Freeman Era Starts As Irish Face Oklahoma State In Fiesta Bowl

The coach of Notre Dame’s future leads its team of the present for the first time as Marcus Freeman will make his head coaching debut for the Irish on New Year’s Day against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.

Freeman, who joined the Irish coaching staff last January as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach after four seasons at Cincinnati, was promoted to head coach in December following Brian Kelly’s stunning departure from South Bend for LSU. Freeman was able to retain offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who turned down a chance to follow Kelly to Baton Rouge. They give Notre Dame one of the youngest coaching combinations in the FBS with the 35-year-old Freeman and 29-year-old Rees.

Notre Dame (11-1) finished fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings, narrowly missing out on a third semifinal appearance in four seasons. The Irish, whose lone loss came at home Oct. 2 to No. 4 and unbeaten Cincinnati, won their final seven regular-season games and have already clinched their fifth consecutive 10-win season.

Rees will have to be at his creative best Saturday since top running back Kyren Williams has opted out of this game to prepare for the NFL draft. A two-time 1,000-yard rusher, Williams accounted for 17 combined touchdowns and proved a capable receiver out of the backfield with 42 catches for 359 yards to go with his 1,002 rushing yards. Sophomore Chris Tyree and freshman Logan Diggs figure to get the bulk of the carries in the running game.

Jack Coan is likely to start under center, but freshman Tyler Buchner is expected to see a substantial amount of game time as Notre Dame’s quarterback of the future in contrast to Coan, a graduate transfer. Buchner is the team’s second-leading rusher with 336 yards and has also completed 21 of 36 passes for 298 yards and three scores.

A long time since last big ND bowl win

Though Notre Dame has a storied bowl history, it has not won a BCS or “Big 6” New Year’s Day bowl game since defeating Texas A&M 24-21 in the 1994 Cotton Bowl. Four of the eight big bowl defeats in that span have come at the Fiesta Bowl, including a 44-28 setback to Ohio State in Notre Dame’s most recent appearance in 2016.

Oklahoma State (11-2), which finished ninth in the College Football Playoff rankings, is looking to secure its first Top 10 finish since ending the 2011 season ranked No. 3 following a victory in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cowboys suffered a 21-16 loss to then-No. 9 Baylor this month in the Big 12 championship game as a frantic rally from a 21-3 deficit came up one yard short when Dezmon Jackson was stopped on a 4th-and-goal in the final minute.

The Cowboys’ two losses came by a combined eight points, with the other defeat a 24-21 loss at Iowa State. This is Oklahoma State’s first non-conference game against a Top 10 opponent since a 37-31 loss to then-No. 1 Florida State on Aug. 30, 2014. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy does have to settle on a defensive play-caller for this game since coordinator Jim Knowles left to become defensive coordinator at Ohio State.

Knowles, a Broyles Award finalist for the nation’s top assistant, built a first-rate defensive unit in Stillwater. Oklahoma State ranks third in the nation in yards allowed (278.4) and is eighth in scoring defense (16.8). The Cowboys also lead all FBS teams with 55 sacks, rank fifth in rushing yards allowed (91.2), and are 12th in passing yards allowed (187.2).

Offensively, Spencer Sanders is a capable dual threat at quarterback, throwing for 2,468 yards and 16 touchdowns while adding another 543 yards and six scores on the ground. Oklahoma State, which is 10-5 in bowl games under Gundy, also will have top tailback Jaylen Warren for this contest. Warren, who enjoyed a breakthrough senior season with 1,134 yards and 11 TDs, sat out the Big 12 title game due to injury.

Checking the main plays

Even with Notre Dame missing Williams, oddsmakers have barely come off the initial line of Notre Dame as a 2.5-point favorite, with DraftKings and Betway offering the best value on that number at -105. Caesars and WynnBET are both offering the Irish -2 at -110, while PointsBet and BetMGM have -2.5.

WynnBET has the best moneyline offering for Irish backers at -125, with Caesars, Betway, and DraftKings close behind at -130. The hook is in play for the overall total at some books, with the Kambi platform powering Unibet, BetRivers and Twinspires offering 45.5 points with a -121/-108 split.

PointsBet, DraftKings, and Betway are also riding the high-side hook with a -105/-115 split, while BetMGM and Caesars are both playing it straight at -110 in both directions. FanDuel is trying to woo bettors with a low-side hook of 44.5 points and a -115/-105 split, while WynnBET is on the low end at 44 points and -110 each way.

Notre Dame’s team total can be grabbed at either 23.5 or 24 points. On the low side, the over can be grabbed for -110 at FanDuel, DraftKings, and Betway, while the Kambi platform has the under at -108. Only WynnBET (-110) and PointsBet (-115) were offering the flat 24 for the Irish.

Have you got a half-point to spare in the first half?

The most common offering for the first half is Notre Dame -0.5 points, with FanDuel’s -108 the best play of the bunch. It also renders most moneyline plays moot for value, though BetRivers, Unibet, and Twinspires all have a -114 listing for the three-way play in the first two quarters. The Kambi trio are also on an island for the side bet, offering the Irish -1.5 for -104.

There is wider range in the over/under, with DraftKings and Betway on the low side at 21.5 points with a -120/+100 split. BetMGM also is offering 21.5 points, but at -115/-105. Ticking higher to 22.5 points is PointsBet (-121/-110), WynnBET (-115/-105), Caesars (-110), and FanDuel (+102/-128), while Kambi has the high ground with a -105/-123 split at 23.5 points.

Betway had a listing for a first-half Notre Dame total, offering 10.5 points with a -110/-120 split.

Photo: Matt Cashore/USA TODAYย