No. 5 Notre Dame vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State: Fiesta Bowl preview, best bets

Fiesta Bowl: No. 9 Oklahoma State vs. No. 5 Notre Dame

Location: Glendale, Arizona | Time: 1 p.m. ET (Jan. 1) | Line: Notre Dame -2.5 | Total: 45.5

How these teams got here

Oklahoma State (11-2): Oklahoma State has been known for high-powered offenses for most of Mike Gundy’s tenure, but this year’s team has been led by the defense. En route to 11 wins, the Cowboys allowed just 278.4 yards and 16.8 points per game. Those marks rank No. 3 and No. 7 in the nation, respectively. Jim Knowles, the team’s defensive coordinator, has since left for Ohio State, however.

That defensive prowess helped OSU open the year 6-0. The Cowboys suffered their lone regular-season loss on the road against Iowa State on Oct. 23 before closing out the season with five more wins. That late-season run included a dramatic 37-33 win over rival Oklahoma, snapping a six-game losing streak in the series. That victory put Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game for the first time. A win there could have propelled the Cowboys into the College Football Playoff, but they lost a 21-16 heartbreaker to Baylor.

Notre Dame (11-1): Notre Dame played better and better as the season progressed. The Irish had some close calls in September and then lost at home to Cincinnati on Oct. 2. It would end up being the only loss of the year. From there, the Irish rattled off seven consecutive wins entering bowl play and finished No. 5 in the CFP rankings. Over their final four games, the Irish outscored their opponents 162-23.

After the season, though, there was a shocker. Brian Kelly, the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, left South Bend to become the head coach at LSU. All of a sudden, there was uncertainty surrounding the program. That subsided pretty quickly. Not long after Kelly left for Baton Rouge, the school promoted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to head coach. Freeman had a groundswell of support from the players and now will make his head-coaching debut on a big stage.

New Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman is recognized on the court during a timeout during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
New Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman is recognized on the court during a timeout during a basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend, Indiana. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

Players to know

Oklahoma State LB Malcolm Rodriguez: Rodriguez has been a stalwart on the OSU defense for the past four seasons. This has been his best season. The first-team all-Big 12 selection leads the Cowboys with 112 tackles with 14 tackles for loss, two sacks, three forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Along the way, he had six games with at least 10 tackles. Against Oklahoma, he tallied 11 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.

Notre Dame TE Michael Mayer: Two of Notre Dame’s best players — safety Kyle Hamilton and running back Kyren Williams — opted out to prepare for the 2022 NFL draft, so let’s highlight a player who will likely be an early pick in the 2023 draft. That player is Michael Mayer, who has emerged as one of the nation’s best tight ends over the last two seasons. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Mayer leads the Irish with 64 catches and is second on the team in receiving yards (768) and touchdowns (five).

What’s on the line

Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State has reached the 12-win mark just once in its history. That came in 2011 in Gundy’s seventh season in Stillwater. That season was capped by a win in the Fiesta Bowl. Ten years later, Gundy’s Cowboys can repeat that feat in the third Fiesta Bowl appearance all time for the program. Oklahoma State has played in a bowl game in 16 consecutive seasons and has a 10-5 record in bowl games under Gundy. This is the first CFP-affiliated bowl for OSU since the 2015 Sugar Bowl.

Notre Dame: Notre Dame has won double-digit games in six of its last seven seasons but has not had much success in the postseason. The Irish lost in the BCS title game in 2012, lost in the Fiesta Bowl in 2015 and lost in the CFP semifinals in 2018 and 2020. The Irish would obviously like to get a win in a prestigious bowl game here. On top of that, getting a win in Freeman’s head-coaching debut would hold some significance heading into the offseason.

Oklahoma State running back Jaylen Warren (7) carries during an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Stillwater, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Oklahoma State running back Jaylen Warren (7) carries the ball against Oklahoma on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Stillwater, Oklahoma. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Best bets

Sam Cooper: For as good as the Oklahoma State defense has been, this offense has often underwhelmed. Spencer Sanders really struggles with turnovers and I think the Notre Dame defense can handle Jaylen Warren and that rushing attack enough to put pressure on Sanders to make plays with his arm. Notre Dame played a lot of bad teams this year, so this will be a test. In the end, I like the Irish to get the job done. Pick: Notre Dame -2.5

Nick Bromberg: Like Sam, I have a hard time trusting Spencer Sanders in a big game. Just look at what happened in the Big 12 title game. I'm also not sure what the OSU defense will be like without Jim Knowles. Can it sustain the excellence it's shown all season? Maybe. I think this one is going to be a low-scoring affair without Kyren Williams running the ball for the Irish. Pick: Under 45.5