NCF Nation: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Elite 2016 quarterback Shea Patterson will be one of many top recruits in Oxford this weekend. While the SEC leads the way in total ESPN 300 commitments, it’s another conference that has secured the most pledges to this point.

Navy challenge twofold for Irish

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- His 24-year coaching career across 12 different college and pro stops has offered Brian VanGorder a taste in all that offensive football has to offer. And yet this Saturday's trip to Navy will be the Notre Dame defensive coordinator's first time facing an option team in a decade.

"2004, I want to say: Georgia Southern," VanGorder said, referring to when he was Georgia's defensive coordinator.

VanGorder takes an Irish unit into Landover, Maryland, that is still smarting from its first defeat of the season, at defending national champion Florida State last week. And he gets the benefit of a team bye week and student mid-semester break before preparation for the Midshipmen hits full force in the coming days.

When it comes to Navy, though, the biggest concern is not necessarily stopping the triple-option on a given Saturday. Yes, Keenan Reynolds has proven to be lethal, illustrating his brilliance again this past Saturday by rushing for 251 yards, the highest total by an FBS quarterback this season. His three rushing touchdowns in a win over San Jose State extended his FBS-leading active streak of games with a rushing touchdown to 14 games.

But peek ahead to what awaits Notre Dame Nov. 8 in Tempe, Arizona, and you see what is hardly an ideal recovery mission for the Irish when they go to Arizona State. And when it comes to facing Navy, recovery time is usually what matters most for the Irish.

In the seven games Notre Dame and Navy have played since coach Ken Niumatalolo took over Navy before the 2007 season, the Irish have a 4-3 record against the Midshipmen, including a current three-game winning streak. In the seven games played immediately following their contests with Navy, the Irish are just 2-5. Those two wins: a seven-point victory at Wake Forest in 2011 and a three-point home win over Purdue in 2012.

The Irish have lost to a good Air Force team when they themselves were not good (41-24, 2007); they have lost to a terrible Syracuse team that had just fired its coach (24-23, 2008); they have lost to a Pitt team that was a few plays away from a Big East title (27-22, 2009); they have lost to a Pitt team that barely went bowling thanks in large part to beating the Irish (28-21, 2013).

This is not particularly unique to Notre Dame: Of the 4-4 Midshipmen's first seven opponents this season, just two -- Temple and Rutgers -- won the following game. And the Owls' win came against an FCS Delaware State squad after a bye week.

None of these setbacks, of course, came from a VanGorder-run defense. None of those prior Irish opponents, though, may be able to match the offensive firepower of the ASU team Notre Dame will face in two weeks.

The Sun Devils -- who have no picnic of their own this Saturday in hosting Utah -- are the 11th-best passing team in the nation, and they score nearly 37 points per game. That is a little off their nearly 40-points-per-game clip from a year ago, a season in which the Irish beat them, but the pace and expected desert heat will be a challenge nonetheless.

First comes Navy, though, as the Midshipmen appear to be hitting their stride coming off their top-two offensive outings of the season.

"I think the value of the week off right now through seven games and coming off a great game (Oct. 18), the most important thing right now is we get some rest and get away from the game a little bit," VanGorder said last week. "Let the coaches work the Navy game plan, let the players get away. I think that’s important. Hopefully they’re fresh in coming back and, yeah, they’ve got to adapt, it’s an entirely different game. But these guys will. Our players, again, are high-character, smart guys. They’ll adapt and be fine."

Few can doubt that. The last time they had excess time to prepare for Navy, the Irish won 50-10 in the 2012 opener in Dublin. The season before that, with the locker room on edge after a loss to USC, the Irish channeled their frustrations into a 56-14 rout.

Both of those years mark the only times out of the past seven that the Irish then went out and won the next week. With a team this season whose playoff hopes remain very much alive, it is safe to say these Irish are not taking anything for granted.

"Everybody’s got to be detailed," VanGorder said. "It’s assignment football, and if you have a breakdown it can be devastating."

Not as devastating as the fallout, win or lose Saturday, which makes the Irish's first trip West the following week all the more challenging.

Early Offer: Hogs dominate in-state 

October, 26, 2014
Oct 26
To win in the SEC, Arkansas knew it had to keep the star-studded 2015 in-state recruiting class at home, and that’s exactly what it has done. Plus, a rival recruiter believes Notre Dame’s class will be in the top five by the time signing day arrives.

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Duke now has the ability to sell a winning program and new facilities to recruits, and prospects like what they're seeing. Plus, the nation's top 2016 quarterback was slated to be at Florida State for the Notre Dame game, but he wasn't able to make it and now is looking for a return date.

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ESPN 300: Five who could flip 

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
The Class of 2015 has seen more than 35 prospects in the ESPN 300 flip or decommit during the cycle. As many as 30 more prospects in the ESPN 300 could flip between now and national signing day. With that possibility in mind, here are five to keep tabs on less than four months away from national signing day.

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A lot of talent has already come off the board, but there’s still quality at the top of the ESPN 300 that could give at least 10 teams a shot at the second-best class. Plus, Penn State's James Franklin continues to be the most talked about coach in the Washington D.C. metro area.

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There is a simple bit of clarity confronting the ACC and Florida State eight weeks into the season: Perfection seems the only way to get the Seminoles into the College Football Playoff.

No other Power 5 program will be held to such a standard. But no other Power 5 conference has its reputation in a sinkhole the way the ACC does. That is why it was so important for Florida State to beat Notre Dame on Saturday. As long as the Noles keep winning, they are assured of a spot in the top four. But lose? Florida State may as well be playing in Conference USA. That is how little respect the ACC has nationally right now.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston was fired up after Saturday's victory over Notre Dame, but the Noles will have to keep winning if they hope to make the playoff.
Just look at the most recent AP and coaches Top 25 polls. While the College Football Playoff selection committee will put together its own rankings next week, it is instructive to look at how the media and coaches perceive the ACC -- outside Florida State.

Because the league as a whole is what will drag Florida State down if the Noles lose a game.

Besides Florida State, the ACC has only one ranked team. In the AP poll, Clemson (5-2) is No. 21 behind two other two-loss teams: Oklahoma and USC. Reigning Coastal champion Duke (6-1) cannot even crack the Top 25 after back-to-back victories over ACC teams with winning records. East Carolina (5-1), with wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina, is ranked No. 18.

Duke and Minnesota are the only 6-1 teams from Power 5 conferences that are unranked. That fact not only speaks to their status as “non-football powers,” but to the idea that their respective leagues are weak. The Big Ten has been panned for its mediocrity this season. But the ACC ranks lower than the Big Ten in the conference power rankings, sitting last among the Power 5 conferences.

Everything we heard during media days about the ACC being stronger? Everything we heard about the ACC gaining more respect since it boasted the national champion? False propaganda. As it turns out, an ACC world with the reigning national champion does not look much different.

Florida State is still alone holding the flag, while Clemson is a distant second. It is hard for a program to fight off the weak-conference stigma when it does not beat its most difficult opponents (Clemson) or play anybody tough out of conference (Duke).

Clemson lost to two Top 10 teams this season -- to Georgia and Florida State. Both teams were ranked higher than the Tigers at the time they played. Yet Oklahoma lost to two teams ranked lower (TCU and Kansas State) and is still four spots higher than Clemson in the AP poll.

These are the ingrained notions that follow programs around, no matter what they do. Clemson “chokes” and the ACC is constantly disrespected. Put them both together and you get critics completely dismissing Florida State’s win over the Tigers earlier this season.

Falling flat nationally hurts, too. While ACC teams like Virginia Tech, Boston College and Florida State have big wins over then-Top 10 opponents, the league also has some head-scratching losses to Colorado State, Akron and ULM. Plus, there were blown opportunities against UCLA, Nebraska, Iowa and Maryland.

So essentially, Florida State gets no lifelines from its conference foes. Even a beefed-up nonconference schedule has not engendered much goodwill from the rest of the country.

Funny to think that before the season started, many believed a one-loss Florida State team would survive and make it into the College Football Playoff based on a strength of schedule that looked much better than it did last season.

As it stands today, Florida State is on pace to play fewer ranked teams than it played in 2013. Right now, the Noles have two ranked teams behind them and none remaining. Last season, they played four Top 25 teams at the time of the matchup (two of them ended the season unranked).

Four of Florida State's remaining five games are against teams with winning records. But nobody wants to hear that going to Louisville and Miami won’t be easy; that Virginia is vastly improved; that Boston College gave the Noles fits last season. Florida State will be expected to win them all.

That’s really the only way the Noles can guarantee themselves a spot in the playoff.

Once again, Florida State is on its own.
Election Day is coming, in case you have not heard. One week before the Nov. 4 midterms, too.

Brian Kelly is no stranger to all of this. The Notre Dame coach is the son of an alderman. He once worked for Massachusetts state senator Gerry D'Amico. He was a driver for eventual presidential candidate Gary Hart.

A day after his Fighting Irish lost a 31-27 heartbreaker at Florida State, a defeat that kept the Seminoles' win streak alive at 23 and sent the 6-1 Irish down to No. 7 in the AP poll, Kelly took the initiative to play to his audience.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly was quick to hit the College Football Playoff campaign trail following his loss to Florida State.
Not necessarily to his Notre Dame constituency -- unanimous in its frustration over an offensive pass interference call that wiped away a potential game-winning touchdown Saturday -- but to the College Football Playoff selection committee.

The 13-person committee will unveil its first top 25 rankings Oct. 28. Notre Dame has a bye this week, so its loss at FSU in what was arguably the best game of the year was, in effect, its last rehearsal for the committee before the group's initial rankings.

Kelly, ever the politician, made sure all noticed.

"Florida State blew the coverage and they got rewarded for it," is the line he trotted out Sunday that will draw the most attention, an assertion that has been (and will continue to be) picked apart endlessly.

"There's great disappointment," Kelly later added. "You never want to let the game be decided by a referee. You want to control the game yourself.

"What happened at the end was out of our control. We feel like we did the things necessary. We've got to be able to control finishes. That means make a couple more plays. If you've got the champ, you can't win by split decision, you've got to knock him out. I think that's what we want to take away from this."

The written records show that C.J. Prosise received blame for the costly penalty, but Kelly (and others) learned afterward that the flag was actually thrown on Will Fuller. That only further muddled the situation for Kelly, who said that there was nothing that Fuller could have done differently on the play.

Never mind that ACC supervisor of officials Doug Rhoads agreed with the call, or that seemingly every other analyst concurred as well. Never mind that, according to Kelly, officials confessed to him that they missed FSU corner P.J. Williams taking his helmet off on the field after Corey Robinson's nullified go-ahead grab, a no-call that added insult to injury. The only real point of contention, it seemed, was that the spirit of the pass interference rule was violated, a view steeped in the old-school belief across all sports that officials should swallow their whistles in a game's final minutes, especially in an instant classic between two unbeatens.

What matters among all of this are the thoughts of that 13-person committee, and if the rankings that they trot out from next week until the postseason will reflect what Kelly and Notre Dame feel was the truth of the matter Saturday night: That they were better than the defending national champions at Doak Campbell Stadium, and that they should not suffer because of the way things ended.

"I just loved our guys, their mentality going on the road in a hostile environment," Kelly said. "It really did not affect them. They played physical, controlled the line of scrimmage. We made plays against a team that had won 22 in a row. You love that about your team, its psyche, the way they went into the game. So all those are huge things."

This is college football in 2014, where every game still counts, but each game is not exactly an elimination game, not with four teams competing for the top prize at the end instead of two, not just with three Power 5 teams standing unbeaten here eights weeks through the season, with two of those (Ole Miss and Mississippi State) facing each other at season's end.

This is what Kelly -- no stranger to postseason play, having guided Grand Valley State to back-to-back Division II titles in 2002 and 2003 -- guarded against last week, saying that the trip to Tallahassee would not be a make-or-break deal for the Irish.

"It's a journey," Kelly said six days before the FSU game. "You know, this one is such that you have to persevere, and it's a long, long schedule to get there. For us, Florida State is an important game, but we've got to get the rest of the games that are equally as important. I think just pacing our football team through a long season when I was in Division II, you're playing 15 games, and here it's a long season. You just have to make sure that your calendar is stretched out so you're pacing your football team through the season."

It is foolish to assume anything in college football, least of all that Notre Dame will respond to Saturday's loss by winning its five remaining scheduled games. The Irish certainly could, though, and -- with apologies to unbeaten Marshall -- the four-team playoff is already virtually assured of featuring at least two one-loss teams. Notre Dame feels it belongs in that conversation, even without the 13th game that four conferences will offer their finalists.

So Kelly doubled-down on his stance Sunday in a defense of his players and of his fan base but, most importantly, in an attempt to convince the voices who matter that the Irish are better than the FSU team that has not lost in 23 months, and that questionable officiating was the only thing standing in their way.

He may be three decades and several gray hairs away from his previous life, but Kelly can still politic with the best of them.
The Big 12 was turned upside down by West Virginia and Kansas State, and both are being led by former juco recruits. Plus, it was no surprise that many of the nation's best recruits walked away impressed with Florida State following Saturday's victory over Notre Dame.

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If the 1993 matchup between Florida State and Notre Dame was the game of the century, Saturday night's contest certainly proved to be a worthy successor. The Seminoles held off a final drive from the Irish and stopped one last fourth-down heave from Everett Golson to preserve a 31-27 win, extend their win streak to 23 and keep their playoff hopes alive.

How the game was won: Florida State erased a 17-10 halftime deficit on the arm of Jameis Winston, who was nearly flawless in the second half, but it was a final defensive stand that was the difference. Notre Dame converted a fourth-and-18 with less than two minutes remaining, but Golson couldn’t get the job done again on the game’s final play. The Irish had four drives of more than 10 plays, but the 12th play of the final drive was a long throw from Golson that was picked off by Jacob Pugh in the back of the end zone, which gave Florida State the win.

Game ball goes to: Winston, of course. The FSU quarterback spent the week dealing with more off-the-field chaos, and he struggled in the early going against Notre Dame, including a foolish throw that resulted in an interception. But in the second half, Winston was electric. He completed 15 of 16 throws for 181 yards and a touchdown. Credit, too, to Winston’s receiving corps. Rashad Greene was spectacular once again and caught eight passes for 108 yards, while freshman Travis Rudolph (six catches for 80 yards and a score) took a huge step forward in his career.

What it means: For Florida State, it means the win streak is extended and the playoff hopes remain. For Notre Dame, it’s a blow to the postseason dreams. But it was also a showcase for just how good this team is, led by Golson, who battled cramps to turn in a tremendous performance. Notre Dame will certainly slide a bit in the polls, but with some big games remaining on the slate, the Irish still have a chance at the playoff.

Playoff implications: Florida State’s ticket certainly isn’t punched, given tough games against Louisville, Virginia and Miami on deck, but this felt like the biggest hurdle the Seminoles will face in defending their title. The question now is whether a close win over the No. 5 team in the nation can push FSU past Mississippi State for the top spot in the polls. The Irish proved a lot of critics wrong, but a loss is still a loss, and it’ll be a bit more of an uphill climb for them to reach the playoff.

Best play: There were plenty of them on both sides, but the two most memorable will probably be the two fourth-and-18 throws on the last drive. The first one was a minor miracle, as Golson completed a 20-yard pass to Corey Robinson with a man in his face to extend the drive. But the final throw from Golson was picked off in the back of the end zone to secure the win. Of course, for sheer drama, the play that preceded that last heave -- a touchdown toss to a wide open Robinson -- will be the one Notre Dame fans will talk about for years. A penalty negated the score and the win.

video What’s next: Both teams get a much-needed week off after Saturday’s heavyweight battle. Notre Dame returns against Navy on Nov. 1 but still has tough matchups against Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC to close out the year. FSU has a Thursday date at Louisville on Oct. 30 that could be a potential trap on the Seminoles’ way to the playoff.
It wasn’t any solace for Kinnon Tatum, but the silver lining was he was only a freshman linebacker at Notre Dame in 1993. When pollsters leapfrogged Florida State above Notre Dame that year, keeping the Irish out of the national championship game, Tatum believed chances were good they might see the Seminoles in an actual championship game rather than a precursor like in 1993.

There was a belief the Irish would be in the championship conversation during his final three years, and there could be another “Game of the Century” or two in his time.

“You always think you’re going to be in that hunt,” Tatum said.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Ward and Bryant Young
AP Photo/Mark EliasNotre Dame's Bryant Young tackles Florida State's Charlie Ward in 1993. Young went on to an All-Pro NFL career a few months later, and Ward played 12 years in the NBA.
Twenty-one years later, the Fighting Irish haven't won a national championship since then, as Florida State and Notre Dame took diverging paths following that 1993 season. The Seminoles played in five national title games from 1993 to 2000 and never finished lower than fifth in the AP Poll. Before the 1993 season, Bobby Bowden had eight seasons in the top six, but none that ended with a national title.

“Winning that first one, it gets the monkey off your back. Now you know how to win it and the coaches understand how to push you in that direction,” said Devin Bush, a starter on the 1993 team. “You win a national championship and you’re on a national stage with a lot of visibility, and you set the bar and then recruit at it.”

When a program wins 11 national titles in its history, the bar never lowers. The results, however, did. After 1993, the Irish lost their footing from college football’s summit. The flag Lou Holtz planted in 1988 was uprooted from the mountain as Notre Dame didn’t finish in the top 10 once from 1994 to 2011. Twelve times they finished unranked.

For perspective, Washington State (four), Boise State (three) and TCU (two) all had more top-10 finishes in that span.

“We certainly had one of the greatest college football classes ever,” said former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jim Flanigan, who was part of the 1990 recruiting class. “I do feel like we kind of blew an opportunity to win a national championship.”

Florida State and Notre Dame played in 1994 and 1995, and while they were close games, Florida State players remember a far less talented team. Much of the 1993 roster graduated to the NFL.

“It was a special bond the ’93 team had, and we just couldn’t replicate the outcome,” added Jeff Kilburg, a Notre Dame center from 1993-96. “We had the same common denominator -- high school All-Americans, tremendous players -- but the stars didn’t align.

The Seminoles wouldn’t endure a season with more than two losses until 2001, which set in motion Florida State’s own dark period as questions surrounding Bowden’s age and ability to command the program arose. But for that eight-year stretch from 1993-2000, the Seminoles consistently had three things that kept them among the country’s elite and it began with personnel, said Mickey Andrews, the defensive coordinator from 1984 to 2010.

“It encompasses players, staff and the people who support your program,” Andrews said. “Then the second thing is about attitude and commitment. We used to finish with a goal-line scrimmage every Tuesday. The next thing is the consistency to follow through every year. You say we’re going to be the best team, but is it cheap talk?”

Notre Dame might have been lacking in each category, but it began at the top. Lou Holtz has a statue outside Notre Dame Stadium after winning a national title in 1988 and turning around a floundering program. Holtz spent 11 seasons as the Notre Dame coach, stepping down in 1996, and there were four head coaches in the next 11 years. The fact the Irish are still paying Charlie Weis embodies the coaching circumstances in South Bend.

[+] EnlargeLou Holtz
AP Photo/Joe RaymondLou Holtz leads Notre Dame onto the field before a 31-24 victory over the Seminoles on Nov. 13, 1993.
Bob Davie succeeded Lou Holtz and went 35-25 in five seasons. Tyrone Willingham won 10 games his first season, but was fired after a combined 11-12 record in his next two. Charlie Weis won 19 games in his first two seasons but just 16 in the next three. Those three coaches went a decade without a bowl victory until Notre Dame won the 2008 Hawaii Bowl.

“Coach Holtz is a major factor in that. He is a legend, and part of the lull that happens with almost every program following a [great coach's] departure is the football team flounders until they re-establish an identity,” Flanigan said.

Tatum said the No. 1 reason for the Irish’s lack of success is that “Notre Dame is not a great fit” for every coach.

He is confident Brian Kelly has the perfect persona for a Notre Dame coach, and Kelly’s on-field results have awoken the echoes. With a victory against No. 2 Florida State on Saturday, the Irish, ranked fifth, would have an inside track for a playoff bid and perhaps a second national championship game in three seasons.

“Everyone kicks us when we’re not good. We’re the Dallas Cowboys of college football,” Tatum said. “Now we’re back where we know we belong.”

Florida State is, too. It feels a little like 1993, and both teams just might be able to sustain that success this time.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
Pittsburgh snapped a three-game skid Thursday by beating Virginia Tech. Here's the rest of the ACC action for Week 8.


Syracuse at Wake Forest, ESPN, #CUSEvsWAKE: AJ Long gets the start for Syracuse after Terrel Hunt and Austin Wilson both went down. The true freshman saw extended action last week against defending national champion Florida State, and he now faces a stingy Wake Forest defense that is coming off a bye. The Demon Deacons also start a true freshman under center, though John Wolford has been the guy for Wake since Day 1. Expect defense to rule the day in this contest.

12:30 p.m.

Virginia at Duke, ESPN3, #UVAvsDUKE: It is the current Coastal Division leaders against the reigning division champions. What gives? The Cavaliers are coming off a bye after looking impressive in wins over Pitt and, earlier this season, Louisville. Can the Hoos' defense deliver once again? The Blue Devils did hand Georgia Tech its first loss of the season last week, but their offense needs to play within themselves.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsWill Gardner is expected to get the nod at quarterback for Louisville, which hosts NC State on Saturday.
NC State at Louisville, ESPN3, #NCSUvsLOU: It's 11 straight ACC losses for the Wolfpack, who are still seeking that first league win under Dave Doeren. A team that looked so good so early this season has struggled immensely on the offensive side of the ball in the past two weeks against Clemson and Boston College. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are looking to erase the sour taste from their mouths after last week's heartbreaker against the Tigers. They will turn back to Will Gardner under center to try to get them back on track. Receiver DeVante Parker, who has yet to play this season, is questionable.

No. 24 Clemson at Boston College, ESPNU, #CLEMvsBC: Alumni Stadium holds a special place in Dabo Swinney's heart, as it was the site of his first career win as Clemson's head coach. The Eagles nearly shocked the Tigers last year back in Death Valley, and they did manage to knock off USC earlier this season, so they cannot be taken lightly. BC's run game has been simply astounding at times, with the Eagles outrushing their opposition 1,513-134 in their four wins. Clemson turns back to Cole Stoudt this week at quarterback after Deshaun Watson suffered a broken finger last week.

7 p.m.

Georgia Tech at North Carolina, ESPNU, #GTvsUNC: The Yellow Jackets lost their first game of the season last week, a delay-filled affair against Duke. But that option attack might still be tough to defend for a UNC defense that cannot seem to get out of its own way. Marquise Williams played a terrific game last week at Notre Dame, giving the Tar Heels a tremendous chance to win. But surrendering 50 points for the third time this season did the Heels no good, and, unless that changes, questions will remain about this team.

8 p.m.

No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Florida State, ABC, #NDvsFSU: Everett Golson is 16-1 as a starter. Jameis Winston is 19-0. "College GameDay" is on hand for this game with huge College Football Playoff implications. Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher are both in their fifth season with the Fighting Irish and Seminoles, respectively, and [at least] one might have the chance to be in the national title mix for the second time in three seasons. Notre Dame lost in the title game in 2012; FSU won it all in 2013. Chaos has subsided with the Irish, who finally know the fate of the five players who were suspended back in August as part of an internal academic probe. FSU, meanwhile, has dealt with the circus that is Winston seemingly all season long, with the heat amped up this week amid news of a potential disciplinary hearing and an autograph controversy.
Jameis Winston, Everett GolsonGetty Images, USA Today SportsThe winner of Saturday's ND-FSU game will have the inside track on the College Football Playoff.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- They weren't supposed to be back like this. Not so soon. Not this powerful.

Notre Dame and Florida State had entered the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl as perennial underachievers, in the second years under their respective head coaches. The running joke was that the winner would automatically be a title contender the next season, for the hype around the Fighting Irish and Seminoles could hardly ever subside. Their performances that night in Orlando were reflective of each's underwhelming regular season: four total turnovers, fewer than 300 total yards apiece, a fourth-quarter Irish collapse and an 18-14 Noles victory to move them to 9-4 and push the losers to 8-5.

"I thought we had a chance to be a very good team in the future, and they played us extremely well, so we thought they would be a very good team," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "That was a heck of a football game. You knew they had good players and guys that went to the draft, and you're expecting to be where they are."

In a scenario that is hardly against all odds -- though certainly a turn from each's recent history -- No. 2 FSU will host No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday in what is likely the biggest game of both teams' seasons. The Irish recovered from that 2011 season-ending defeat to win 12 straight games in 2012 before falling in the BCS title game. The Noles did even better the following season, going 14-0 and winning it all. This weekend's winner will have the inside track to playing for the top prize for the second time in the three years since that bowl matchup.

"It hasn't been borne out this year with Rutgers and Virginia Tech," Florida Citrus Sports digital media director Matt Repchak quipped in an interview with last year, referring to the Irish's and Noles' successors in that bowl game. "But I'd like to think that maybe we have some kind of magic."

The truth of the matter is that both teams simply needed to get out of their own ways. Notre Dame entered the second year of the Brian Kelly era ranked No. 16 in the preseason AP poll, with BCS-bowl goals in mind. But 10 turnovers over the Irish's first two games portended an undoing that was mostly self-inflicted.

FSU, meanwhile, entered the season at No. 6 but saw a close, early-season loss to then-No. 1 Oklahoma spiral into a three-game slide. By the time they faced Notre Dame, the Noles were starting four true freshmen on the offensive line. Three of those starters -- left guard Josue Matias, right guard Tre' Jackson and right tackle Bobby Hart -- will line up with the first team Saturday. The fourth, center Austin Barron, is sidelined with an arm injury.

"The first half, you can tell, and in the second half we came out and played much better and got their feet on the ground and we were able to move the ball," Fisher said of the unit in that 2011 game. "It was a big point for them for their acceptance to college football."

Notre Dame had two first-round draft picks the following spring: receiver Michael Floyd and safety Harrison Smith. Two more potential ones -- tight end Tyler Eifert and linebacker Manti Te'o -- elected to return for their senior years, the surest validation that the program, despite consecutive 8-5 seasons, was going in the right direction under Kelly.

"When we both played, you could tell that both teams were definitely ascending, and then better things were definitely in front of us," Kelly said. "It was definitely going to be what's next for these programs moving forward in a positive way. That's kind of how I saw it after that game. I remember meeting with Te'o and talking to him about the next step, and of course we played for the national championship a year later, and Florida State won one."

Te'o, a 2013 second-round pick, ended up being the Heisman runner-up. Six days before he and the Irish took the field at Sun Life Stadium to face Alabama, FSU kicked off the 2013 calendar year in the same spot, beating Northern Illinois for an Orange Bowl win to cap a 12-2 season. The Noles then lost 11 draft picks and six assistant coaches, but they had a redshirt freshman quarterback, Jameis Winston, who would end up winning the Heisman the next season and is now 19-0 for his career as a starter.

Though his suspension for the Clemson game last month nearly cost his team dearly in the ACC (and national title) race, a strong showing from Winston against the Irish defense Saturday can get him right back into the Heisman conversation. The same goes for Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, who himself is 16-1, the lone defeat coming to the Crimson Tide in the title game.

Both teams have new defensive coordinators this year, the third in three years for the Noles. The Irish also said goodbye to their offensive coordinator this past season. They welcomed three new assistants between the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, too.

"I thought we had an awesome team that year, we had a lot of talent," Irish redshirt junior Joe Schmidt said of 2011. "It's extremely hard to win college football games, so that was a very talented team and so is this one, and I think guys are just trying to do everything we can to help Notre Dame win."

For both programs, it has all started at the top, with fifth-year head coaches who found their footings and have their teams on the brink of something special.

"I guess you could say we've always been a work in progress," Irish redshirt senior Christian Lombard said. "We've always come to work, and I think that's the biggest thing. We've always known that we don't have it made. So just that attitude that we've got to come to work every day has helped us, and we're making progress each year."

Burt Reynolds Hall might not have ever witnessed a party like it did the afternoon of Nov. 20, 1993. And Florida State had yet to play that Saturday.

Florida State's players, which did not have a game until that night, rushed off the team bus and into the Burt Reynolds athletic dorms. They needed to catch the score of No. 1 Notre Dame versus Boston College and whether Florida State's plea to the celestial bodies for a bid back into the national title conversation would be granted.

James Colzie, a freshman cornerback in 1993, doesn't remember if he made it back in time to witness David Gordon not only deliver a game-winning kick but also hand Notre Dame the same fate Colzie believed the Irish dispensed unto FSU the week before. Colzie just remembers the sheer bliss in the hall adjacent Doak Campbell Stadium.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Ward
AP Photo/John SwartFlorida State thought their national title hopes were quashed after losing to Notre Dame.
In typical college football fashion -- the inconceivable flashing before wide eyes and dropped jaws -- Florida State was back in the national championship picture, just a week after it thought the Irish seemingly shredded it in No. 1 vs. No. 2 loss in a contest billed as "The Game of the Century."

"After losing, we're looking ahead at who Notre Dame plays and we didn't see a game we thought they'd lose," Colzie said. "But Coach [Bobby] Bowden said to keep playing because you don't know what could happen."

In still one of the most controversial decisions, Florida State leapfrogged Notre Dame despite the head-to-head record and played Nebraska for the 1993 national title. ("I still have a sour taste," says former Notre Dame center Jeff Kilburg.) Florida State, which was No. 1 when it lost to Notre Dame, moved back to No. 1 after the Irish's loss and beat the Cornhuskers 18-16 in the Orange Bowl and won the first national title in school history.

On Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC), it will be a similar situation in Tallahassee, Florida: A top-five matchup between No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 2 Florida State. The winner has an inside track to a national title. The loser will be left politicking for selection committee votes.

This game will be played in mid-October, though. The 1993 meeting was in late November and with Notre Dame only needing a win against road underdog Boston College to finalize a bid in the title game.

"I don't think there's any question about it. The road to the national championship game went through Florida State," said former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jim Flanigan, who still receives copies of his iconic Sports Illustrated cover after beating Florida State on a weekly basis from autograph-seeking fans.

Added Kinnon Tatum, a linebacker on Notre Dame's team: "That was the team to beat. We only had Boston College left."

For Florida State, what made the pill of likely losing out on another national championship tougher to swallow was the Seminoles felt like they already cleared their biggest hurdle. During the 1990s, several Florida State players said every season came down to the rivalry game against the Hurricanes. In the six seasons from 1987-92, Miami knocked the Seminoles out of title contention five times. In three of those seasons, their lone loss was to the Canes.

"Miami was the real 'Game of the Century,' and we got over that hump," said Devin Bush, an FSU safety from 1992-94. "Notre Dame wasn't the intensity of Miami. It was business as usual. So to get over that hump with Miami and then lose late, it was tough."

Defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews had to echo Bowden's sentiments in the Notre Dame visiting locker room, that the season wasn't over and that Notre Dame still had a ranked Boston College team to play. But Andrews remembers sitting in the coaches' office feeling like the Seminoles were relegated to the role of bridesmaid once again.

"We had been runner-ups. After that ball game, you walk off the field and can't help but think we missed it again," Andrews said.

A week later, however, Florida State players were sitting in a hotel in Thomasville, Georgia, watching the drama in South Bend, Indiana, unfold. The Seminoles stayed there the night before a 7:30 p.m. kickoff against NC State, and FSU doesn't leave to come back to Tallahassee until about three hours before the game -- which meant the Irish were just mounting their fourth-quarter comeback from 21 points down with 11 minutes to play as the Seminoles boarded the bus.

This was before cell phones and ESPN SportsCenter apps. There were no beepers on the bus either. Florida State was in the dark for the 40-minute ride, which left enough time for impromptu prayers and minds to wonder whether a national championship bid could be waiting when they arrived.

Back at Florida State, players packed dorm rooms. Boston College 41, Notre Dame 39.

NC State lost that evening, 62-3.

ACC Week 8 predictions

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
Adelson: Pitt has not done much of anything right during its three-game losing streak, but the Panthers are facing an opponent that has some issues of its own headed into this game. Virginia Tech is banged up at running back and will rely on J.C. Coleman and Joel Caleb to carry the load. So essentially, the Hokies are down to their fourth and fifth options. That bodes well for the Pitt defense, which has had issues stopping the run. Without an effective run game, Virginia Tech will have a tough time offensively. While the Hokies have a formidable defensive front, James Conner and Tyler Boyd will make enough plays to scramble up the Coastal again. Plus, Virginia Tech is 0-3 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh 24, Virginia Tech 23

Hale: The story for the Hokies remains the same every week: Don't screw it up. The Virginia Tech defense has been prone to big plays, but during its three-game losing streak Pitt has had just 12 plays of 20 yards or more (85th nationally during that span). Virginia Tech's offense hasn't been terrific, but it's been effective when avoiding turnovers. Among ACC teams, only Boston College has created fewer takeaways than Pitt. In other words, it's a good matchup for Virginia Tech to avoid disaster, and with a bye week to iron out a few kinks the Hokies should be at their best. The wild card, however, could be the ground games. Tech is down two of its top three runners, while Pitt features the ACC's rushing leader in Conner. He'd been struggling of late after a heavy early workload, but last week's bye came at the right time. Still, Virginia Tech has allowed just 412 yards to opposing running backs this season, the sixth-lowest total in the nation. Virginia Tech 27, Pittsburgh 24

Adelson: In a battle between two true freshman quarterbacks and uninspiring offenses, I am going with the defense that has made more plays over the course of the season. The nod goes to Wake Forest by a hair. The Deacs have played well enough defensively to stay in every game but the Florida State contest this season, and they will play well enough at home against Syracuse to score the game-winning points. Wake Forest 13, Syracuse 10

Fortuna: It's AJ Long time for Syracuse, and the freshman will feel all the more comfortable in Winston-Salem after debuting last week against the defending national champions. The Orange's stout front should be able to have its way against Wake Forest's offensive line, as the Deacs have surrendered 24 sacks this season. Wake's defense will give the home team a chance, but it will likely need more than that to get an ACC win. Syracuse 23, Wake Forest 10

Hale: Here's how the season has gone in the Coastal: A favorite emerges, then loses, then is brushed aside by the prognosticators in favor of another trendy team that's bound to lose, too. Last week, it was the Yellow Jackets that were the Coastal darlings, and they fell to Duke, a team that had been swept aside after its own dismal game against Miami. The struggles against Duke were largely Georgia Tech's own doing. For just the second time all season, the Yellow Jackets coughed up the football multiple times, and it cost them. If they can avoid those mistakes against North Carolina and keep their offense on the field, they should have a distinct advantage. The Tar Heels are young along the defensive line and lack significant depth. Tech can run the option, control time of possession to keep UNC's explosive offense off the field, then wear down the Heels' defense in the second half. As Duke showed last week, one loss in the Coastal hardly means a team is done. Georgia Tech 42, North Carolina 38

Shanker: Although the offense received a lot of help from Notre Dame last week, the Tar Heels showed some fight and nearly pulled off the upset. That has to count for something, right? Plus, Georgia Tech is coming off a loss to Duke that would have given the Yellow Jackets a vice grip on the ACC Coastal with a game against Virginia looking like the last tough intra-division game. Let's be honest, I'm grasping at straws. But for some reason I see the Heels winning. North Carolina 38, Georgia Tech 24

Shanker: It's easy to see the circus once again around Florida State and expect the Seminoles to come out flat or distracted, but that's never been the case the past year. The more scrutiny on Jameis Winston, the better he usually performs. I do think it will take its toll a little bit this time, but it's not entirely the reason Florida State edges out a close win. Notre Dame is better than people give it credit for, and if Everett Golson limits turnovers, the Irish are a much harder team to beat. Winston has turned the ball over at critical times, too, and if that continues against Notre Dame, it could end up haunting the Seminoles this time. As we've seen through the first six games, though, the Seminoles know how to win and once again they'll find a way Saturday. Florida State 38, Notre Dame 35

Fortuna: Assuming Winston plays, FSU's offense is simply, as Brian Kelly said last week, another animal compared to what Notre Dame has faced so far. Rashad Greene won bowl MVP honors against the Irish as a freshman three years ago, and the Noles' record-holder should have another big day against a secondary down one more body in fifth-year senior and captain Austin Collinsworth. Golson, provided he avoids the turnover bug of recent weeks, will keep the Irish in the game, but FSU has more offensive firepower, giving the home team the edge in this shootout. Florida State 44, Notre Dame 30

Other unanimous picks

Virginia at Duke: The key for Virginia is at the line of scrimmage. After a slow start to the season, the Hoos have averaged 224 yards per game on the ground in their past three. They'll need to be able to run the ball to beat Duke -- something Georgia Tech struggled with a week ago. More importantly, however, Virginia's ferocious defensive front needs to attack the Blue Devils' offensive line. Slow down Duke's ground game and rattle Anthony Boone into some mistakes and, for one week at least, the new trendy pick for the Coastal can survive. Virginia 24, Duke 17

Clemson at Boston College: Tyler Murphy has been exceptional running BC's option attack this season, but he's yet to face a front as good as Clemson's. After their opening-week struggles against Todd Gurley and Georgia, the Tigers have allowed just one running play of 20 yards or more (a garbage time 40-yard run by South Carolina State) and have surrendered just 275 yards total on the ground, the fewest in the nation. Clemson 24, Boston College 10

NC State at Louisville: It's hard not to feel a little bad for the Wolfpack. This game ends a four-week stretch in which they got Florida State (with Winston fresh off a suspension), Clemson (with a healthy and poised Deshaun Watson) and Boston College (coming off a bye week). Now, the scuffling State offense runs into the buzz saw that is Louisville's top-ranked D. Oh, and the Cardinals are poised to get star receiver DeVante Parker back from injury this week, too. The Wolfpack will end their ACC losing streak soon, but not this week. Louisville 20, NC State 10

Current standings
Shanker: 44-7
Adelson: 41-10
Fortuna: 41-10
Hale: 41-10