FSU vs. Notre Dame preview: Can the Seminoles pull off the upset?

Jordan Travis throws a pass against Notre Dame.
Jordan Travis throws a pass against Notre Dame.(Notre Dame Athletics | Notre Dame Athletics)
Published: Sep. 4, 2021 at 4:57 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Florida State welcomes No. 9 Notre Dame into Doak Campbell Stadium Sunday at 8 p.m. for its first game of the 2021 season. It will be the first time in school history that the Seminoles will open their season on a Sunday.

Sunday night will be the 11th meeting between the two programs with Florida State holding a 6-4 edge. Notre Dame has won the last two matchups, coming in 2018 and 2020. The Irish won 42-26 in South Bend a year ago. The last time the teams met in Tallahassee was in 2014 when Florida State won 31-27 in a top-five matchup.

The Irish have won 19 consecutive regular-season games against ACC opponents and are 9-2 in season-openers under head coach Brian Kelly. They are coming off a 10-2 season, in which they qualified for the College Football Playoff before losing to the eventual national champion, Alabama.

Meanwhile, Florida State enters its second season under head coach Mike Norvell. The Seminoles were the youngest team in college football last season with 75 percent of their roster composed of freshmen and sophomores. In the offseason, Norvell added 13 transfers to a team that finished 3-6 last season, marking the first time since 1974-1976 that Florida State has finished with a losing record in three straight years.

Notre Dame is bringing a new-look squad into Doak Campbell Stadium Sunday night after having nine players drafted last year. Florida State should be improved this season after having a full spring practice and offseason program under Norvell, but will that be enough to push Notre Dame to the brink Sunday?

How Florida State could pull off the upset

If Florida State is going to upset Notre Dame, it will have to win the turnover battle. The Seminoles will have to keep the Irish off schedule and force them into third-and-long situations throughout the evening. That will be a tough ask against what should be another solid Notre Dame offensive line, but this group is much younger than they’ve been in past years. Center Jarrett Patterson is the only member of this unit that has started more than three games at the power-five level in his career. The Irish added one of the best transfers on the market this offseason though when it plucked guard Cain Madden from Marshall. Madden played at an All-American level last year and was the highest-graded guard in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. Notre Dame also has a terrific running back tandem in Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, both of whom rushed for over 100 yards against FSU in last year’s matchup.

The Florida State interior defensive line trio of Dennis Briggs, Jr., Fabien Lovett and Robert Cooper is going to have to win one-on-one battles on the inside and help stop the run on early downs. FSU will fare much better defensively if it can force quarterback Jack Coan, a transfer from Wisconsin, into some obvious passing situations. Coan is accurate underneath and can run an offense efficiently when it is on schedule. However, he is not a very dynamic athlete and is not particularly dangerous as a downfield passer. Notre Dame also returns one of the least productive wide receiver corps in the country from last year. Its starting receiver trio of Kevin Austin, Jr., Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy combined for just 30 catches and 403 yards last season. If Florida State can keep Notre Dame off schedule and force Coan and these receivers to get involved, Florida State’s edge rushers like Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas can be a major factor.

Offensively, Florida State is going to have its hands full with Notre Dame’s defensive front. The Seminoles have a deep group of running backs led by Jashaun Corbin and Lawrance Toafili, but offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham will not be able to succeed with straight runs all game. The Irish are experienced and deep up front, particularly at defensive tackle.

Jordan Travis’ legs are going to have to be a part of the game plan for Florida State to run the ball effectively. It will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Dillingham incorporates some jet sweeps or some kind of pre-snap misdirection to keep Notre Dame off balance. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see some quick receiver screens to utilize the speed of Keyshawn Helton and Andrew Parchment on the perimeter. Florida State probably will have a difficult time in pass protection against Notre Dame’s front, so Dillingham will need to devise some quick, creative ways to get his playmakers out on the edge.

Notre Dame has an excellent secondary led by All-ACC safety Kyle Hamilton. On the other hand, its linebacker group, outside of Drew White, is very inexperienced, especially after Marist Liufau suffered a season-ending injury during camp. Florida State will need to test this second level because Notre Dame’s defensive line and secondary will present some difficult matchups.

If Florida State can make a game-changing play or two on special teams too, that could be a difference-maker. Norvell wants the Seminoles to be more explosive in their return game this season, and Travis Jay is the type of athlete who can provide that.

How Florida State could lose

Florida State is going to have to play a very clean game to have a chance. It cannot afford drive-killing penalties or critical turnovers. Notre Dame is too good of a team for the Seminoles to overcome those kinds of mistakes.

Florida State has to contain Williams and Tyree in the run game. It cannot afford to let those two generate as many explosive plays on the ground as they did last year. If Notre Dame can run the ball with that kind of authority, it will open up their entire playbook and take plenty of pressure off Coan and its receivers. Florida State will have a much more difficult time containing Notre Dame star tight end Michael Mayer if the Irish stay on schedule.

Offensively, Florida State is going to have to find a way to run the ball effectively and string together a few long drives. As improved of a passer as Travis proved to be in preseason camp, he and/or McKenzie Milton cannot be depended on to carry the offense with their arms. If Florida State can’t extend drives, Notre Dame will eventually wear down the Seminoles’ defense with its ground game.

It will also be imperative for the Florida State defensive line to win some one-on-one battles up front. Patterson and Madden are excellent, but Notre Dame’s other three starters along the offensive line include two players that have made only five career starts and a true freshman at left tackle. FSU’s defensive line will have to make plays. That will also be important because the Seminoles are starting two young linebackers in DJ Lundy and Kalen DeLoach who are talented but do not have much game experience.

Florida State is going to have to create a couple of turnovers too. The Seminoles’ cornerbacks, whether that’s Jay, Jarrian Jones or Jarvis Brownlee, are going to have to win some battles on the outside against Notre Dame’s wide receivers. FSU is going to have a difficult time pulling off the upset if the turnover margin is even.

Final Thoughts

The first few minutes of this game will be absolutely vital. Sunday night is likely to be the best atmosphere at Doak Campbell Stadium in several years, so it is paramount that Florida State gets off to a good start and keeps the crowd engaged.

In FSU’s home opener in 2018 against Virginia Tech, the pregame atmosphere was electric, but the crowd quickly became a non-factor throughout the evening because Florida State started so slowly.

FSU was surprisingly competitive against a much better Notre Dame team on paper than the one coming to Tallahassee on Sunday. The Seminoles also have much more depth throughout their roster than they did last year.

Florida State has the ability to keep this one close early. It has enough talent and depth along the defensive line to contain Notre Dame’s run game for stretches. However, the Seminoles’ offensive line is going to have its hands full with Notre Dame’s defensive front. Whether it’s Travis or Milton taking the snaps at quarterback, moving the ball consistently against this defense will be a challenge.

The Seminoles could keep it close for a while, but Notre Dame’s depth and experience prevail in the end.

Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Florida State 13

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