After a stretch of 41 straight winning seasons, Florida State has endured three straight losing campaigns entering 2021. The Seminoles, however, will look to give fans in Tallahassee a glimmer of hope on Sunday when Notre Dame comes to town for the season opener.
The Fighting Irish return to Independent status after spending 2020 as a member of the ACC. Now in its 12th season under head coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame started 10-0 last season before losing to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and Alabama in the College Football Playoff to close the year.
Second-year head coach Mike Norvell hopes to get the Seminoles off to their first 1-0 start in five years. All-time, FSU is 6-4 against Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish have won the last two. They’ll try to make it three wins in four years over FSU on Sunday night. It will be just the third meeting between the schools in Tallahassee.
Notre Dame at Florida State
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -7.5
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
The big question mark for Notre Dame’s offense entering the 2021 season will be at quarterback following the departure of Ian Book, the winningest signal-caller in program history. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan has been named the starter for Sunday and had success for the Badgers in 2019. Coan doesn’t possess the athletic ability that Book did, but he takes care of the football. Coan isn’t likely to be the focal point of the offense but should have a good enough offensive line and running game to be successful. The Notre Dame offensive line has been rebuilt with just one returning starter and could be headlined by Marshall transfer Cain Madden.
As for focal points of the offense, that title will likely belong to running back Kyren Williams. Williams rushed for 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Williams went for 185 yards and two scores in last season’s 42-26 win over FSU. Leading receiver Javon McKinley, fellow wideout Ben Skowronek, and tight end Tommy Tremble are now in the NFL, but Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin Jr., and Joe Wilkins Jr. have been around the program. Last season, Notre Dame finished fifth in the ACC in scoring offense and third in total offense.
It didn’t matter what offense stood in front of Florida State last season, the Seminoles couldn’t stop it. FSU ranked outside the top 100 in both scoring and total defense. FSU doesn’t return a lot of production up front, but that may not be such a bad thing. Robert Cooper and Fabian Lovett will split time in the middle of the defensive line while Jermaine Johnson, a Georgia transfer, will be relied upon heavily to generate pressure. South Carolina transfer Keir Thomas will also be vitally important to the defensive line.
Amari Gainer is a solid and experienced linebacker, but the rest of the position group is largely unproven and not all that deep with Emmett Rice still making his way back from a knee injury he suffered this spring. The Seminoles also have to replace their best player in the secondary in safety Hamsah Nasirildeen, but there are a lot of players with potential in the defensive backfield. Although he didn’t produce much last season, cornerback Meiko Dotson led the nation in interceptions in 2019 when he played at Florida Atlantic. Jammie Robinson is another South Carolina transfer who should greatly help the Seminoles in the secondary. Jarvis Brownlee, Travis Jay, Akeem Dent, and Brendan Gant all have potential.
When Florida State Has the Ball
A 3-6 season is nothing to be cheerful about for a program with the pedigree of Florida State, but the offense produced with Jordan Travis behind center. While Coan will get the call for Notre Dame, Norvell has yet to name a starter for Sunday night. Last season, Travis broke Charlie Ward’s single-season school record for rushing yards by a quarterback. But he's been competing with UCF transfer McKenzie Milton for the top spot on the depth chart. Milton hasn’t played since a gruesome leg injury in 2018, but the former American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year has nearly 10,000 career passing yards and 92 total touchdowns.
Lawrance Toafili and Jashaun Corbin are a nice combination at running back, and Camren McDonald is solid at tight end, but the Seminoles have questions at receiver. Ontaria Wilson and Keyshawn Helton have been around the program, but the difference-maker could be Kansas transfer Andrew Parchment. Parchment led the Jayhawks with 65 catches for 829 yards in 2019. The FSU offensive line has long been a liability but showed improvement last season. Notre Dame transfer Dillan Gibbons is expected to help that unit and get the start on Sunday against his former school.
While the Notre Dame offense did produce last season, the biggest reason why the Fighting Irish made the College Football Playoff was the defense. Notre Dame ranked in the top 25 nationally in both total and scoring defense in 2020. A repeat performance will require the emergence of several new faces with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Adetokunbo Ogundeji, and Shaun Crawford no longer on campus. Ogundeji led the Fighting Irish in sacks last season with seven, including two against the Seminoles. Isaiah Foskey is expected to anchor the defensive line for Notre Dame.
Jack Kiser is the name to know for the Fighting Irish at linebacker, but the best player on the entire team is arguably safety Kyle Hamilton. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Hamilton is an extremely versatile defender. He led the Fighting Irish last season in solo tackles, total tackles, and interceptions. Although Notre Dame does lose a decent number of players, there is no shortage of experience. Defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, linebacker Drew White, cornerback TyRiq Bracy, and safety Houston Griffith are all veterans who can play. Expect that experience to make a big difference early on in the season.
Florida State should be a much-improved team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be reflected in the record. The Seminoles hung tough with Notre Dame most of the way last season in what was Travis’ first career start. When all is said and done, however, the experience of the Notre Dame offensive line and the lack of depth on the defensive front will make a big difference on Sunday night. Expect Coan to protect the ball and the Fighting Irish to wear down FSU in a highly competitive football game.
Prediction: Notre Dame 34, Florida State 24
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.