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."