After yet another massively successful season Notre Dame is back to continue a four year run of success in the Brian Kelly era. They kick off against Florida State on the road, immediately challenging themselves in their pursuit of keeping the good times rolling. They will need to do so without new New Orleans Saints quarterback Ian Book against an opponent that added a potential superstar in UCF transfer QB McKenzie Milton. It remains to be seen if Milton will be medically cleared to start, but if he is healthy and returns to the level of play prior to injury, Irish fans could be in for a sweat. If not, the Seminoles will likely have a difficult time generating the offense they will need to take this one.
Florida State is coming off of a disappointing 3-6 season, headlined by uncertainty at quarterback and an awful defense that was one of the worst among Power 5 schools. They addressed the quarterback position in a major way this offseason, landing prized UCF transfer McKenzie Milton. Milton was a bona fide superstar at UCF, posting two seasons worthy of Heisman consideration before a catastrophic knee injury knocked him out of football for two seasons and almost cost him his leg. Milton’s Pro Football Focus grades match this assessment, posting seasons of 90.7 and 83.7 in 2017 and 2018, respectively. If he’s under center and playing at this level, Florida State will be a competitive threat to most teams.
If Milton can’t go the Seminoles will turn to Jordan Travis, a dual-threat quarterback Irish fans will be familiar with from last season’s matchup. Travis is a below average but functional passer, although his 40% success rate leaves a fair amount to be desired. He does most of his damage on the ground, posting a threatening 0.45 EPA/rush.
The Irish had their occasional struggles against rushing quarterbacks last year, but Travis represents a much better matchup for Notre Dame than Milton. The Irish defense struggled immensely against opposing deep balls in 2020, and outside Kyle Hamilton there’s a lot of uncertainty about how the secondary will hold up. Milton would be able to attack the deep levels of the field in a way Jordan Travis is not capable of, and the Irish have skill and depth in their front seven they do not have in their secondary to stop Travis on the ground. Keep an eye on the Seminole quarterback, as the dynamic changes drastically depending on who’s under center.
Jashaun Corbin will likely lead the Florida State rushing attack, and is heavily trusted in both the run and pass games. Corbin was a great rusher at 0.13 EPA/rush, and added a 59% success rate in the passing game, which is high for running backs who are often used on shorter routes. They will also lean on Auburn transfer DJ Williams, who was excellent in limited action for the Tigers but stuck behind Tank Bigsby on the depth chart.
Florida State returns very little production in its passing game, with Ontaria Wilson’s 30 receptions from last season leading the way. Wilson was the most successful wide receiver to go along with his volume, so it will be interesting to see if the Seminoles try to push him into a larger role. Another battle to watch will be between Tight Ends Camren McDonald and Jordan Wilson. According to Pro Football Focus, McDonald’s 65.5 receiving grade is far stronger than Wilson’s 51.4, but Wilson is a much stronger blocker. Look for the Seminoles to possibly lean on Wilson in heavier run packages while McDonald is more trusted on vertical routes.
The Notre Dame offense is led by Wisconsin Quarterback transfer Jack Coan. Coan had a very successful 2019 headlined by a 12-0 regular season . Coan was a solid good passer and provided a little mobility as a rusher to support a good defense and running game and win games for the Badgers. Despite his reputation, Tommy Rees and Co. are hoping to get more than just a game-manager out of him. Watch for Rees to let Coan throw the deep ball early here as Notre Dame has made it known they want the passing game to become more dynamic and attack downfield more often. Coan completed 51.1% of his passes beyond 20 yards in 2019, far better than Ian Book’s mark of 29% in 2020. In an ideal world, Notre Dame throwing more frequently and pushing the ball downfield will open up more space for Kyren Williams to eat, just as Clemson attacked Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game.
Someone will have to catch these deep passes, and it will be on Kevin Austin or Braden Lenzy (hopefully both) to emerge alongside Avery Davis. Davis ran the entire route tree for the Irish last season, posting extremely efficient numbers and often saving his best performances for when the team needed him most. There has been a ton of hype around Austin and Lenzy, and rightfully so, but do not sleep on Avery Davis who is the most proven wide receiver on this roster. He posted PFF Grades in the 80s and 90s when targeted at 0-9 Yards, 10-19 Yards, and 20+ Yards last season and could become an elite slot weapon.
Finishing with the run game and First Team All-American Kyren Williams, Florida State sported one of the worst running defenses in the country last season, ceding an eye popping 0.21 EPA/rush. While we would not advise a run heavy from the onset of the game when breaking in four new offensive linemen (and we’re the analytics guys, we aren’t going to advise that anyways), if Notre Dame can loosen up the Florida State defense through the air, this is a team the Irish could have a field day on the ground if the front seven has not improved much from last year.
The Irish are favored in this one, but Vegas is expecting a close, relatively low scoring game. If Jordan Travis is the starter for the Seminoles, we like Notre Dame to both win and cover the spread in Tallahassee. If McKenzie Milton is healthy enough to play, we will still take Notre Dame to win a close one but will lean with Florida State and the points. While he hasn’t played in 2 years and it’s uncertain what kind of impact the injury will have on his performance, the elite level of play Milton has shown is worthy of respect. We would also advise against laying -300 moneyline odds on Notre Dame if Milton is playing. If you are planning on betting this one, definitely wait to see who will be under center for Florida State.