By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Champs Sports Bowl
Florida State (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (8-4)
Date: Dec. 29 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Location: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
In terms of name value, this bowl should be one of the most-anticipated non-BCS bowl matchups this season.
Notre Dame and Florida State both began the year with preseason top 10 hopes, but both teams struggled to meet expectations.
The Seminoles opened the year 2-0, but suffered a handful of key injuries in a 23-13 loss to Oklahoma in Week 3. After losing to the Sooners, Florida State lost its next two games (Clemson and Wake Forest), before winning six out of the final seven contests.
With 16 starters returning and the second season under coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame was expected to improve off its 8-5 record from 2009. The Irish seemed to have trouble getting out of their own way, especially early in the season. Notre Dame committed five turnovers in the season opener against South Florida and its defense collapsed in the final seconds of a 35-31 loss to Michigan. Although the Irish won eight out their next 10 games, the 0-2 start turned any BCS bowl hopes into a longshot.
These two teams have played six times, with Florida State owning a 4-2 edge in the series. The Seminoles and Irish met in the 1996 Orange Bowl, with Florida State winning 31-26.
Considering both teams return most of its core next season, this game could be a springboard for another run at a top-10 finish in 2012.
WHEN FLORIDA STATE HAS THE BALL:
Injuries have affected the Seminoles’ offense in 2011, starting with quarterback EJ Manuel. The junior missed one game and was limited in others due to a shoulder injury suffered against Oklahoma. Manuel finished the year with 2,417 yards and 16 touchdowns, but should be closer to 100 percent for the matchup against Notre Dame.
Not only has Manuel battled injuries most of the year, but his receiving corps has also been banged up. The injuries and youth prevented the Florida State passing attack from finding its rhythm most of the year. Freshman Rashad Greene leads the team with 33 receptions, while Rodney Smith ranks first with 527 receiving yards. Kenny Shaw, Bert Reed and Christian Green are all key contributors and each has at least 25 receptions this year. Tight end Nick O’Leary is another young weapon for Manuel, catching 12 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown.
Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked 34th nationally in pass defense, but much of their success on defense starts up front. The Irish averaged only 1.7 sacks a game, but there are a handful of potential gamechangers up front. Freshman Aaron Lynch finished second on the team with four sacks and also recorded one forced fumble. Linebacker Manti Te’o is one of the best in the college football and he collected 4.5 sacks and 115 tackles this year.
The Achilles’ heel for the Florida State offense this season has been the offensive line and rushing attack. The Seminoles ranked 99th nationally in rushing offense and averaged only 3.5 yards per rush. The offensive line also gave up 36 sacks – the worst total in the ACC.
Freshman Devonta Freeman leads the team with 531 yards and eight rushing scores. Jermaine Thomas ranked second on the team with 279 rushing yards, but has been ruled academically ineligible for this game. Freeman will see the bulk of the carries, but James Wilder and Ty Jones will also figure into the mix.
The Irish defense ranks 58th nationally against the run, but considering Florida State’s struggles in the trenches, they should be able to win this matchup.
Although the Seminoles don’t want to ignore their rushing game, they need to spread the field and take advantage of their speed and depth in the receiving corps.
WHEN NOTRE DAME HAS THE BALL:
Just like Florida State, the Irish have dealt with question marks on offense for most of 2011.
Inconsistency at quarterback has prevented the Irish from finding their rhythm, as three players have taken snaps under center. Tommy Rees is expected to start the bowl game, but he was benched during the regular season finale at Stanford and tossed four picks over his final four games. Andrew Hendrix has thrown only 29 passes this season, but thanks to his mobility, gives Notre Dame’s offense a different look. Don’t be surprised if both quarterbacks see time.
Despite the inconsistent quarterback play, receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert have produced solid numbers this year. Floyd caught 95 yards for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns, while Eifert chipped in 57 catches for 713 yards and five scores.
Sophomore Cierre Wood became the first Irish back since Darius Walker in 2006 to reach the 1,000-yard mark, finishing with 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns. With Jonas Gray out due to a torn ACL, receiver Theo Riddick may see more touches out of the backfield to spell Wood.
Notre Dame’s offensive line has been solid all year, but it will be tested by Florida State’s defensive front. The Seminoles recorded 36 sacks this year, led by Brandon Jenkins (seven) and Bjoern Werner (six).
Considering the Irish’s struggles with turnovers, getting pressure on Rees or Hendrix is going to be crucial for Florida State’s defense. The Seminoles rank 19th nationally in pass defense, so passing opportunities for Rees will be limited.
Although Florida State is allowing only 81.8 yards per game on the ground, Notre Dame has to try to establish its rushing attack and limit the pressure on Rees.
The edge in this department goes to Florida State.
Kicker Dustin Hopkins was a Groza finalist after connecting on 20 of 25 field goals. He nailed 6 of 9 attempts from 40 yards and beyond. Punter Shawn Powell was one of the best in the nation this year, averaging 47 yards per punt and placing 21 inside of the 20.
The Seminoles are in great shape on returns, as Greg Reid is averaging 11.4 yards per return and has taken one back for a touchdown. Reid, Karlos Williams and Lamarcus Joyner will see time on kickoffs, with each averaging over 24 yards per return.
Notre Dame isn’t as strong as Florida State on special teams, but this isn’t a complete weakness either.
Kicker David Ruffer has connected on 10 of 15 field goals this year, while punter Ben Turk is averaging 40.2 yards per punt.
Freshman George Atkinson III has ignited the Irish kickoff returns this season, averaging 27.4 yards per return and taking two for touchdowns. Notre Dame has struggled to get anything going on punt returns, which could open the door for Michael Floyd to see more time in this department.
The defenses should control the tempo of this game, which should make points at a premium.
Although Florida State hasn’t been perfect in the turnover department, it has been better than Notre Dame. Expect the Seminoles’ defense to force a few turnovers, putting their offense in short-field situations.
Notre Dame’s edge in the front seven will harass EJ Manuel, but the Seminoles’ offense will do just enough to win.
Florida State 24, Notre Dame 20