New faces, old names headline ND-FSU rivalry
The passing of FSU legend Bowden is sure to fuel the Seminoles in the season opener
In the buildup to the 2021 college football season, conference realignment and playoff expansion have dominated the headlines. Change is surely on the way, and the college football landscape will likely never be the same.
But while the world focuses on who else will join the SEC, how the Big 12 will survive the loss of Texas and Oklahoma, and who will get byes in an expanded playoff field, two traditional college football powers are set to meet in week one in front of fans for the first time in over a year.
Fresh off their second College Football Playoff appearance in three years, head coach Brian Kelly and his Notre Dame Fighting Irish will travel down to Tallahassee for a week one showdown with Florida State on Sunday, Sept. 5th. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.
The Irish and Seminoles have only ever squared off against one another on the gridiron 10 times, but despite the lack of volume, this rivalry is a storied one. The two teams first met in 1981, when legendary coach Bobby Bowden led Florida State into Notre Dame stadium and defeated the home team 19-13. It was 12 years before they met again in 1993, but it was worth the wait. In what was billed as the “Game of the Century,” Lou Holtz and No. 2 Notre Dame held off a furious rally by top-ranked Florida State to win 31-24.
This game, however, is not just any rivalry matchup between the Irish and Seminoles. Just recently on August 8, Florida State’s Bowden passed away at the age of 91 as a result of the pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with in July. Bowden’s resume speaks for itself, and it is not difficult to see why he is considered one of the best college coaches to ever pace a sideline. In his first season at the helm of the Seminoles, Bowden posted just a 5-6 record, but it would be his only losing season in 34 years in Tallahassee. He amassed 357 wins over the course of his career, good for the second-most all-time in Division I history. At one point, Bowden’s Florida State teams finished the season in the top four for 14 straight years.
But despite all the success, Bowden is best known as a man of family and faith. At the service held in remembrance of Bowden on Florida State’s campus, none of his former players talked about wins. They talked about Bowden as a person. He was an icon in the college football world and at Florida State. His death – especially because the first game since his passing is against an age-old rival – will certainly be in the minds of the Seminole players and their fans when Notre Dame comes to visit this weekend.
If Notre Dame fans need context, this is the equivalent of Lou Holtz passing, except Bowden was at Florida State for almost as long as Holtz, Knute Rockne, and Ara Parseghian combined. This game falls into the category that has been crudely dubbed a “dead coach game,” and I will admit, this scares me as a Notre Dame fan. We have a new quarterback, reshuffled offensive line, new defensive coordinator, and the propensity to play down to any opponent on any given week. The talent gap between the Irish and Seminoles is clear, but the last thing Notre Dame needs is to be playing a rival who has a little bit of extra motivation to win.
The Irish have claimed the last two victories in the rivalry, both by double digits. Notre Dame will look to sustain this streak; however, it will have to be done by a team that looks very different from the team that dominated FSU a year ago. After the graduation of Ian Book, the Irish will turn the keys of the offense over to grad transfer quarterback Jack Coan, who made his way over from Wisconsin in the offseason. Coan saw the Wisconsin job taken by Graham Mertz while he was out with injury to start the 2020 season, but he is now positioned to be the day one starter for Notre Dame in 2021. As Wisconsin’s starter in 2019, Coan completed just under 70% of his passes for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns, while throwing just five interceptions and leading the Badgers to a Rose Bowl berth. Coan’s receiving core is a little unproven to begin the season, as top targets Ben Skowronek and Javon McKinley graduated, but tight end Michael Mayer is one of the best in the country. The receiving corps is full of veterans, with 5th year Avery Davis and seniors Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin, and Joe Wilkins Jr. leading the way, but they will need to prove themselves. Coan is more of a typical pocket passer than Book ever was, so this group will have plenty of opportunities to make their mark.
While the dynamic backfield of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree remains intact for Notre Dame, the offensive line will undergo massive changes. The underclassmen will play a huge role as the Irish seek to fill the holes left by the departure of Liam Eichenberg, Robert Hainsey, Aaron banks, and Tommy Kraemer. Jarrett Patterson will be back from injury and the addition of Cain Madden from Marshall helps, but freshman recruits Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler, as well as upperclassmen Josh Lugg and Zeke Correll, will be forced to step up for a unit that has grown into one of the most reputable in the nation. The lack of experience makes it easy to doubt this group, but to write them off as a downgrade from previous years would be premature.
On the defensive side of the ball, the biggest change came on the sideline. The Irish were able to pry defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman away from Cincinnati, and his recruiting prowess has already been on full display for future Notre Dame classes. He has the framework of another fantastic defense, but the losses of linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, lineman Daelin Hayes, safety Shaun Crawford, and corner Nick McCloud will hurt. Safety Kyle Hamilton – rated as the 7th-best player in the country by ESPN – will need to be all over the field for the Irish this season. This should not be a problem for the ball-hawking junior, who can solidify his status as a top 10 NFL draft pick with another stellar season. The return of lineman Kurt Hinish was a bit of a surprise, but he will continue to plug up the middle while Isaiah Foskey should be the team’s leading pass rusher.
The loss of Owusu-Koramoah is perhaps the most significant, and it will take a combination of Jack Kiser, Bo Bauer, and Shayne Simon to fill this hole. These three will play alongside heady linebacker Drew White, who was tied for second on the team in tackles last season and always seems to be in the right place. The loss of Marist Liufau to season-ending injury will hurt, but up-and-coming players like JD Bertrand should be able to fill in the gaps. It will be interesting to see how the group responds to a change in leadership, but Freeman should hit the ground running with this defense that should be one of the best in the nation.
Florida State will also open the season with a new face under center and another quarterback who has not played competitive football in a while. Transfer McKenzie Milton, who has not played a down since a gruesome knee injury in 2018, will lead the Seminole offense after three successful seasons at the University of Central Florida. He will face some competition from Jordan Travis, the team’s leading rusher from last season, but if Milton is healthy, he will be the weekly starter. Lead running back Jashaun Corbin racked up just 401 rushing yards a year ago, and the backfield will likely be a weakness in the Seminole attack. The receiving corps, on the other hand, should be solid. Leading receiver Ontaria Wilson returns and could pose a problem for inexperienced ND corners. Tight end Camren McDonald and receivers Keyshawn Helton and Andrew Parchment should also have an impact.
Florida State’s defense was horrendous a year ago, and they did not improve much in the offseason. The Seminoles struggled to generate pressure last season, and the fact that they were dead last in the ACC in sacks contributed to them giving up 36 points per game. The secondary also suffered from this lack of pressure, and the departure of Asante Samuel for the draft will be noticeable. This unit will likely struggle again, and Notre Dame’s Coan should have little difficulty surveying the field in his first start for the Irish.
That being said, an energized, motivated Notre Dame needs to get off the plane in Tallahassee if the Irish want to start the season with a win. This is a group that has the ability to get back to the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row and the third time in four years. But if they come out flat, the Seminoles – fueled by the memory of Coach Bowden – will make the trip back to South Bend a long one. Which Notre Dame will we get? Will they give us (and themselves) the confidence needed to navigate a schedule littered with four top 15 matchups? I guess we will find out on Sunday.
After a season and year marred by COVID, college football is back. Fans will be in the stands and the energy will return to stadiums across the country. While the entire landscape of college football may be shifting, something about Notre Dame vs. Florida State just feels right. Two traditional powers and old rivals going head-to-head in week one. College football needs this game. And Notre Dame needs a win against a hungry team with a lot to play for.
Rest in peace Bobby Bowden.