Outside of the BCS bowls, the Champs Sports Bowl is thought of to be one of the premier bowl match ups this season. Before the BCS was initiated and national championships seemed to make a home in the SEC, Florida State and Notre Dame ruled much of the 1990s.
On November 13th, 1993 the second-ranked Irish defeated the number one Seminoles 31-24 in South Bend, taking over the nation’s top spot with one game left to play. One week later, in the Holy War rivalry game, Boston College upset Notre Dame 41-39. With the loss, the Irish fell to number three in the polls and the Seminoles went on to beat Nebraska 18-16 in the Orange Bowl for the national championship.
There were other high-profile meetings that followed. The following year number eight Florida State got their revenge with a 23-16 win at a neutral site (Orlando) in the “Game of the Century II”, although the stakes weren’t as high for Notre Dame. In the 1996 Orange Bowl, # 6 Notre Dame fell once again to the Seminoles who were ranked eighth at the time, by a score of 31-26. They met two more times since then splitting road victories, but neither game had the impact of the games played the decade before. In 2002 the Irish defeated the Seminoles 34-24 in Tallahassee, and the following season, Florida State returned the favor by shutting out Notre Dame 37-0 in South Bend.
As the SEC began to rule the school of college football, programs such as Notre Dame and Florida State were tossed by the wayside, until this year. Both schools opened the preseason ranked in the AP’s top 25, with Florida State at six, and Notre Dame at 16, but both squads fell out of the rankings as the season progressed before each made a brief appearance late in the season. In week 12, both Florida State at #23 and Notre Dame at #24 were both in the AP, but the following week the Seminoles dropped out. In week 14, FSU reemerged as the 25th team after a 21-7 victory over in-state rival Florida in Gainesville, while a loss to Stanford ensured the Irish would finish the regular season outside of both polls.
Against the Gators, Florida State amassed just 95 yards of offense, but its defense was able to take advantage of several Florida turnovers, including an interception return for a touchdown. The Seminole offense has battled injuries all season long, starting with quarterback EJ Manuel who sustained a shoulder injury against Oklahoma that sidelined him for one game, and limited him in others. Manuel finished the regular season with 2417 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight picks, and should be close to 100% for this matchup. Manuel has been the only member of the offense that has been banged up this year; his receiving corps has also seen its share of injuries that prevented the Florida State passing attack from any rhythm most of the year.
The ground game has also been stagnant most of the year, ranked 99th in the FBS with an average of 118.08 yards per game. RB Devonta Freeman leads the team in rushing with 531 yards and eight TDs, but no receiver or back on the squad has come close to recording 1000 yards in either category. The defense has made up for the lackluster offense, once again back in the top of 20 of all defensive categories in the FBS. The Seminoles are ranked second in rushing defense (81.83 ypg), fourth in scoring (15.2), sixth in total defense (274.6 ypg) and 19th in pass defense (192.8 ypg). Although Florida State does not have a player listed in the top of individual defensive categories, DLs Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner were integral parts of the defensive success.
Notre Dame has also had difficulty finding their rhythm offensively this year as three different players have taken snaps as the signal caller. With QB Dayne Crist transferring to Kansas, head coach Brian Kelly will only have two to choose from; with Tommy Rees, who was benched during the Stanford game, the likely starter and Andrew Hendrix being put in for a different look. Despite the inconsistent quarterback situation, receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert have remained on the national radar as far as production and for NFL Draft implications. Floyd caught 95 passes yards for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns, while Eifert added 713 yards and five scores on 57 receptions.
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. Notre Dame’s best defensive player, LB Manti Te’o, announced earlier this month that he would return to school and forego early entrance in the draft, which was big news for both Kelly and Irish Faithful who will be counting on Te’o to lead the defense again next year. Te’o recorded 4.5 sacks and 115 tackles in the 2011 campaign. The Irish finished the regular season ranked 33rd nationally in pass defense allowing 201.7 ypg, 34th in total defense with 348.8 ypg, 57th in rushing at 147.08, and 29th in scoring, holding opponents to 20.9 ppg.