time, and we're a great football team and let's finish this thing the right way.''
Another Ohio State player was disciplined following the season. Defensive lineman Adolphus Washington is suspended for this game after being cited by police for solicitation Dec. 9. The senior had 49 tackles - seven for loss - four sacks and an interception that he returned 20 yards for a TD.
Jones and Barrett combined for 3,020 total yards and 31 touchdowns, while Elliott was fifth in the FBS with 1,672 rushing yards and tied for third with 19 touchdowns on the ground. Elliott was the Big Ten offensive player of the year and one of seven Buckeyes named to the conference's first team.
Kizer passed for 2,600 yards and 19 TDs with nine interceptions and added 499 yards on the ground with nine scores, matching the school record by a quarterback set by Tony Rice and Rick Mirer. Fuller caught 56 passes for 1,145 yards and tied for sixth in the FBS with 13 TDs.
Fuller, Elliott, Decker, Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa and Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith and tackle Ronnie Stanley are among nine AP All-Americans that will play in this contest - the most in any bowl game.
Bosa, Decker, Stanley and Smith, who won the Dick Butkus Award as the nation's most outstanding linebacker, are projected as top-10 draft picks.
''Two legendary programs; we have a lot of respect for Notre Dame,'' said Meyer, who coached wide receivers for the Irish from 1996-2000. ''A great bowl game, too.''
Kelly is gearing up for another tough game after Notre Dame was the only team in the nation to play five teams in the CFP rankings, going 3-2. Plus, the Buckeyes ranked second in the FBS with 14 points allowed per game.
''It's Ohio State. They're the defending national champs,'' he said. ''It's a darned good football team. But I think we know who we are, and we've been tested by some very, very good football teams.''