Dec 29, 2011, 1:38 AM EDT
You’ve got to love college football. It’s the only sport where you can logically explain taking a month-long break in your schedule before playing a bowl game, an essentially meaningless exhibition game when it comes to postseason implications.
But that’s our sport and we all love it. And for Notre Dame and Florida State, two teams that failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations, tomorrow evening’s date in the Champs Sports Bowl gives two of college football’s most tradition-laden programs a chance to end this season on a high note. Is it the BCS game both fanbases hoped for before the season? No. But with five combined losses between the two programs before mid-October, the fact that the two teams are meeting in one of the most intriguing games of an otherwise mediocre slate of postseason games, it sure makes for some compelling football.
Before Brian Kelly‘s squad renews an old rivalry with the Seminoles on Thursday evening at 5:30 p.m. ET, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before we put a bow on an interesting 2011 season.
You can never avoid the winds of change in the college football world.
Rumors swirled the past few days of more big news coming in college football. Whether that was rumors that Michigan was going to drop Notre Dame in football or another team hightailing it from a conference in search of more money, you’ve got to give credit to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott for actually thinking outside the box to both help their respective conferences while also not dropping another bomb on an already unstable landscape.
Starting as soon as next year, the two conferences will start a “collaboration,” a newly founded alliance that’ll have a lot of the benefits sought during the rumored “seismic shifts” without the bloodshed seen in the Big 12 and the SEC.
“Rather than go down the road of just trying to add members, we thought this was a way to keep who we were and an increased value for everybody,” Delany said.
“It’s a flexible approach to achieving some of the benefits of expansion without dealing with some of the other structural issues,” Scott added.
Of course, the one school that was probably most effected out of the conference members was Notre Dame. And as Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports reports, Irish AD Jack Swarbrick was all over this from day one.
Here’s more from Forde:
The Fighting Irish have a huge part of their schedule invested in those leagues. The fiercely independent Irish have five ongoing annual series with teams from those leagues: Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue of the Big Ten, and USC and Stanford of the Pac-12. If the leagues are going to add an annual game between members, would that potentially squeeze Notre Dame out of the mix?
Not likely, said Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who has a close relationship with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.
“I don’t anticipate it having much of an impact,” Swarbrick told Yahoo! Sports. “I was aware it was coming; they sort of kept us informed. I think it’s a great thing for the two conferences.”
A more likely scenario than dropping Notre Dame is a reduction in conference games from nine to eight. Thus, the Big Ten vs. Pac-12 game would be a substitute for that league game on the schedule, which means Notre Dame’s spot would not have to be sacrificed in favor of a “guaranteed” home game against a lesser opponent.
Swarbrick has done a pretty impressive job maneuvering the Irish through some tricky times the past few years. It’s good to see Notre Dame will be able to hold onto these traditional opponents, and even better to see that the days of buying wins and scheduling cupcakes is possibly on its way out.
Expect special teams to play a big role in determining a winner.
It might be too late for the Irish to work their way out of the depths of mediocrity when it comes to their punt return game. But if there’s ever a game where the Irish need to show up in special teams, this is the one.
The Irish face the best set of specialists they’ll see all year, with punter Shawn Powell No. 1 in the country averaging 47-yards a kick and Dustin Hopkins an All-American place kicker. In a game where yardage will be at a premium, manufacturing field position and getting something — heck anything — out of the punt return game would be a huge help to an Irish offense that’ll be facing its stiffest task of the year. Just as important, it’ll be up to Mike Elston’s troops to slow down a dangerous set of Seminole return men, headlined by junior Gred Reid, who has averaged 11.4 yards a return.
“Florida State can put points on the board in the special teams,” Kelly said. “I think they’re the first team we will play this year that have that kind of dynamic ability in their special teams. It’s been a constant point of emphasis for us relative to how we have prepared in our bowl season, but clearly if you have two fairly even-matched teams sometimes special teams makes a big difference. We knew that going in and we are going to have to play well in that area.”
Adding another interesting twist to the special teams battle, the Seminoles All-American kicker was almost Irish, as Hopkins nearly selected the Irish before deciding to head to Tallahassee. It wasn’t as dramatic as Lorenzo Booker’s last second defection to the Seminoles, but a mysterious string of events pushed him to Florida Stat.
The junior All-American, who was a finalist for this year’s Lou Groza Award, admits now that a series of chance occurrences during his recruiting visits played at least some role in shaping his decision.
First, he and his family were walking in a Houston airport when they found an old Buffalo nickel, which featured the face of an American Indian on one side. Hopkins’ mother immediately joked that it might be a sign for the Seminoles, but the family just laughed it off.
Then during a recruiting trip to Northwestern’s football offices, the Hopkins clan spotted a trophy named for then-Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.
“My sister saw it and said, ‘Dustin, look … another sign,’” he recalled. “We laughed that one off, too.”
Then during his recruiting visit to South Bend, Ind., Hopkins went to eat with Notre Dame’s coaches at a Chili’s restaurant. And there on a wall was a mural featuring an American Indian riding a horse — an image not unlike Florida State’s own Osceola and Renegade.”It was just really ironic,” Hopkins said.
The message, of course: Don’t take a recruit to Chili’s on his official visit.
After losing his captaincy before the season, Michael Floyd finally gets to lead his team.
Among the permanent repercussions that came from Michael Floyd‘s DUI arrest last spring was getting stripped of his captaincy before the season started. The honor bestowed on the rising senior wide receiver at the award’s ceremony last winter was taken away as Floyd was put on probation by the school, and Harrison Smith was the sole captain of the Irish this season, with a game day captain named each week to join him.
But Floyd took his final classes as a student earlier in December, graduating at the semester break from Notre Dame. Scoring four As (and a C-) in his final semester, Floyd did all that was asked of him in the classroom, not to mention countless hours of community service and other off-the-field work. He also helped prove that the faith the university administration placed in him, not to mention Kelly staking his reputation on his star player, was deserved.
“He’s exhibited all the things necessary that we’ve asked him to do,” Kelly at a press conference Wednesday. “He’s gotten his degree from Notre Dame, he’s lived his life the right way, he’s been extraordinary in his preparation in practice. He exhibits all of those traits that we feel are important to be a game-day captain.”
Last year, Michael took the bowl game to torch a talented Miami secondary for a big game. This year, he’ll have a national spotlight on him against a talented Seminoles secondary, but one that presents some physical mismatches for the top Irish receiver in school history.
Regardless of who’s throwing to him, look for the Irish to take some shots down the field throwing to No. 3 — the last time we’ll be able to watch Mr. Michael Floyd don the Irish uniform.
Kelly hints that a staff promotion is coming from within.
The smoke that’s surrounded running backs coach Tim Hinton has struggled to clear, especially with Urban Meyer still looking to round out his offensive coaching staff in Columbus, and Hinton having such deep roots in the state of Ohio.
That said, both Hinton and Kelly have proclaimed Hinton is staying put, and Kelly once again made it seem that there won’t be any more defections, and it’s possible that any addition will come from coaches that already work for the Irish.
“We’re very excited that we’re going to be able to keep our staff in place,” Kelly said. “Obviously Charley Molnar is at UMass and we’re excited for him. But we’re going to be able to announce those things. I can tell you this, they’re guys who have already been on Notre Dame’s campus. That’s the exciting part that we’re going to have continuity within our staff and maintain that this year.”
Whether that means Ed Warinner will climb the ladder to offensive coordinator or secondary coach Chuck Martin will switch sides of the ball remains to be seen. We also don’t know just how coy Kelly was being — does “already been on Notre Dame’s campus” mean this year? If it does — the Irish have four solid candidates among their GA troops:
Scott Booker, Offensive Intern. Booker was a four-year starter at defensive back for Kent State, and coached the secondary for his alma mater from 2005-08 and at Western Kentucky in 2009. Booker took a step back, dropping down to the intern rank to come to Notre Dame, but could slide into the defensive staff if Martin moves to OC.
Bill Brechin, Offensive Intern. Brechin came to South Bend with Martin, playing for the former Grand Valley State coach as an All-Conference DB before working as a graduate assistant for the Lakers before switching sides of the ball in South Bend.
Jon Carpenter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Carpenter played under Kelly at Cincinnati as a linebacker and is the younger brother of former Buckeye All-American and current NFL player Bobby Carpenter. He’d likely only fill a void on the defensive side of the ball.
Michael Painter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Painter has worked with Kelly all the way back to Central Michigan, working his way from there to Cincinnati, where he spent three years as a staff associate. Painter spent some time working special teams for the Chippewas, an area he could chip in for the Irish.
How good is the Irish running game? We’ll find out against the Seminoles.
The numbers don’t look good for the Irish. After losing senior Jonas Gray with a knee injury against Boston College, the Irish will take on the nation’s toughest run defense in the country, with the Seminoles giving up only 2.32 yards per carry.
This is hardly the Irish’s first dance with a dominant running defense. Florida State will be the sixth team the Irish have faced in the Top 35 in the country in yards-per-carry, with the Irish putting up mixed results:
No. 1 — Florida State:
No. 7 — Michigan State: 32 carries, 114 yards, 2 TDs
No. 8 — South Florida: 29 carries, 117 yards, 1 TD
No. 11 — Stanford: 31 carries, 57 yards, 1 TD
No. 20 — Pittsburgh: 32 carries, 182 yards 1 TD
No. 35 — USC: 14 carries, 41 yards, 1 TD
That’s a modest average of 3.7 yards a carry against those five defenses, with sack yardage not taken into account. The Irish had their biggest ground games against Purdue, Air Force, and Maryland, one mediocre (Purdue) and two statistically horrible teams against the run.
With Theo Riddick in the backfield and Andrew Hendrix adding to the rush attack, the Irish will need to squeeze every bit of efficiency they can on the ground, even if the going is tough.
It’s a fond farewell to a senior class that left Notre Dame in a better place than they found it.
It’s a bittersweet time of year. Notre Dame will say good bye to another class of seniors, with Thursday’s bowl the last time we’ll see this group take the field. Here’s a quick run down of the class likely taking the field for the last time:
Harrison Smith — Senior leader grew more in five years than anyone.
David Ruffer — An often told story that’d make even Rudy blush.
Mike Ragone — Star-crossed tight end matured into a model citizen.
Andrew Nuss — Fifth year player supplied critical depth on the offensive line.
Nick Lezynski — Walk-on hopes to continue football career as a coach.
Gary Gray — Bounced back from early adversity. Potential to play on Sundays.
Taylor Dever — Never sniffed the field until Kelly arrived, then became two-year starter.
Patrick Coughlin — Former Irish track member followed his dream to football.
Hafis Williams — Reserve nose guard might spend fifth-year playing elsewhere.
Deion Walker — While he never lived up to the hype, he’s always been a team guy.
Jamoris Slaughter — Free of injury, Slaughter will be back for a fifth-year.
Ryan Sheehan — Walk-on walked away from track scholarship to join football team.
Ryan Sharpley — Former baseball player (and brother of Evan) joined team as WR.
Chris Salvi — Special teams dynamo honored as game captain.
Trevor Robinson — One of Irish’s quirkiest personalities, should find way to NFL.
David Posluszny — Played large on special teams, even if he struggled in brother’s shadow.
Andrew Plaska — Walk-on who’ll end up in medical school next year.
Sean Oxley — Turned down Ivy Leagues to walk-on at Notre Dame.
Brandon Newman — Senior DT will be remembered for personality… and Trick Shot Monday.
Matthew Mulvey — Walk-on QB and leader of Red Army.
Anthony McDonald — Linebacker battled health issues for most of career.
Dan McCarthy — Safety struggled to stay healthy after coming to ND with neck injury.
Dennis Mahoney — Law school likely for walk-on, who saw the field against Air Force.
Kapron Lewis-Moore — Knee injury ended season, but career will continue in 2012.
Ryan Kavanagh — Walk-on snapper added holder to his repertoire.
Ethan Johnson — Heart of defensive line battled injuries during final season.
Mike Grieco — Walk-on and Holy Cross transfer kicked extra point against Air Force.
Jonas Gray — Story of the season only sidetracked with ACL tear.
John Goodman — With one year of eligibility left, Goodman could stay or play elsewhere in 2012.
Mike Golic Jr. — Came up big after spending career as back-up. Might return in 2012.
Jonathan Frantz — After two years as a student, Frantz walked-on to the football team.
Michael Floyd — The greatest pure WR in Notre Dame history.
Darius Fleming — Chicago product battled through coaching changes to be best pass rusher.
Steve Filer — Knee injury ended a career that never found its mark.
Dayne Crist — A model student-athlete for Notre Dame. Has Kansas detour to get career on track.
Lane Clelland — After an attempted position switch, Injuries hurt Clelland’s career.
Braxston Cave — Foot surgery ended 2011 season, will be back in 2012.
Robert Blanton — A four year contributor, Blanton is athletic enough for an NFL shot.
One last chance to wear the blue and gold should be enough motivation for this group to leave Notre Dame victorious. Congratulations to each and every one of this group for a great accomplishment.