Champs Sports Bowl Preview: Irish Seek 3rd Straight Bowl Win

Florida State (-3) at Notre Dame

For the first time in 8 years, Notre Dame will take the gridiron in a battle against Florida State.

The last meeting of these teams featured the 5th ranked Seminoles putting a 37-0 beating on the Irish in South Bend a year after Notre Dame went into Tallahassee and picked up an upset victory.

Ah, the Tyrone Willingham days.

Now it's Brian Kelly versus Jimbo Fisher with both coaches finishing their second season at their respective school.

This will be the third team from Florida the Irish have faced within the past year, and the first game in the Sunshine State since the Gator Bowl following the 2002 season. It will also be only the 5th game in the South for Notre Dame over the past 8 seasons.

Full breakdown of the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl coming after the jump.

How Did Florida State Do This Year?

The Seminoles opened up their season with two softies, outscoring Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern 96-10. In their third straight home game FSU played then No. 1 Oklahoma pretty close, eventually losing by 10.

This was followed by back-to-back losses in league play to Clemson and Wake Forest (both 35-30 defeats), before Florida State ripped off five straight wins over Duke, Maryland, NC State, Boston College, and Miami.

To end the regular season, FSU lost at home to Virginia, but defeated in-state rival Florida 21-7.

The Seminoles come into the Champs Sports Bowl with a 8-4 record.

Notre Dame Defense vs. Florida State Offense

FSU has a handful of injuries on their offensive line, including one starter who is out for the season and another who is questionable for the bowl game.

Without those two the Seminoles are fairly young and inexperienced, with a line consisting of senior left tackle Zebrie Sanders (1st Team All-ACC), JUCO junior Jacob Fahrenkrug, sophomore center Bryan Stork, sophomore right guard Garrett Faircloth, and freshman right tackle Bobby Hart.

FSU's offensive line has generally been very bad this year ranked 80th in tackles for loss allowed, 106th in sacks allowed, and 100th in rushing average.

At tight end Florida State likes to start senior Beau Reliford primarily as a blocker, but also use the talented freshman Nick O'Leary as a pass catcher (12 receptions, 164 yards, 1 TD).

The Seminoles aren't shy about using a lot of receivers but they will be shorthanded with junior Willie Haulstead questionable after not playing all season with a concussion, and senior Bert Reed out with a pulled hamstring.

Both players led FSU in receiving in 2010.

Without them Florida State deploys junior Rodney Smith (32 receptions, 527 yards, 4 TD), freshman Rashad Greene (33 receptions, 497 yards, 6 TD), redshirt freshman Christian Green (25 receptions, 447 yards), sophomore Kenny Shaw (30 receptions, 354 yards, 4 TD), and sophomore Greg Dent (12 receptions, 236 yards, 2 TD).

This is a pretty talented and explosive unit, even if they are pretty young. Combined they are averaging a very potent 15.6 yards per reception---for comparisons sake Michael Floyd is averaging 11.6 yards per catch.

The Seminoles are without 2010 leading rusher Chris Thompson after he suffered a season ending back injury against Wake Forest. Now FSU will bring freshman Devonta Freeman (531 yards, 5.0 YPC, 8 TD), senior Jermaine Thomas (279 yards, 4.6 YPC, 1 TD)*, and freshman James Wilder, Jr. (150 yards, 4.8 YPC, 1 TD) to the Champs Sports Bowl.

*Thomas was ruled academically ineligible for the bowl game, so FSU will start two freshmen running backs.

There's been some quarterback controversy and injuries this season, but redshirt junior E.J. Manuel should be healthy enough to get the nod this week.

Manuel (who was in preseason Heisman discussions despite throwing 6 touchdowns through two years in Tallahassee) was inconsistent this year but comes into this game with a solid stat line of 2,417 yards, with 65.4% accuracy, and 16 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions.

It's also worthy to note that the Seminoles have 1st Team All-ACC special team stars in kicker Dustin Hopkins and punter Shawn Powell---the latter just named a consensus All-American.

OFFENSE RANKINGS FSU ND
Scoring 35 43
Rush 99 51
Pass 34 33
Total 73 34
FEI 52 22
S&P 50 18
F/+ 34 22

Notre Dame should dominate the line of scrimmage against Florida State's offensive line, and make it very difficult for the Seminoles to rush for 100 yards. FSU averaged 76.5 yards per game against their toughest S&P rushing defenses, and Notre Dame will be the toughest rush defense (3rd nationally) they've faced yet.

Therefore, it will become crucial for QB E.J. Manuel to be efficient with the ball through the air, limit turnovers, and hit a few long plays down field. He'll also have to avoid big losses on sacks while making plays and extended drives with his feet when necessary.

As long as the Irish keep the Seminole ground game under control, it should be very hard for Florida State to grind out long scoring drives. This matchup will likely come down to Manuel making plays through the air or ground, and if Notre Dame can generate any key turnovers---something the Irish have struggled mightily to do this year (112th nationally).

Notre Dame Offense vs. FSU Defense

Florida State has two linemen questionable and has been without junior NG Jacobbi McDaniel since week 7 with a dislocated ankle.

In their 4-3 defense the Seminoles start sophomore Bjoern Werner and junior Brandon Jenkins (2nd Team All-ACC). This duo might be the toughest Notre Dame has faced all season, as they have combined for 75 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, and 10 quarterback hurries.

On the inside FSU has redshirt junior Everett Dawkins and junior Anthony McCloud. Junior Cornelius Carradine and freshman Timmy Jernigan also see a lot of playing time along the defensive line.

At linebacker starts sophomore Christian Jones, and senior Nigel Bradham (team-leading 77 tackles), while redshirt junior Vince Williams patrols the middle. Sophomore Telvin Smith is also used heavily at linebacker.

The two corners are sophomore Xavier Rhodes and junior Greg Reid, while the safeties are sophomore Lamarcus Joyner (2nd Team All-ACC) and senior Terrance Parks. Nickel corner, senior Mike Harris also sees a lot of action as well.

DEFENSE RANKINGS FSU ND
Scoring 4 28
Rush 2 58
Pass 18 34
Total 6 34
FEI 13 18
S&P 6 12
F/+ 8 17

Florida State is very aggressive on defense, finishing the regular season 9th nationally with 37 sacks.

However, half of Notre Dame's schedule this year featured teams in the top 30 in sacks nationally---Michigan State 4th (41 sacks), Pitt 5th (39), Stanford 6th (38), USF 6th (38), USC 23rd (30), and Michigan 30th (28)---so the Irish have a lot of experience and success against potent attacks being ranked 17th nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss surrendered.

The Seminoles also have a very impressive 91.5 tackles for loss on the season---good for 10th nationally---so they are in their opponent's backfield a whole lot.

Using traditional statistics with a heavy dose of the eye-ball test, this might be the toughest defense Notre Dame has faced all season. As you can see, Florida State has a healthy advantage in scoring, rush, pass, and total defense.

However, the less traditional statistics tell a slightly different story. If you average out the FEI, S&P, and F/+ rankings on defense, Florida State comes out at 9th, while the Irish come in at 15.6.

This is mostly because Florida State really didn't play many good offenses during the regular season.

FSU played an astonishing 9 teams outside the top 40 in offense (according to the S&P rankings), while Notre Dame played just 6. The Seminoles also played 8 teams outside the top 60 in offense (to Notre Dame's 5) and faced just 2 teams that finished in the top 25 in rushing, while Notre Dame faced 6 such teams.

Against common opponents, Florida State went 2-1 and Notre Dame 3-0, with the defensive statistics being very similar for both squads.

DEFENSE AGAINST COMMON OPPONENTS FSU ND
Rush 93.6 111.6
Pass 216 192
Total Yards 309.6 303.6
Yards Per Play 4.4 4.7
Points Against 19.3 17.3
Points For 36.3 28.3

Obviously, this is a very talented FSU defense. They held Oklahoma (15th best S&P offense) to a season-low 310 yards, while Notre Dame's defense gave up an average of 441 yards against the 10th, 11th, and 12th best offenses in the country in Michigan, Stanford, and USC.

With Jonas Gray's production gone, Braxston Cave missing at center, and very little positive momentum from the quarterback position, Florida State will likely gain back some of its advantages on defense that are shown by the more traditional numbers.

Yet, Notre Dame has a much better offensive line and more proven offensive playmakers in Floyd, Wood, and Eifert. This could be the difference in the game if the Irish can handle FSU's speed and get solid play out of the Rees/Hendrix quarterback combo.

Predcition

This should be a very close game where points are at a premium and it wouldn't shock me to see both teams combine for less than 40 points.

I like Notre Dame's advantages on the lines (particularly the offensive line), it's explosiveness on offense with Wood, Floyd, and Eifert, and for the spread offense to give FSU some problems.

The biggest question mark for the Irish is at quarterback where Tommy Rees limped to the end of the season and Hendrix is still terribly inexperienced. With more momentum, confidence, and playmaking ability at the QB position I believe Notre Dame could win this game and would be favored.

However, that is not the case---and the Seminoles can counter with an athletic quarterback who can make plays in a variety of ways.

Taking away sack yardage, Manuel ran for 354 yards at 5.1 yards per carry in 2011, converting a first down on 20 of those 69 carries. Before this season, Manuel had run for a very quiet 385 yards at 5.5 per carry, and he's more than capable of ripping off 15+ yard scrambles.

As a playmaker, I like the ball in his hands late in the game versus what Notre Dame has to offer (immobility, lack of down field passing, shuffling of two quarterbacks, inexperience, etc.) at this point.

It also doesn't bode well that the Irish are very turnover prone and FSU adept at forcing turnovers.

Florida State might have a really hard time moving the ball, but at the same time, Notre Dame has really struggled to force turnovers on defense. In a low-scoring game, FSU may be more than happy to keep punting and rely on their opportunistic defense to land a devastating blow or two.

This would be a much different game with Jonas Gray and Braxston Cave in the lineup for the Irish. With them, the Notre Dame offense is much better than Florida State's, but without them the running game and line play has dropped off somewhat significantly.

It might be hard for some to envision a loss to a Seminole team with a bad offensive line, bad running game, and pretty average offense overall, but we need to look no further than the Boston College game to see how a lousy offense can stay in a game with Notre Dame.

And now, Florida State has a better quarterback, much more dynamic receivers, and a stingier defense than the Eagles.

Notre Dame might have some early success running the ball and taking advantage of FSU's aggressiveness, but eventually the Seminoles will get it under control, use their speed to limit the short passing game of the Irish, and make Tommy Rees very uncomfortable.

As important as line play and winning in the trenches are, this game will prove the importance of having a difference maker at quarterback---and it will be a lesson Brian Kelly may have to seriously ponder during the offseason.

Florida State 20

Notre Dame 16

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