Fiesta Bowl doubles as NFL preview for Notre Dame, Ohio State

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl’s larger-than-life head coaches orbited the decadent trophy they’d soon be vying for, trading handshakes and pained grins as cameras clicked away in the foreground. Hands entrenched in suit jacket pockets, they whispered back and forth, likely sharing more niceties than game notes.

Thursday’s brief press conference was about Brian Kelly and Urban Meyer.

Friday’s game won’t be.

When CFP/AP No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2) meets CFP/AP No. 7 Ohio State (11-1) inside University of Phoenix Stadium at 1 p.m. on New Year’s Day, the spotlight will mercifully rest on the players — and rightfully so.

On one side, Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley — both consensus All-Americans — are surefire first-round NFL draft picks. Wide receiver Will Fuller, defensive tackle Sheldon Day and quarterback DeShone Kizer round out a star-studded cast.

On the other, the reigning national champion Ohio State Buckeyes counter with no shortage of household names. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, defensive end Joey Bosa, quarterback J.T. Barrett and quarterback-turned-receiver Braxton Miller top the list.

Friday’s game may not be a playoff, but it’s certainly an NFL preview.

“Urban has done an incredible job recruiting, recruiting depth in his program,” Kelly said, sitting to Meyer’s right. “We certainly have players on our team that have proven themselves over the last few years that are NFL-caliber players. The important thing is both programs have developed these players. They weren't ready-made players. They're players that developed through the program.

“We know a lot of them because we recruit against each other for a lot of these guys. We've seen them develop. It's a testament to both programs that we've developed so many players that can play on championship teams and get their degrees and go on to the NFL.”

The other edge of the sword, in having NFL-caliber players, is that many of them may be focusing on just that — the NFL.

Still, Meyer would rather confront that challenge than the alternative.

“Three (with eligibility left) have already said they're going to leave. That's Zeke (Elliott), Joey (Bosa), Cardale (Jones),” Meyer said. “It is a very good junior class. I take my hat off to them because I know what's out there. I know the agents. I know the pressures that are being put (on them).

“I can relate it back to 2008, I believe, or 2009, where we had at least 12 to 15 guys (at Florida) put in paperwork for the NFL Draft. It's tough on them. It's tough on us because of the recruiting. A lot of these kids are early commits. You lose this whole group of people.

“We all have agreed to be pros. What do pros do? Pros attack the task at hand. The task at hand is to represent Ohio State against Notre Dame in one of the best bowl games in the country.

“So that's the way it is. I'd rather be in that situation than have a bunch of not very good players.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, left, and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer pose with the trophy during a news conference for the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Notre Dame plays Ohio State on New Year's Day. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)