- Matt Fortuna, College Football
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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 ESPN.com 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."
This weekend's winner between Notre Dame and FSU will have the inside track to playing for the top prize for the second time in the three years.