Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Florida State
Notre Dame and Florida State don’t exactly have parallel histories on the football field. The Fighting Irish won five national titles before Florida State even began admitting males to the university in 1947. But over the past quarter-century, the Irish and Seminoles have often shared the big stage, never more so than the famous No. 1 vs. No. 2 game that the Irish won at Notre Dame Stadium in 1993.
Following some lean years in the 2000s, both programs appear to have found their footing again. They are the only two non-SEC teams to play in the BCS National Championship Game over the past three years with the Seminoles defeating Auburn in January to win their third national championship.
The teams haven’t met in the regular season in more than a decade, but will now play at least once every three years as part of Notre Dame’s ACC scheduling alliance. A near lock to be the preseason No. 1 team, Florida State may have the most talented roster in the country led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston.
The Seminoles hit the practice field for the first time this spring on Wednesday, leading up to their spring game April 12 in Doak Campbell Stadium. Let’s take a look at the defending national champions.
For previous Notre Dame spring opponent previews, click on the links below:
Date: Oct. 18 (Time and TV TBD)
Site: Doak Campbell Stadium (Tallahassee, Fla.)
Last Meeting: Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14 (2011)
Last Meeting in Tallahassee: Notre Dame 34, Florida State 24 (2002)
Current Win Streak: Florida State—2
Record: 14-0 (8-0 ACC)
Bowl: BCS National Championship Game (defeated Auburn, 34-31)
Leading Passer: Jameis Winston (Fr.)—257-of-384, 4,057 yards, 40 TD, 10 INT
Leading Rusher: Devonta Freeman (Jr.)—173 carries, 1,016 yards, 14 TD
Leading Receiver: Rashad Greene (Jr.)—76 receptions, 1,128 yards, 9 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: Florida State—8.19 (second nationally, first in ACC); Opponents—4.21 (fourth nationally, second in ACC)
Turnover Margin: +17 (third nationally, first in ACC)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: Florida State—79.45 percent (third nationally, second in ACC); Opponents—53.33 percent (24th nationally, second in ACC)
Third-Down Conversions: Florida State—52.23 percent (third nationally, first in ACC); Opponents—31.92 percent (eighth nationally, third in ACC)
Explosive Plays*: Florida State—109 (second nationally, first in ACC); Opponents—37 (fourth nationally, first in ACC)
*Explosive plays are plays in which a team gains 20+ yards
While Gunner Kiel received most of the headlines for his indecisiveness in the recruiting process, it was Jameis Winston who was considered by most pundits to be the top quarterback in the 2012 class.
After spurning in-state Alabama to play both football and baseball at Florida State, Winston redshirted in 2012 behind senior E.J. Manuel. Winston held off a challenge from junior Jacob Coker (who has since transferred to Alabama) for the starting role last offseason.
It took all of one half of football to know that Winston was the real deal. On Labor Day, in front of a national television audience, Winston shredded Pittsburgh for four first-half touchdowns, finishing the night 25-of-27 for 356 yards.
His season continued on an upward trajectory as the Seminoles rolled over their first 13 opponents before rallying past Auburn for the national title. With any Heisman winner that returns to school, the obvious question is, can he do it again? The bar is always set higher for a previous winner, but Winston has as good of an opportunity as any returning recipient to become just the second two-time winner.
The Seminoles signed two top running backs in the 2011 class. It was thought that the more elite of the two was James Wilder Jr. Though both have moved on to the NFL, it was Devonta Freeman who had the more productive career in garnet and gold. Freeman led the team in rushing as a freshman and went over 1,000 yards for the first time last season.
Wilder Jr. was third on the team with 563 yards, so the only running back returning among the top three gainers from last year is senior Karlos Williams. Despite being somewhat raw at the position after a move from defensive back, Williams displayed his freakish athleticism last season with 730 yards and 11 touchdowns despite never starting a game.
While Williams is looking at a 200-carry season, there is still depth behind him. Sophomore Mario Pender has battled injuries and academics for two years but appears to have everything in order heading into the start of practice. Sophomore Ryan Green, a one-time Notre Dame recruit, had 33 carries as a freshman. Five-star early enrolling freshman Dalvin Cook will miss the spring after shoulder surgery, but he’ll be on the field early and often come the fall.
Winston had the luxury of working with perhaps the greatest quartet of receivers in the nation a year ago. The group has since been cut in half with only wide receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary returning. Kenny Shaw graduated and Kelvin Benjamin left for the NFL Draft a year early.
Despite being the youngest of the bunch, Greene was the most technically sound receiver last season. His challenge now is to thrive without Benjamin and Shaw as the obvious focal point of opposing secondaries. At 6’0”, he’s not tall or overly physical but has plenty of explosiveness.
Behind Greene, things are muddled. Christian Green is the top returning wide receiver behind Greene, catching 13 passes last season. Sophomores Isaiah Whitfield and Isaiah Jones and true freshman Ermon Lane are all in the mix.
O’Leary returns at tight end for a final season. Seven of his 33 catches last year went for touchdowns. On the team’s biggest regular-season stage last fall at Clemson, O’Leary caught five passes for 161 yards in a Seminoles rout.
The last time the Seminoles and Irish met, injuries had derailed Florida State’s offensive front. Four freshmen were forced into action on the offensive line in Florida State’s narrow victory over Notre Dame. All four of those starters from the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl are now seniors and will likely again be in the starting lineup when Notre Dame goes to Tallahassee.
One player who did not start that evening in Orlando is left tackle Cameron Erving. The senior surprisingly elected to delay his professional career in order to return for a fifth season at Florida State. Erving was the winner of the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy and was named a second-team All-American by the Associated Press.
The four Champs Sports Bowl starters still in Tallahassee are left guard Josue Matias, center Austin Barron, right guard Tre Jackson and right tackle Bobby Hart. Jackson, like Erving, was one of three All-ACC Seminoles offensive linemen last season. Barron has just four career starts and is replacing All-American Bryan Stork.
Losing Brandon Jenkins before the 2012 season was a major blow for the Seminoles, but it did allow freshman Mario Edwards to gain valuable experience as a key piece of the defensive line rotation. Entering his junior season, Edwards is on the verge of stardom after a strong close to his sophomore season that included five tackles and a sack against Auburn.
The lone loss on the defensive line is defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who entered the NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining. The Seminoles return massive junior Nile Lawrence-Stample but lack a tackle on the roster with the athleticism of Jernigan.
Junior Eddie Goldman returns, providing versatility to a defense that will show both 4-3 and 3-4 looks. He’s big enough to shift inside if no better option emerges.
Despite all of its success a year ago, Florida State lacked a dominant pass rusher. Will the light come on for promising sophomore Chris Casher?
The Seminoles' linebacking corps is down a pair of starters from last year after losing Telvin Smith from the middle and Christian Jones from the weak side. Jones and Smith led the ‘Noles in tackles in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Junior Terrance Smith returns on the strong side, but the rest of the linebacking unit will be filled with youth. Sophomore E.J. Levenberry and redshirt freshman Matthew Thomas were two of the crown jewels of the 2013 signing class and have tremendous upside.
Reggie Northrup has the most experience of the backups, but it is going to be difficult to keep Levenberry and Thomas off the field. A shoulder injury sidelined Thomas for all but four games last season, but he is now healthy and certain to turn some heads this spring.
It’s hard to believe, but Florida State had only a single defender on the All-ACC team last season despite winning the conference title. That honor went to three-year starter LaMarcus Joyner, who led the team in sacks and was second in tackles playing both safety and cornerback. He departs after an All-American season along with free safety Terrence Brooks.
Easing the losses at safety is the return of two starting cornerbacks. Juniors Ronald Darby, who was a longtime Notre Dame commit before flipping to the Seminoles, and P.J. Williams both did not begin 2012 as starters but moved into the lineup after an injury to safety Tyler Hunter.
Hunter is back after being unable to participate in the team’s national title run, as is sophomore Jalen Ramsey. After missing a tackle on Tre Mason’s go-ahead touchdown run, Ramsey was almost the goat of the BCS National Championship Game, but the offense came through to make that play a mere footnote.
The Seminoles played a lot of nickel coverage last season, a direct reflection on the prowess of Joyner. If Ramsey is able to thrive in the hybrid nickelback role as much as Joyner did, expect Florida State to do the same this fall. That’s a big if, however.
From Scott Bentley to Sebastian Janikowski to Graham Gano, Florida State always seems to sport one of the nation’s top kickers. Last year was no different as redshirt freshman Roberto Aguayo won the Groza Award after missing just one of 22 field-goal attempts.
While Aguayo was brilliant, the Seminoles were only average in the punting game. Cason Beatty improved on his shaky 2012 season with a 41.1 yards per punt average but only punted 42 times thanks to the team’s prolific offense. He returns for his junior season hoping to improve on his sophomore statistics.
Whitfield handled the majority of kickoff returns last season, averaging a spectacular 36.4 yards per return. Of course, his most important return came in the fourth quarter of the BCS National Championship Game when he gave the Seminoles the lead with his second return touchdown of the season.
Shaw was the primary punt returner a year ago, so the ‘Noles need a replacement there. Whitfield could pull double duty depending on how much of a factor he is on offense. Sophomore Jesus Wilson had eight punt returns last seasons and is a candidate for the full-time role as well.
There’s no more complete roster in college football than Florida State’s. Yes, there are some key losses, but nobody other than Alabama has recruited better than Jimbo Fisher and his staff. An underachieving program finally struck gold last season, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Is this even a winnable game for Notre Dame? On paper? No. In reality? Maybe.
Keep in mind that there was a similar sentiment two years ago this time about the season-ending game at No. 1 USC. As it turned out, it was the Irish who came into the game at the top of the polls, defeating a sputtering Trojans team, 22-13, en route to the national title game.
The Oct. 18 showdown will also be Notre Dame’s first true road game, as it begins the season with four home games and two neutral-site games. Everett Golson thrived on the road as a redshirt freshman quarterback, winning games in hostile environments at Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC.
With a manageable schedule, Florida State will be the overwhelming favorite to win the first national title of the playoff era. Can it overcome the pressures that arise from being the defending national champions? That’s the challenge for Fisher—one he’ll gladly take on with the outstanding roster that he has built.