Seven years ago, Notre Dame and Florida State met in Tallahassee in an instant classic. That phrase, “instant classic,” may be overused, and that game’s ending coming via an official’s decision may still rub Irish fans the wrong way, but that October night under the lights deserved every piece of hype offered both beforehand and afterward.
Sunday night should bear some resemblance to the 2015 tilt in its atmosphere and anticipation. No. 9 Notre Dame has not played in front of a full crowd in nearly two years, not since a Camping World Bowl victory against Iowa State, and the Seminoles fans have not joined in unison in college football’s most annoying chant, the Chop, in even longer.
Doak Campbell Stadium should be raucous and overdue.
But that should be the end of the similarities to Jameis Winston’s sophomore season. Florida State will not even name a starting quarterback until its first offensive series.
Despite the Irish faceplant in 2016, these two programs have gone two different directions since C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller locked arms with two Seminoles defensive backs — this is not to relitigate that call, it was seven years ago, and locking arms is a factual description of the encounter. Notre Dame has reached the College Football Playoff twice in the last three years, winning at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons, while Florida State has lost at least six games in each of the last four seasons.
The Seminoles no longer represent a measuring stick for the Irish. These are not the No. 2 defending national champions of seven years ago.
But then again, this is not the Rose Bowl participant Notre Dame of New Year’s Day. Gone are four starting offensive linemen, the winningest quarterback in program history, the top-two receivers, two fifth-round defensive ends, the best linebacker in the country and a highly-respected defensive coordinator.
For the Irish, this season opener is more about learning about their replacements than it is about the opponent. For the fans, Labor Day Eve (7:30 ET; ABC) will be more about the catharsis of a full-blown football game than it will be about the drama of a close finish.
Of course, it all ties together. Ian Book, Robert Hainsey and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah all knew how to handle a rowdy road crowd. Freshman left tackle Blake Fisher has never played in front of a crowd the likes of which Florida State is sure to deliver. Neither has sophomore running back Chris Tyree, given 2020’s limitations. The same goes for starting sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis.
“We show them what it’s going to be like at Florida State and present to them, ‘Alright, where are you going to be when that horse runs out on the field, mentally?’” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “‘Where are you going to be with the excitement and the Chop and all that?’
“You’ve got to get into your optimal zone.”
Getting into that optimal zone quickly will help the Irish silence the crowd via their unquestionable on-field talent advantage, one unthinkable seven years ago.
Notre Dame will be better in the trenches than nearly every team it plays in 2021, but the Seminoles are an extreme in that deficiency. Their offensive line has become a narrative of failure these last four years, and their defensive line allowed 5.1 yards per rush last season, low-lighted by the Irish rushing for 8.4 yards per carry in a 42-26 Notre Dame victory.
No matter how many transfers a team pulls in — including former Irish offensive guard Dillan Gibbons, now a Florida State starter — it cannot restock the entire proverbial cupboard in one offseason.
Only one FSU OL in their two-deep was a blue-chip (4 or 5-star) recruit: backup iOL Baveon Johnson
— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) August 31, 2021
For comparison, Notre Dame’s starting offensive line will go, from left to right: five-star, four-star, three-star preseason All-American, Marshall transfer and 2020 second-team All-American, four-star, per rivals.com.
The same talent disparity exists on the other side of the line. The Seminoles list 11 players within their defensive front two-deep, of which four were blue-chip recruits. Of the 11 players considered within the Irish defensive front two-deep, seven were four-star prospects.
Obviously, that is only one metric. Players develop, coaches scheme, and depth matters, but it all starts with talent. For Notre Dame, possibly the offensive lineman with the most talent to tap is also the one furthest from showing it all, Fisher, only the second freshman offensive lineman to start the season opener in program history.
“You’ve got to be able to handle all the things that happen quickly, blitzes, stunts, movements, recognition,” Kelly said of Fisher on Thursday. “So for you to put it all together, especially at the left tackle position, is extraordinary.”
Of all of Sunday’s possible lessons, including just how good it will feel to see the Irish surrounded by a crowd, even one clad in garnet instead of green, and all the 2021 overreactions that will inevitably be drawn during the opener, the most informational moments will come from Fisher. If he can handle the crowd, Georgia transfer defensive end Jermaine Johnson and the general responsibilities of being the next Notre Dame left tackle, then Fisher could change the Irish trajectory for the next three years.
The rest of the offensive line is at least known to some degree. Fisher is trusted, but not known.
The same could be said for senior receiver Kevin Austin. Six catches for 108 yards hardly qualify a player as a known commodity, no matter how many times he has been praised for practice performances, but credit should be given to Austin’s mental fortitude. Persisting through a suspension and a twice-broken foot to once again be seen as the best Irish perimeter weapon suggests the Chop could echo throughout the entire first half and Austin would not be fazed.
“He has an easy story, as [the question] kind of alluded to, that he transfers and moves on somewhere else, but he wanted to do it here,” Kelly said. “… He’s been strong-minded in terms of fighting through some very difficult times to want to play for Notre Dame.”
Finally playing a full game for the Irish will be its own benchmark for Austin, and he very well may exceed his career totals in just one game, but if he does not, that is not inherently a bad thing. Notre Dame may have more receivers than it can genuinely use, so heavy rotations will be noticed.
“I wish there were more receiver spots on offense, honestly,” junior safety Kyle Hamilton said during this week’s ND on NBC podcast. “We have six people who could start right now on any college team.”
If anyone would know, it would be the preseason All-American tasked with defending those receivers six days a week for the last month. Despite his own projected top-10 draft status, Hamilton speaks of Austin almost as if he is a peer in terms of professional prospects.
“He’s kind of an anomaly out there, how big he is, how fast he is, how agile he is and how much body control he has,” Hamilton said. “He has great hands and great ball skills and goes up and gets it. He has that mentality where he goes up and snags the ball. It’s not really something you can teach.”
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Yet, as the most unproven of Notre Dame’s five veteran receivers, Austin will yield time to the others regularly, if not also to freshman Lorenzo Styles. Even then, it is unlikely more than a couple of them see the field at a time.
The best Irish personnel grouping will feature two running backs and one tight end, a drastic shift from the multiple tight end reliances of the last few seasons.
“We’re getting (sophomore tight end) Michael Mayer on the field with (junior running back) Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree,” Kelly said. “We like that because we’re putting three dynamic players on the field, so at times when 21 (personnel, using two running backs) is thought of, it’s kind of an old-fashioned connotation about a pro-style offense.
“In fact, it’s putting another playmaker on the field for us that we can move around into different formations.”
Kelly went on to specifically mention Williams as someone “that can move around quite a bit,” a talking point since February. Again, like Fisher’s success, Notre Dame genuinely leaning into split running backs could be a look into years to come, not to put too much emphasis on one game against a team that has gone 21-26 in the last four seasons.
The Irish have stockpiled talented running backs, arguably going five-deep currently. Even after Williams heads to the NFL, they will have the tools to lean into 21 personnel, particularly if the left tackle can so handle himself that an extra tight end is not needed to help against opposing defensive ends.
This primetime moment will be remembered for the decibels released, even the ones contributing to the Chop. The 2021 tone will be set by how players like Wisconsin quarterback transfer Jack Coan, transfer portal blip safety Houston Griffith and fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa start their last go-rounds, but the moments that will foreshadow the most will come from Fisher, Austin and Williams.
One should be a long-term cornerstone of Notre Dame’s offense; another could prove once again that the Irish produce strong receivers, though they sometimes take a while; and the third may be the needed proof of concept for an offensive shift that will further develop even after his departure.
Notre Dame’s defense might have a new coordinator, but it was its offense that did not rise to the occasion at the end of 2020. The first steps of its evolution will come in the form of 2014’s revenge.