When looking at the 2021 schedule and trying to find its hardest matchups, most Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans look to the middle stretch of the season, which contains matchups against the Wisconsin Badgers, Cincinnati Bearcats, USC Trojans and North Carolina Tar Heels. And they are right to do so - the past performance of those teams makes it easy to anticipate a tough contest. We know those games are going to be hard.
But in the wild landscape of college football, it’s often the team you don’t expect - the underdog, the wild card - that sneaks up on you. When it comes to college football wild cards, it’s hard to think of a bigger one than a week-one road matchup in a weird time slot, in a raucous home atmosphere and hot climate, against a sleeping-giant power program that still has some solid talent on the field and whose coach is already on the hot seat.
If I’m uniquely wary of this situation, it’s because I was there the last time it happened.
On a sweltering Sunday night of Labor Day weekend 2016 in Austin, I watched from the stands as the Texas Longhorns were emphatically pronounced BACK against a favored Irish team that was coming off an excellent season. Despite the fact that both teams revealed themselves as pretenders almost immediately, that moment remains seared into my memory. Even if you didn’t have a similar experience that night, you no doubt have heard the comparisons between it and this year’s opener against Florida State, in which the situation is nearly as close to identical as it could be without scheduling the Longhorns themselves.
The good news is that the Irish are in a far stronger position coming into 2021 than they were in 2016, and four excellent seasons later they have earned the trust of fans that they will continue to uphold a standard of excellence. In no way do I believe that 2021’s Irish team will take anything like the trajectory that Brian VanGorder and co. did. However, the memory of that night in Darrell K. Royal still contains some important lessons for the Irish and their fans. A week-one matchup contains unique risks that midseason ones do not: roster uncertainties, rust and yips from veterans and new players, respectively, and a lack of tape on the opposing team that creates opportunities for trickery and strategic surprise. If Notre Dame proves itself vulnerable to these risks, Florida State - like Texas in 2016 - has the athletes to pull some fast ones and make this a close game.
The ‘Noles have fallen off somewhat in recruiting during their wilderness years and have struggled to demonstrate the kind of dynamic passing game that could create that quick-strike ability, but they still return a surprising amount of talent at receiver. Kansas transfer Andrew Parchment bolsters a corps otherwise made up of unproven but undeniably gifted players like Keyshawn Helton, Jordan Young and Bryan Robinson.
At the quarterback position - the biggest of wild cards on this unpredictable team - incumbent starter Jordan Travis is still battling transfer McKenzie Milton for the starting role. Travis provides athleticism and playmaking ability and reports out of the ‘Noles camp indicate some improvements in the passing game, while Milton is striving to regain his once-dominant form after recovering from a horrifying leg injury in 2018.
My point in focusing on the ‘Noles passing game - both its potential and its question marks - is to highlight where I see the danger coming from in this matchup. If Florida State finds a quarterback who can deliver downfield and receivers who can gain separation in the secondary - which is the most vulnerable spot on Notre Dame’s defense - then week-one holes and mistakes on the part of the Irish could open up opportunities for quick-strike scores. This could still occur despite the fact that FSU’s offensive line remains a patchwork and its running game a question mark, and it could allow the Seminoles to hang in there even if the Irish consistently win the battle in the trenches - as I expect them to.
The ‘Noles defense is also full of uncertainties from an opponent’s perspective. The defensive line was a weak unit in 2020, but a pair of transfers on the edge in Keir Thomas and Jermaine Johnson II could pair with returning tackle Robert Cooper to form a surprisingly effective front. It gets less scary when you move back: the secondary and linebacking corps are loaded with transfers and unproven players, but that too carries with it the danger of uncertainty and the potential for breakouts to upend our expectations. Do I expect this unit to hold Notre Dame under 30 or even 35 points? No, but it is not impossible to imagine them getting enough stops to keep Florida State in the game if their offense gets on the board a few times.
Ultimately, what worries me about this game isn’t what we know about the Seminoles, but what we don’t. One can’t simply rely on past performance to gauge a team with so many transfers at key positions, and so many inexperienced - but talented - contributors in prominent roles, especially in week one. I expect Notre Dame to win this game, and frankly wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be a blowout - the Irish are the more talented team by a significant margin and possess a major advantage in the trenches. At the same time, this game has all sorts of potential to get weird, quickly. Don’t be surprised if this one turns into a classic week-one hot mess, with the Irish relieved to make it home 1-0.