The off-field drama can wait. The biggest game of the year awaits.
So while some are interested in the comeuppance of the Florida State athletic department, its enabled and shockingly-behaved quarterback, or a local police force that seems infected with football, the game on the field is here, and it’s the one that’ll determine the goals of Notre Dame’s football team.
On Saturday, the Irish will face their stiffest test of the year. Playing in a hostile environment for the first time this season, Brian Kelly’s team will need to eradicate the string of self-inflicted mistakes that have nearly done them in, all while finding a way to force a team that’s won 22 straight games into making a few of their own.
To get us ready for Saturday’s game, Ben Jones of Warchant.com was kind enough to answer some email questions for me. We cover the health of the team, the performance of the defending national champs, and the on-and-off field behavior of the defending Heisman Trophy winner.
Can you give me a health update on the Seminoles? Just how banged up is this FSU team? Where do the injuries worry you the most?
FSU stayed healthy through the first three games or so but has since taken a few hits. Starting defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample is out for the year. Starting center Austin Barron is out for an extended period with what is believed to be a broken arm. Starting running back Karlos Williams missed the Syracuse game with an ankle sprain and could miss this game as well. Backup quarterback Sean Maguire is out for a while with a broken bone in his hand.
None of those are crippling injuries to FSU, which has built remarkable depth with strong recruiting. But some positions are weaker than others. Other defensive linemen have been banged up as well, and the rush defense has been suspect at times. With Maguire out, Jameis Winston is the only quarterback on the roster to take a snap at the college level.
Can you critique the Seminoles at the midpoint of the season? Yes, they’re deservedly the No. 1 team [since voted to No. 2] in the country, but statistically this isn’t necessarily a dominant group.
This was a hard group to peg down at first. The season started with a big neutral site game, followed by a game against an FCS program with a triple option offense, with Winston’s suspension after that. It’s only been the last few games that we’ve gotten a good idea of where FSU stands.
This is still a very good team capable of going undefeated and winning a national championship, but you’re right. This team isn’t dominant like last year’s. After six games, I don’t see FSU morphing into a monster for the second half of the season.
Assign a letter grade to the following units:
Rush Offense: B-
The offense isn’t as balanced as last year, but there’s still talent at running back. The offense will be powered by Winston’s arm but Williams, Mario Pender and Dalvin Cook would all be starters for many major programs.
Passing Offense: A
FSU still doesn’t have a red zone target like it had in 6-foot-6 Kelvin Benjamin last year, but Rashad Greene is one of the best receivers in the country and should hold every school receiving record by the end of the year. Nick O’Leary is an all-American tight end and Bobo Wilson has been a steady No. 2 receiver.
Rush Defense: B+
The defense can be gashed at times and missed more than 30 tackles against N.C. State, but for the most part it’s held strong. FSU really tightens up in the red zone, where a lot of opponent drives have stalled.
Passing Defense: A
The cornerback combo of PJ Williams and Ronald Darby might be the best in the country, while safeties Nate Andrews and Tyler Hunter are both solid behind them. Nickel Jalen Ramsey is a starter and is maybe the best athlete on defense, but his role calls for him to do a great deal. The sophomore hasn’t played poorly but hasn’t been the playmaker most thought he would be in preseason.
If nothing else, it’s astounding to see how Jimbo Fisher has held the team together this season with so many off-field issues. Some of those are self-inflicted, but FSU just keeps winning. Some fans have grumbled about new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, but it’s hard to find much fault with a team on a 22-game win streak.
Is this team playing with fire or just slow to gel?
This team is simply different from last year’s. Many expected it to pick up where the 2013 squad left off with so many key pieces back, but they also lost some major parts. Expectations have been difficult to manage at times and the off-field issues have made things even rockier, but they’re able to keep winning. Some of those games are ugly, but Florida State has still had a clear talent advantage over every opponent thus far. Saturday’s game against Syracuse was a much quicker start than in previous games, and that’s what they’ll be looking for against Notre Dame.
Jameis Winston, the returning Heisman Trophy winner, has had a fairly pedestrian season so far. What have you seen from his on the field that’s surprised you? Is he still a lock to head to the NFL as a top pick?
He had his most efficient game of the season against Syracuse, and that’s a positive sign. He hasn’t struggled at any point this year, but he hasn’t been as brilliant as last year. I don’t know if it’s surprising, but I think we’re learning just how valuable the receiving weapons he lost last year were. Seeing him back next year — that would be surprising.
My guess is still that he goes to the NFL, but you never know what odd turn his story will take next. With so many off-field issues and an impending student code of conduct investigation, it seems like the best decision for him to leave. He and his father said earlier this year he was planning on returning and while he hasn’t directly refuted that, he’s softened his stance. When asked now, he says things like “I don’t know what the future holds.” I believe the plan was for him to spend four years at FSU when he first signed with the school. I also believe plans can change.
Off the field, can you give us an insiders’ view on Winston? For me, the vulgar public comments were the the final datapoint for me to conclude that the kid just doesn’t get it. Jimbo Fisher says he’s a good kid. His actions seem to say something quite to the contrary. Help me understand.
It’s very difficult to understand Jameis Winston even for those of us on the beat. Our limited interactions with him are very tightly controlled. He began the season by giving a weekly press conference and speaking after games, but those have been canceled since his suspension. He now only speaks with the media after games.
He’s always been a charismatic figure on and off the field. Teammates gravitate toward him, he’s always smiling in interview and he controls a room like few players his age can. Jameis has a lot of experience being the center of attention, and it’s clear that he likes it. This is just a guess, but the incident that earned him the suspension seems to show to me that he still feels like he needs to seek out attention. That was probably as far as he was thinking when it happened. I don’t mean this in a positive or a negative way, but he’s one-of-a-kind. It’s hard to understand until you see him in person.
The last time Notre Dame faced off with an elite football team, they got run out of the gym in the first quarter of the BCS title game against Alabama. Is this Seminoles team capable of starting fast and delivering a knockout punch?
Tough to say. FSU was down 3-0 in the second quarter against Wake Forest, fell into a 24-7 hole at N.C. State and didn’t score a touchdown until the third quarter against Clemson (albeit with a backup quarterback). This weekend’s game against Syracuse didn’t look like that, but the overall trend is troubling.
The Seminoles have players capable of big plays, like running back Karlos Williams and wide receiver Rashad Greene. But Williams’ speed hasn’t shown up early in games, as he’s been more effective wearing teams down with his 225-pound frame, and Greene’s biggest moments have come with game-saving touchdowns against Oklahoma State and Clemson. Florida State has the players to pounce on an opponent early, but the track record so far doesn’t show it.
Is there any player personnel wise on the Notre Dame roster that has Fisher and his staff worried? What matchups do you think the Irish can try and exploit on Saturday night?
Everett Golson’s running ability will be a very interesting matchup. N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett had success scrambling earlier this year, and he might not be quite as athletic as Golson. Florida State has struggled to generate pressure on quarterbacks at times this year (8 sacks through 6 games) and the defensive line isn’t going to collapse the pocket on the pass rush. If Notre Dame’s offensive linemen can hold their blocks, Golson should have plenty of running lanes.
I’d also look to Ben Koyack and see if he find himself matched up against Ramsey at all. Ramsey is athletic enough to play any position in the secondary, but he’d be outmuscled against Koyack. Ultimately, though, I think Notre Dame and FSU are both strong enough teams that they’ll be more concerned about executing their game plans on offense and defense than trying to pick out one matchup to exploit.
Florida State is still prohibitive favorites against Notre Dame, though certainly down from the preseason. How do you see Saturday night playing out?
This is going to be Florida State’s toughest test so far this year. I think Notre Dame is a better opponent than either Oklahoma State or Clemson and it wouldn’t surprise me if either team wins. I’ve been saying since early summer that Florida State would lose a game this year, and while I don’t know if Notre Dame is that game, I think they have a better chance than anyone else.
FSU’s defense won’t shut teams out like it did last year, so this could be race to 40 points. Be warned: if it comes down to field goals, kicker Roberto Aguayo won the Groza Award last year and has only missed one kick in his career. For now, I’ll say FSU wins 42-38. But I may change my mind at some point this week. Things can change fast at Florida State.