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FSU Must Keep Pace With ND Defense

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Dave Holcomb on Florida State's matchup with Notre Dame.

Prior to 2017, Florida State had started 0-1 four consecutive years just once in its football history (1973-76). It had never begun five straight seasons with a loss.

But that’s what the Seminoles are staring at if they can’t win this Sunday. It won’t be easy either, as they welcome 2020 playoff semi-finalist and preseason AP No. 9 Notre Dame to Tallahassee.

The Fighting Irish haven’t lost on opening day since their disastrous 4-8 season in 2016. Notre Dame gave up 50 points in a loss to Texas to begin that campaign.

Coincidentally, Florida State scored 50-plus points in its final game of 2020 versus Duke. But points likely won’t be as easy to come by in this matchup. While Notre Dame allowed 26 points to Florida State last year, the Fighting Irish gave up the fewest points per game in the ACC in 2020.

Notre Dame has questions to answer on defense, but the unit appears elite on paper again. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman replaces Clark Lea, who left to become head coach at Vanderbilt. With Lea leading the defense, Notre Dame allowed an average of 16.6 points per game during the regular season and made two playoff appearances in three years.

This sounds like a lot to live up to for Freeman, but he arrives in South Bend with his own impressive resume. As defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, Freeman led the Bearcats defense to many of the top statistical rankings in the AAC, including No. 1 in scoring defense from 2018-20.

Notre Dame won’t lose much, if anything, with the change at defensive coordinator. If anything, the Fighting Irish defense could benefit as it blends Lea’s successful scheme with Freeman’s fresh ideas.

The Fighting Irish also appear to have suitable replacements for outside linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who led the team with 11.0 tackles for loss last season. Additionally, he had 62 total tackles and 1.5 sacks. Juniors Isaiah Foskey, JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser are ready to fill the void. Bo Bauer, who finished seventh on the team with 26 tackles last year, could be a vital piece of the 2021 defense as well.

It helps that defensive leader Drew White is back at his linebacker spot. White was second behind only Owusu-Koramoah in tackles for loss and fourth in total tackles for Notre Dame in 2020.

Safety Kyle Hamilton is back too. He played through injuries last year and remained an absolute star, giving Notre Dame fans hope for a mammoth season this fall.

All of this doesn’t figure to bode well for the Florida State offense, which doesn’t technically even have a starting quarterback. When the Seminoles released their depth chart this week, senior transfer McKenzie Milton and sophomore Jordan Travis were listed as co-starters behind center.

For what it’s worth, my guess is Milton will receive the first opportunity when the Seminoles take the field against the Fighting Irish. Milton’s experience and leadership may be exactly what Florida State needs to upset Notre Dame.

While Notre Dame’s defense appears ready to reload in 2021, the Fighting Irish offense might not be able to transition as smoothly out of the Ian Book era.

Book led Notre Dame to 30 victories and two undefeated regular seasons. Replacing him is graduate transfer Jack Coan, but he is hardly the only new Fighting Irish player on offense. Notre Dame lost nine starters from last year’s team, including four offensive linemen.

That line will be tested against Florida State defensive linemen Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas, who each transferred to Tallahassee from the SEC. The Seminoles need both to play very well to climb out of the ACC pass rushing cellar. Florida State was last in the conference with 10.0 sacks during 2020.

Behind its defense, Notre Dame will arrive at Doak Campbell Stadium ready to rumble on Sunday. But if Milton can steady the Florida State offense, and the Seminoles defensive transfer overwhelm an inexperienced Notre Dame offensive line and quarterback, this one could be closer than most expect.

Final Score Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Florida State 20

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports