*Notre Dame cue Rodney Dangerfield re: respect
Notre Dame is nearly-unanimously being pegged for a loss today, and while (championship and Heisman legacies having the effects that they do) it’s understandable why, a deeper look at these two teams, and the circumstances surrounding this game, show that maybe it’s inappropriate. This isn’t much different from the Oklahoma-Notre Dame game of 2012 in that Oklahoma was roundly considered to be a far-superior team, but a closer inspection of each team would’ve led one to the right conclusion: Notre Dame was not a peg below the Sooners.
Normally, you give points for a team being the home team, and the data seem to bear out this wisdom. Further, Notre Dame hasn’t played against a hostile crowd, yet, so that doesn’t look good for the Irish. However, to look at Notre Dame’s 2012 season (before Golson was suspended, and the last time that he played a true away game), it’s worth noting how much more comfortable he looked in away games than he did in home games. This was a point that was often made by announcers and seemed apparent enough.
Tonight may show whether or not that’s still the case, but if looked at in this context, maybe the biggest wild card in this game – Golson’s recent glut of turnovers – won’t end up having been worth worrying about. If Golson doesn’t turn it over, and if he plays with more poise, leading the Irish to efficient offensive production, then maybe it being an away game is actually a positive for the Irish.
Next in this analysis is the question of talent. A lot is being made over an apparent talent gap. Again, this hearkens back to that same Oklahoma game, where the Sooners were to run away with a decisive win, but didn’t. Here’s the thing: Notre Dame is faster this year than in any year in recent memory. It certainly seems true that FSU is replete with elite talent, but talent alone doesn’t win football games. Keeping in mind that neither team has played a much more difficult schedule than the other, let’s consider some stats: Notre Dame’s total offense ranks 43rd in the nation, and its scoring offense ranks 39th. FSU’s total offense ranks 33rd, and its scoring offense ranks 21st. The advantage here goes, of course, to FSU. Notre Dame’s total defense ranks 34th, and its scoring defense ranks 8th, while FSU’s total defense ranks 43rd, and its scoring defense ranks 30th. Of the four units, all are good, but one is elite, and that unit is owned by Notre Dame: its defense. This is despite a relative outlier, last week, in Notre Dame’s game against North Carolina, where tackling was shoddy, and Notre Dame was unable to keep Marquise Williams from running seemingly at will.
In reality, the most apparent, and most important, production gaps are ones that favor Notre Dame: offensive and defensive line play. Again, this says nothing about talent. Even if FSU’s fronts are filled with future Pro Bowl talents, they still haven’t played as well as Notre Dame’s have. For proof, let’s examine some telling stats. When considering who is owning the line of scrimmage, the first place that we want to look is at the run game. FSU has incredible talent on its lines and in its backfields, but on offense, FSU ranks 98th in rushing, where Notre Dame ranks 69th, and on defense, FSU ranks 54th, and Notre Dame ranks 19th. Notre Dame’s advantage in the run game is significant. Other stats spell more bad news for Seminole fans.
In defensive third down conversions, Notre Dame ranks 48th, and FSU ranks 94th; in offensive third down conversions, Notre Dame ranks 23rd, and FSU ranks 16th. Both offenses are very good at converting third downs, but the Notre Dame defense is very good at getting offenses off the field on third down, where FSU’s isn’t.
Now, this might not mean that much because FSU doesn’t get to third down very much. In truth, their passing offense is elite, and Jameis Winston is a very good quarterback. Still, FSU hasn’t faced a defense of Notre Dame’s caliber, just as Notre Dame hasn’t faced an offense of FSU’s caliber. However, it may be that FSU plays to Notre Dame’s strengths.
Despite Golson’s well-documented rash of turnovers in the last three games (9 turnovers given up), Notre Dame still ranks 27th in turnover margin, and FSU ranks 93rd. Golson needs to protect the football, and if he doesn’t, it could be very problematic for the Irish, but Winston’s not immune to throwing interceptions, and Golson can be impressive, when he doesn’t get in his own way.
Last week’s game was an interesting one for the Irish, as they nearly fell victim to the classic trap game. North Carolina gave the Irish fits, after the Irish handily beat Stanford, and a week before today’s big showdown with the undefeated reigning national champions. But there was a positive development for the Irish, too: Tarean Folston showed promise that hasn’t been seen in the Irish backfield in a long time. Granted, it was against the lowly Tar Heels’ defense, but one commentator remarked that whatever it is that some running backs have, Folston’s got it, and it’s true that Folston’s both a complete back, and a natural runner. His vision, balance, patience, and toughness allowed him to gain extra yards on plays that didn’t seem like they would amount to much. If I were Brian Kelly (I’m not), I’d spend the first quarter feeding Folston the ball, and throwing short, quick passes that allow Golson to get into a rhythm. FSU’s run defense isn’t very good, and Golson hasn’t been very good in the first quarter. If Golson can be efficient and get into a rhythm, and if Folston and Notre Dame’s run game can assert itself, it may be very difficult for FSU to find its own rhythm and avoid becoming one-dimensional. I expect that Van Gorder will throw blitzes at Winston that haven’t been seen yet, and that he’ll do everything in his power to confuse Winston and make his life very difficult.
Notre Dame’s success has been predicated on a few things: stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback and causing turnovers, an impossibly speedy and deep wide receiver corps that gets touchdowns, and great third down play on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame has also been very good in the red zone, on each side of the ball, but FSU has been a little better.
There are really good reasons why FSU is being favored to win. Their pass game is hard to contend with, they’re efficient in the red zone, they still have last season’s Heisman winner and he seems to be playing better than last season, and they have tremendous talent at every position. But sometimes, talent isn’t enough, and to look objectively, it’s hard to say that FSU is overwhelmingly more-talented than Notre Dame. Some will argue that FSU is a more talented team, and it may be so, but it’d likely be hard to prove that, definitively.
What FSU lost in leadership was maybe more valuable than what they gained in experience, not unlike a 2013 Notre Dame team that wasn’t supposed to be as mediocre as it was. The light could come on at any time for Florida State, but at this point, their lines aren’t performing well, the Seminoles aren’t good at running or stopping the run, they’re not as good at Notre Dame is on third down, and Winston will see more pressure today than he ever has. I look for the Irish to limit Rashad Greene, as they’ve stopped other primary receivers in previous games, and to make Winston very uncomfortable.
Notre Dame may not win this game, but the expectation that this should be a sure victory for the Seminoles doesn’t seem consistent with what we’ve seen so far. Maybe the team had an excellent week of practice and they’ll rise to meet their potential, but so far, Notre Dame has been the better team, and if you see what they’ve done, so far, you’d have to say that Notre Dame should seem more likely to win.
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