Northwestern, Notre Dame get New Year’s Day bowl games

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Northwestern and Notre Dame will head to New Year's Day Bowl games this season.

CHICAGO – If the Irish and Wildcats had plans for their New Year’s Eve and Day, they’ll have to change them.

Neither Northwestern or Notre Dame mind that a bit.

As many expected they would the Irish and the Wildcats both received bids to bowl games played on January 1st. Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats are headed to the Outback Bowl where they will take on Tennessee at 11 AM at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

One hour later Brian Kelly’s Irish will face Ohio State at the Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona with kickoff set for Noon.

A loss to Stanford last Saturday made the selection of the playoff teams anticlimactic for Notre Dame, who with two losses was out of the title picture. But without a win in a major bowl since 1994, there is still plenty to play for.

“We need to play well, and we need to win the game to validate where we are as a football program,” said Kelly on Sunday. “I think that we’ve shown that this year, but we’re going to get one more challenge against what could be the best team in the country. I mean, who’s to say they’re not?

“I know the committee decided who the four were, but you could take one of eight teams and make the case for them.”

The Fiesta Bowl is part of the “New Year’s Day Six” games that make up the schedule outside of the playoff. Notre Dame’s last appearance in a major bowl was one to forget as they were dominated by Alabama in the BCS National Championship game back in 2013 in Miami Gardens, Fla.

“Winning this is important. It’s important,” said Kelly of the match-up with Ohio State. “Not being there in a while and not playing well in 2012 on a national stage, you know, it’s very important for us to play well and win the game.”

Northwestern is returning to a bowl game for the first time since 2012  when they upended Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl for their first postseason win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. It gives Northwestern a chance to do something never done in program history-win 11 games in a season.

“Our guys have earned the right to play an outstanding team like Tennessee,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald in a video release through the university. “Look forward to the challenge and getting ready for a great opponent.”

Fitzgerald is familiar with the 23rd-ranked Volunteers and Northwestern bowls. His last collegiate game came in the 1997 Citrus Bowl with the Big Ten Co-Champion Wildcats lost to Peyton Manning and Tennessee 48-28. The coach is also familiar with coaching in bowls as he takes the Wildcats to their sixth postseason game since taking the job in Evanston in 2006.

The Wildcats have nearly a month off between their regular season-ending win over Illinois and the match-up with Tennessee in Tampa so Fitzgerald knows the importance of the correct balance of work and time off.

“You have to be careful not to do too much,” said Fitzgerald. “You got to look at them and you have a large amount of video and volume that you can take a look at. Really it’s a great opportunity to get your young players a pre-spring practice and get the developmental guys a little further along.”

Northern Illinois is also going bowling but their game is a little earlier than the Wildcats and the Irish. The MAC West champion Huskies are headed to the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego to face Boise State at 3:30 PM on December 23rd.