Florida St.-Notre Dame Preview

While the intrigue of LSU-Alabama has deservedly captivated
college football throughout the fall and into the winter, there’s
more than one “Game of the Century” rematch on tap this bowl
season.

Long before national championships seemed to annually migrate to
the SEC – and just prior to teams being selected for postseason
play based on mysterious computer formulas – Florida State and
Notre Dame ruled much of the 1990s.

About 18 years after the Seminoles and Irish had their own No. 1
vs. No. 2 matchup, coaches Jimbo Fisher and Brian Kelly hope this
Thursday clash at the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando serves as a
springboard for turning these storied programs back into
superpowers.

“We were happy with whatever came to us, and we’re happier to
have such a game that has such a great reverence to it,” said
Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan.

Reverence indeed. Back on Nov. 13, 1993, the second-ranked
Fighting Irish defeated No. 1 Florida State 31-24 in South Bend,
Ind., to take over the nation’s top spot in its second-to-last
game. One week later, they were upset by Boston College, fell to
No. 3 in the polls and later watched as the Seminoles beat Nebraska
for the national championship.

There were high-profile meetings in successive years as well. In
1994, No. 8 Florida State got a measure of revenge with a 23-16
win. In the 1996 Orange Bowl, No. 6 Notre Dame fell 31-26 to the
eighth-ranked Seminoles, leaving both teams with 9-2 records.

“Florida State is one of those teams, when we were growing up,
we’d watch them play, so getting matched up against a team like
that… it’ll be fun for us all,” Irish captain Harrison Smith
said.

The two schools are still a “Hail Mary” from their golden age of
consistent domination in the polls, but the pair of second-year
coaches have their respective programs back to respectability –
with the promise of more to come.

“We’re really excited as a university to have the opportunity to
play a traditional power like Florida State with great brand
recognition,” Kelly said. “It does us good as a football program
and we hope we bring the same to this game.

“You got two emerging programs that are going to be back in the
national spotlight for a long time to come, and I think this will
be that precursor that we look towards.”

Fisher was similarly upbeat about the marquee matchup, as well
as his long-term outlook in revitalizing a program to the heights
reached by names like Charlie Ward, Warrick Dunn and Derrick
Brooks.

“I’m very excited about it. Our wins and losses this year
weren’t what we hoped they would be … but I’m not disappointed in
where we’re going,” Fisher said.

To get there, however, both teams are going to need some
work.

Neither capped the regular season in particularly impressive
fashion, although the Seminoles (8-4) at least inched back into the
rankings at No. 25 by finishing with a win, 21-7 over Florida.

Florida State amassed just 95 yards of offense, but its defense
was able to take advantage of a number of Gators turnovers,
including an interception return for a score. One week earlier, the
team’s five-game winning streak was snapped in a 14-13 upset loss
to Virginia.

Notre Dame (8-4) finished with the next-most votes behind the
Seminoles in the last AP poll after closing with a 28-14 defeat at
Stanford, seeing its four-game winning streak broken and its
starting quarterback benched. Despite a 6-for-13 outing with an
interception, incumbent Tommy Rees will be back with the first
team.

A big part of Kelly’s rationale for that decision had to do with
the chemistry Rees has with his leading receivers, wideout Michael
Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert.

“In making our decision we felt like Tommy has got a great
rapport with Mike and Tyler and our offensive line feels really
good with his communication and getting in protections,” Kelly
said. “There’s a lot of things that you can’t just undo after one
game.”

Floyd, named team MVP for the second straight year, set a
single-season school record with 95 receptions while leading the
Irish with 1,106 yards and eight TDs. He will leave South Bend as
the most prolific wideout in Notre Dame’s fabled history, holding
marks for catches (266), yards (3,645) and touchdowns (36).

“They have a great defense, and it’s going to be very
challenging for the offense,” Floyd said. “I gotta bring my ‘A’
game. This is my last game playing for the University of Notre
Dame, so I want to go out with a bang and I’m gonna try to do
whatever I can to make that happen.”

The matchup will mark the independent Irish’s fourth in five
games against an ACC opponent. They’re 3-0 so far, but none can
match the toughness of the Seminoles defense.

Florida State led the conference and was fourth in the country
in allowing 15.2 points per game, including 9.4 over the last five.
The Seminoles allowed an FBS-low 2.3 yards per carry and 81.8 per
game to rank second nationally, and they’ll look to shut down
Cierre Wood – Notre Dame’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Darius
Walker in 2006.

Linebacker Christian Jones is thrilled to have extended the
Seminoles’ nation-high streak to 30 consecutive bowl games against
an opponent which can match his own team’s drawing power.

“It’s just exciting knowing that you’re playing Notre Dame,” he
said. “It’s a known school, and with all the winning and tradition
they have, it’s kind of similar to what we have.”