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The Fiesta Bowl Ups the Ante for Notre Dame Football

Aside from that 2012 National Championship Game, some are calling this the biggest moment of the Brian Kelly era.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Back in August it was announced that Showtime would be taping a weekly doc series titled "A Season With" which would follow around Notre Dame football everywhere they went in the 2015 season. As that news was dropped literally a couple weeks prior to the opener against Texas there wasn't much time to mull it over.

It sent many scrambling to find a subscription for Showtime. Others loved knowing they'd get an extra peek behind closed doors. Others still, worried about the risk of distraction in such an important season.

When I heard about this partnership I figured that Notre Dame and Brian Kelly must have been awfully confident Showtime would be taping a great season of Irish football. We're already given well-filmed "Icon" productions after every game, NBC Sports airs 30-minute "Onward Notre Dame" specials, and now the football program was maxing out with "A Season With."

*Note: Unbeknownst to me that tweet triggered a Clemson hashtag and Tiger paw. I swear that paw didn't show up in the original tweet. I either cursed everything or Clemson football did a wonderful job of trolling.

Effectively, the Irish were pushing nearly all their chips into the middle of the table for 2015. Looking back, it paid off. Mostly.

Notre Dame won 10 games, stayed relevant and inside the Top 10 for the bulk of the season, had numerous highlight-worthy moments, suffered 2 dramatic but close losses to conference champions, and showcased one heck of a product to recruits.

As the regular season came to a close in the final hours of Saturday, November 28th it looked like the Irish were destined for a Fiesta Bowl bid. They'd waltz confidently into the desert as a solid favorite to win an 11th game, grab everyone's favorite off-season buzz word (MOMENTUM), and close recruiting with a bang while adding a Top 5 pre-season rank for 2016.

Enter stage left the Ohio State Buckeyes.

I was vocal about not wanting to face OSU in a bowl game. Why? It's because the value of an 11th win against any another team exceeds the pay-off of beating the Buckeyes in exchange for a matchup where a loss is a much more likely outcome.

It's just that simple. If you're not in the playoff or playing for a championship, grab your extra win, and get the heck out of dodge and into spring ball. Instead, the 10-2 Irish are matched up in a competition against a championship-level roster--one that Brian Kelly mentioned upon arriving in Arizona as the "best team in the country."

I realize this goes against Notre Dame's ethos of not shrinking in front the big stage against the best the country has to offer. Believe me, I understand that. You come to South Bend to face the Trojans in the Coliseum, Clemson in Death Valley, and the defending National Champions in a major bowl game. No one wearing a gold helmet should fear the Buckeyes.

What I'm saying is that this is just downright crap luck for the Irish. Golson transfers, all these major injuries hit the roster, somehow Kizer comes out of nowhere to lead the team, they battle to 10 wins anyway, and congratulations for your effort you get Ohio State instead of a rebuilding Florida State, Houston, or Iowa.

How many times would someone have to run one of those pre-season simulators to line up 10-2 Notre Dame and 11-1 Ohio State in a bowl game this season? I'm guessing in 99% of those sims it didn't happen--if it happened at all.

Do you know how many times Ohio State has suffered just 1 regular season loss, in league play only, and finished worse than 2nd in the Big Ten?

Once, way back in 1926 when the Buckeyes lost to Michigan and finished 3-1-0 and 7-1-0 overall while the Wolverines and Northwestern finished 1st and 2nd with 5-0-0 league records. In classic Big Ten fashion, both UM (vs. Navy) and NW (vs. Notre Dame) lost their big out of conference matchups to spoil their perfect seasons.

In nearly 90 years of football, Ohio State has never finished worse than 2nd place in the Big Ten with just 1 league loss and no other ties. Until this year.

The 2010 season was the closest call as Wisconsin, OSU, and Michigan State all finished 7-1-0 in league play. The Buckeyes lost to Wisconsin but stayed ahead of Michigan State (they didn't play each other) thanks to the BCS rankings tie-breaker. Ohio State then went on to beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl before later vacating all of their wins and seeing head coach Jim Tressel fired.

It's the presence of Iowa that is funny. A scenario where someone like Michigan State went 11-1 but didn't make the playoffs (picking up a Rose Bowl invite instead) and dropped 2nd place B1G Ohio State to the Fiesta Bowl wouldn't have been crazy at all. But that's not what happened.

Back in 2010, the Spartans would have won the conference outright had they not slipped up on the road in Iowa City. Fast forward to today and Ohio State wouldn't have finished 3rd had they defeated Michigan State (obviously) or had Iowa not gone 12-0.

Of course, the Hawkeyes are No. 25 in the F/+ team rankings, were predicted to win 7.6 games, and missed playing Ohio State (4th F/+), Michigan State (6th), and Michigan (10th) during the regular season. Iowa had a historic season without playing the best 3 teams in its own conference, so that's pretty cool. Let's give it up for the wonderful nature of the unbalanced conferences!

Bad luck certainly isn't new to Notre Dame. This particular version of the Fighting Irish has displayed a strong tendency to shrug off some bad circumstances and soldier on without dwelling on the past. For the 2015 season, and in particularly in historical terms, Notre Dame got a really bad draw for bowl season but they won't be refusing to play.

The last time the Irish were this big of an underdog, according to Vegas, was during last year's bowl game and they went out and won that one. Now, if we could only get J.T. Barrett to play like Anthony Jennings then we'd be in great shape.

Anyway, the point remains that Notre Dame started out the season confidently allowing Showtime to tape a pivotal season for Brian Kelly & Company. Now, the Buckeyes stand in the way for a Fiesta Bowl matchup that ups the ante to finish 2015. We'll see if the Irish rise to the challenge on Friday.