No. 9 Notre Dame at Florida State: Time, TV, Preview & Prediction

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It is not a top-5 matchup a la 2014, and it is not a top-2 matchup like 1993’s “Game of the Century.” More importantly, it will not be played in a stadium where the empty seats outnumber the fans by tens of thousands as was obviously the case last year.

But No. 9 Notre Dame’s visit to Florida State tonight brings with it plenty of intrigue, as the Irish look to a new quarterback who will rely on an unproven yet tantalizing receiver, hoping to embark on winning 10-plus games for a fifth straight season while the Seminoles will trot out up to a dozen transfers in a real-time roster rehaul.

In those respects, while this may not have the obvious markings of a game to be long-remembered as past matchups in this rivalry have, it should set a tone for both Notre Dame’s and Florida State’s seasons.

TIME: The broadcast will begin at 7:30 ET, with kickoff likely about 12 minutes later. Maybe 13. How do we know that exact mark this week? Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell expects to name his starting quarterback a minute or two later.

Setting aside the 50/50 chance Florida State even receives the opening kickoff — Irish head coach Brian Kelly has long preferred to start with the ball if he wins the toss — informed speculation increasingly expects sophomore Jordan Travis to start for the Seminoles.

Central Florida transfer McKenzie Milton may or may not play, but either way, him simply getting to the point of being in a full-preseason quarterback competition deserves credit after Milton suffered such a devastating knee injury in 2018 that he nearly lost his leg.

TV: ABC has the primetime broadcast, part of the six-day long debut week for college football, and it should also be available via the ESPN app. While you are at it, maybe take this long day of waiting for kickoff to sign up for Peacock and install the app on your TV or phone if need be to make it that much easier to watch Notre Dame’s home opener against Toledo in a week (Saturday, 2:30 ET), which will be available exclusively on Peacock.

PREVIEW: The Milton question persists for Florida State, in part because he should have a higher ceiling than Travis’ run-dominant quarterbacking, and in part because Milton’s comeback from injury is the kind of story that makes college football worthwhile.

The Irish defense has not shut out a Power Five opponent in seven years; new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman logged just two shutouts in his 49 games as Cincinnati’s defensive lead, two opponents in 2018 that combined to go 9-16 that season. The Seminoles will almost certainly score tonight, and even a Notre Dame fan should appreciate it if Milton is the one to find the end zone.

If Milton does not start — or even play that much — it may be a reflection of a talent mismatch that would put his knee at great risk, not necessarily something to do in his first live action nearly three years after his injury. Florida State’s four-year downfall (going 21-26 since 2017) has tied to its offensive line more than any other position. When Dillan Gibbons was passed over by an early-enrolled freshman on the Irish starting offensive line, he opted to transfer somewhere he might start. The Seminoles were waiting.

“The (Florida State) offensive line is much improved from last year,” Kelly said this week. “A lot of it has to do with the continuity. They all return.

“We all know that Dillan Gibbons has transferred there, and he’s a solid player, as well. He adds experience to their group, a group that’s now been together.”

Obviously, Notre Dame’s offensive line is perennially among the country’s best, but when a “solid” reserve is a shoo-in for a starting role at a nominal blue blood, that makes it clear the latter’s offensive line is lacking.

Meanwhile, the Irish defensive line has become nearly as reliable as its offensive line. During the exact same stretch Florida State has faltered, Notre Dame has gone 43-8, and throughout that stretch, defensive line coach Mike Elston has developed talent.

“They have great length, they play extremely hard,” Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell said of the Irish defensive front. “A physical bunch up front, coupled with what coach Freeman has shown to do with different movements up front and the way that he’s able to disguise some of the ways that he’s going to bring pressure, whether it’s blitzing linebackers or different run stunts up front.

“He does a great job with his disguises. I’m expecting multiple fronts, to be able to jump in and out of three- and four-down sets. They have really good depth, they have guys that have great experience and have been productive throughout their careers at Notre Dame. This is going to be a great challenge for our guys up front.”

If that challenge were to overrun Gibbons and his new teammates, and Milton does not yet fully trust his knee or instinctively shies from contact, avoidable disaster could mar the welcomed return of college football in full force.

Beyond that Milton thought — and it is more likely Travis either beat him out or Milton is not full-go just yet — the discrepancy in the trenches will define this tilt.

Freeman’s multiple looks and aggressive fronts will catch Irish fans’ eyes, but the sheer talent disparity should allow his Notre Dame debut to be straightforward. The Irish defensive line will overpower Florida State’s offensive line. And Notre Dame’s offensive line will control the Seminoles’ defensive line.

As detailed Friday, the talent gap in the trenches goes beyond Elston’s development or the Irish offensive line reputation. It is thorough and nearly comprehensive.

In more precise terms, college football analyst Seth Varnadore puts together a database ranking every single position group in the country based on their exact recruiting rankings. His numbers consider Notre Dame’s offensive line the No. 4 most-talented front in the country, development and experience notwithstanding. The Irish defensive line comes in at No. 12 among defensive fronts.

Florida State ranks No. 18 and No. 22, respectively.

Notre Dame’s offensive line may need time to gel, with four new starters essentially meaning none of the players in that group have played together, and it may include a freshman starting the season opener for just the second time in program history in left tackle Blake Fisher, but its raw abilities should be enough to keep Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson, a transfer from Georgia, in check.

Likewise, the Irish defensive line may be trotting out a converted tackle at end in fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and junior end Isaiah Foskey may have underwhelmed this preseason to the point that earlier this week Kelly went ahead and said, “He has not reached his ceiling,” but simple scheming should allow that front to put Gibbons & Co. on its heels.

PREDICTION: If Notre Dame can control the trenches to that extent, it should have little trouble controlling the game. This analysis can be that simple.

As of early Sunday morning, PointsBet considers the Irish to be 7-point favorites with a combined point total over/under of 55.5. That spread may drop by half a point by midday, but it would likely bounce back to 7, if so. Either way, those numbers suggest a 31-24 conclusion, a close enough game that would no doubt delight ABC and ESPN executives.

If Notre Dame has such a distinct edge on the line of scrimmage, why is it favored by only a touchdown? Blame the timing of the game.

Preseason lines are based nearly entirely on algorithms that produce numbers commonly referred to as power rankings. Those calculations hinge on returning production first and foremost, then recruiting rankings as well as recent history. That returning production weighs returning offensive line very heavily, almost as heavily as, well, the offensive linemen.

No matter how hotly Fisher and junior left guard Zeke Correll were recruited, the Irish power ranking takes a knock because they have so little experience (only Correll’s two starts late in 2020). Fifth-year Josh Lugg may have been around for every one of Notre Dame’s 43 wins the last four seasons, but he has not played enough to boost the line’s effect in those ratings. For a more tangible example: This is all why Phil Steele ranked the Irish offensive line at No. 54 in his offensive line rankings, arguably incomprehensible given Notre Dame won the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in 2017, was a semifinalist the next two years and a finalist in 2020. But Steele looked at the Irish returning just 31 starts along their offensive line and downgraded them, writing, “While weaker overall, HC Brian Kelly will form a solid group once again.”

Solid.

The Irish are thus devalued.

Alabama or Ohio State gets some benefit of the doubt in the power rankings via the recent history aspect, but that applies more broadly than to any specific position group. If Notre Dame should get the specific benefit of the doubt anywhere, it is along its offensive line, given its dominance the last four years, despite needing to rotate through players as their predecessors headed to the NFL.

Once the season gets going, the previous weeks’ stats factor in, and a good but inexperienced offensive line will boost a team’s power ranking and thus influence odds moving forward, but not in week one.

If willing to grant the Irish offensive line the benefit of the doubt — an ask of an if given Fisher is only the second freshman to start a season opener in Notre Dame history, given Lugg’s play was nagged by back issues in 2020, given right guard Cain Madden is stepping up in level of competition from his days at Marshall — then that 7-point spread comes across as far too little.

Notre Dame 37, Florida State 27.

Picking the Irish to win by two possessions is not a leap of faith in Wisconsin transfer quarterback Jack Coan, an assertion that senior receiver Kevin Austin will make up for three seasons of practice hype in one year of action or that Freeman will immediately pick up where Clark Lea left off. No, picking the Irish to win by two possessions is simply recognizing Florida State’s weaknesses in the trenches and Notre Dame’s strengths.

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INSIDE THE IRISH
2020 lessons remain top of mind as Notre Dame nears 2021’s kickoff
Friday night showcase will shine light on two Irish foes
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s return to Florida State and the Chop could foreshadow seasons to come
And In That Corner: Florida State looks to transfers to slow No. 9 Notre Dame
Friday at 4: Notre Dame is back, college football is back, ‘let’s do this’

OUTSIDE READING
McKenzie Milton’s orthopedic surgeon details the FSU QB’s long road back to football
FSU QB McKenzie Milton seeks another chance to play the game he loves
Transfer time: New rule brings college football free agency
Perseverance pays for Notre Dame’s Kevin Austin
Fully healthy Kevin Austin Jr. finds long-awaited sustained momentum
Chance to transcend status as practice legend arrives for Notre Dame WR Kevin Austin Jr.
FSU to offer vaccination clinic at Doak Campbell Stadium before Notre Dame game
The thing about college football is that it’s not about college football
This is the biggest opening weekend ever, literally and figuratively
Will these 10 coordinator changes work out?
College football 50 things countdown: I can’t wait to soak in the atmosphere from above