Fiesta Bowl a marquee matchup
GLENDALE, ARIZ. >> Ohio State and Notre Dame entered the season with legitimate national championship hopes and were still in the mix for the College Football Playoff late in the year.
To have those hopes dashed, particularly after coming so close, was a huge disappointment for both programs.
It worked out pretty well for the Fiesta Bowl with a marquee matchup that's as good as any outside of the three playoff games.
And, despite falling short of their main objectives, the seventh-ranked Buckeyes and eighth-ranked Fighting Irish insist they're excited to be in the desert.
It's going to be a great bowl game," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "Two traditional powers, Notre Dame and Ohio State, that are a couple plays away from playing for a national championship. There is no place better than to play it than in Glendale."
Well, the Orange and Cotton bowls might be a little better, but these teams came up just short.
Ohio State (11-1) was the defending national champion and spent the season's first 10 weeks at No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 despite inconsistent play by its quarterbacks.
The Buckeyes were still in the coveted top four of the CFB rankings despite dropping behind Clemson in the poll, but lost to Michigan State on a last-second field goal in their penultimate game. All the teams ahead of them won on the final weekend, leaving them behind fellow one-loss teams Alabama, Oklahoma and Michigan State in the playoff pecking order.
Ohio State finished No. 7 in the final CFB rankings.
Notre Dame (10-2) fell four points short of its playoff bid despite a litany of injuries.
The Fighting Irish were still in the playoff picture after a two-point loss to top-ranked Clemson on Oct. 3, but fell out after another two-point loss to Stanford on No. 28. Notre Dame finished No. 8 in the final CFP rankings.
One big dream gone, but Notre Dame, like Ohio State, is not taking this game lightly.
"I think every bowl game, it's a playoff game now," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Somebody is going to finish fifth in the final polls. That's a spring board for next year. These are important games."
A few more things to look for when Ohio State meets Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium:
IRISH RETURING: Notre Dame had a long string of injuries, including several to key players. A few of those players are set to return for Friday's game. Nose tackle Jarron Jones and tight end Durham Smythe were both originally expected to be out for the season after suffering knee injuries, but returned to practice this month. Running back C.J. Prosise, out since injuring his ankle Boston College on Nov. 21, is expected to be back, as are linebacker James Onwualu (knee) and junior cornerback Devin Butler (concussion).
BUCKEYES QBS: Ohio State went through a season-long quarterback carousel as it tried to find consistency at the position. Cardale Jones opened the season as the starter after rising from third-stringer to guide the Buckeyes to last season's national championship. After seven inconsistent games, he was replaced by J.T. Barrett, who started four games and was suspended for another after a drunken driving charge. Barrett remains the starter heading into the Fiesta Bowl, but don't be surprised if Jones doesn't see plenty of action in his final game before heading to the NFL.
KIZER SHINES: Notre Dame suffered what seemed to be a huge blow when starting quarterback Malik Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury the second game of the season. Sophomore DeShone Kizer made sure the Irish didn't miss a step, throwing for 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns — with nine interceptions — while adding 499 yards and nine more touchdowns rushing.
TALENT LOAD: The Fiesta Bowl might be the bowl with the most talented players. The game will feature numerous NFL prospects, including seven who could be first-round picks in next year's draft: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa, Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame T Ronnie Stanley, Ohio State T Taylor Decker, Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State LB Darron Lee.
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