Florida State is led by Jimbo Fisher, now in his second season as head coach. The Seminoles are set to appear in their nation-leading 30th consecutive bowl game and carry a record of 8-4 into this affair. After a 2-3 start to the campaign, the squad managed to reel off victories in six of its last seven outings, and the lone defeat during that span came by a single point. The most recent outing for the squad took place on November 26, a 21-7 victory over rival Florida on the road. FSU is appearing in the Champs Sports Bowl for the second time in four years and the third time overall, and the 'Noles defeated Wisconsin by a 42-13 final in the 2008 version of this event.
"Notre Dame is a very good team; coached very well," Fisher said of his bowl opponent. "They've had a good solid season. They do all the right things. That will be a matchup between two good football teams that have an opportunity to extend their season -- have a little bit better season -- going into the offseason."
Like FSU, Notre Dame has won eight of its 12 contests this season, good enough to earn the program its third bowl appearance in the last four years and sixth in the last eight. Second-year head coach Brian Kelly led his team to four consecutive wins down the stretch, but the finale against Stanford resulted in a 28-14 setback. The Irish are making their 31st all-time bowl appearance, and wins in their last two postseason affairs have evened their all-time bowl record at 15-15.
"It just seems like they can roll in so many outstanding athletes," said Kelly of the Seminoles. "It's what you would expect from a Florida State team and that is great athleticism, pass rushers, guys that can run, and corners that can cover. They do a really good job."
Florida State holds a 4-2 advantage over Notre Dame in the all-time series between the two teams, and crushed the Fighting Irish by a 37-0 final in the most recent meeting back in 2003.
The Seminoles are scoring 31.7 ppg despite gaining a rather mediocre 375.8 total ypg this season. They have been unable to run the ball consistently, averaging just 118.1 rushing ypg at a clip of 3.5 yards per carry. Still, 20 touchdowns have come from the group attack, including eight from Devonta Freeman. E.J. Manuel has taken the majority of snaps for the offensive this season and has completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 2,417 yards and 16 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He has spread the ball around effectively, and while Rashad Green is tops with 33 catches and six receiving scores, Rodney Shaw has 527 receiving yards to his credit.
On the defensive side of the ball, FSU has a big-time player in junior defensive end Brandon Jenkins. There is talk that he may be headed to the NFL after this season, and his coach certainly won't discourage the move.
"If he's in the first round, I'd kick him right out the door," Fisher said.
Jenkins has a team-high seven sacks for FSU, which is limiting opponents to 15.2 ppg and 274.6 total ypg, numbers that are impressive by almost any standards. The 'Noles are especially stellar against the run, limiting foes to 81.8 ypg at a clip of 2.3 ypc. Opponents have only eight rushing TDs through 12 outings.
Set to challenge that FSU defense is Notre Dame star receiver Michael Floyd, who will leave the Irish as the program's most prolific wideout ever. He has more career receptions (266), receiving yards (3,645), touchdown receptions (36), receiving yards per game average (86.8) and 100-yard receiving games (17) than any player to ever wear the famed gold helmet. In 2011, Floyd set a school single-season record with 95 receptions and led the Irish with a career-high 1,106 receiving yards and eight touchdown grabs. His 174 receptions over the last two seasons are the most by any Irish player in consecutive years.
Notre Dame is averaging 30.5 ppg and 424.1 total ypg, and outstanding offensive balance has been key to the club's success. The Irish are rushing for 166.0 ypg at a clip of 5.0 ypc, and 25 of their 45 offensive scores have been of the rushing variety. QB Tommy Rees has completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 2,708 yards with 19 TDs and 12 INTs, and he has the benefit of throwing to not only Floyd, but First-Team All-America tight end Tyler Eifert. Through 12 outings, Eifert has 57 catches for 713 yards and five scores. Cierre Wood leads the ground attack with 1,042 yards and has run for nine TDs.
Fans of the Fighting Irish received some outstanding and somewhat unexpected news recently when star linebacker Manti Te'o announced that he would return to the team next season rather than head to the NFL. A 2011 finalist for both the Butkus and Lott Awards, and a Second-Team All-American as well, Te'o has recorded 115 tackles this season, including 13 TFL, and he ranks eighth in Notre Dame history with 311 career stops.
Te'o and company are holding opponents to 20.9 ppg and 349.2 total ypg, and the fact that the Irish are yielding fewer than four yards per rushing attempt is impressive. There is some room for improvement against the pass, however, as opposing QBs have racked up 21 TDs against only eight INTs.
"Anytime you are building a program, you are going to have to overcome some adversity and I think we've shown that these kids know that their not going to stay down and that they are going to come back," says coach Kelly of his team.