Notre Dame 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 4, Florida State
This is the ninth in our 12-part series where we count down Notre Dame’s 2021 strength of schedule by how we view the degree of difficulty, from 12 to one. At No. 4 is the at Florida State Sept. 5 opener.
Head Coach: Mike Norvell — 41-21 (.674) overall in five seasons as head coach.
• Entering second season at Florida State, where he debuted with a 3-6 mark in 2020.
• Norvell was 38-15 in his four seasons as the head coach at Memphis (2016-19).
Recruiting Rankings 2017-21: 2017 (5th), 2018 (10th), 2019 (17th), 2020 (20th), 2021 (29th)
2020 Record: 3-6
Just five or six years ago, who in college football would have ever thought you’d read this sentence: Florida State is coming off its third straight losing season.
The Seminoles were 5-7, 6-7 and 3-6 the past three years, and even in head coach Jimbo Fisher’s final year in 2017 they were 7-6 — and 5-6 when he stepped down to eventually become the head coach at Texas A&M. Fisher led FSU to the 2013 national title, and back into the College Football Playoff again in 2014.
Norvell last year became the operation’s third head coach in four years. He had an inauspicious start with a 16-13 home loss to a Georgia Tech team that would finish 3-7, followed by total humiliation in a 52-10 defeat to Miami. The ‘Noles were even in danger of losing to FCS foe Jacksonville State before rallying to a 41-24 win under new quarterback Jordan Travis.
Travis provided more spark to the offense, showcasing his skill set in the 42-26 defeat at Notre Dame in which he completed 13 of 24 passes for 204 yards and also rushed for 96. Then the following week, he led a 31-28 upset of a top-10 North Carolina squad.
Thereafter, a second implosion occurred with embarrassing losses to Louisville (48-16), Pitt (41-17) and North Carolina State (38-22). Three of the final four games were canceled because of the coronavirus before the season was capped with a 56-35 win over hapless Duke.
Did You Know …
Norvell has the exact same record — 41-21 —as Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, who was featured in yesterday’s countdown.
The difference is that Fickell is now thriving wonderfully at American Athletic Conference member Cincinnati after a disappointing debut at Ohio State (6-7), whereas Norvell flourished at AAC member Memphis during his four seasons there, especially 12-1 in 2019 before taking the more prominent job at FSU.
The expectations are much more immense at a school that from 1987-99 set the NCAA record for most consecutive top-four finishes in the Associated Press poll, highlighted by two national titles, and also was 59-9 as recently as 2012-16, with another national championship in 2013. Since 1990, FSU is tied with Florida, LSU and Nebraska for the second-most national titles, behind only Alabama.
2021 Capsule Summary
Even though Florida State’s recruiting the past three years has been down — ranking 17th to 29th — by its standards, this year’s roster has been augmented with eight transfers expected to provide a significant boost on both sides of the ball.
They are led by UCF graduate transfer quarterback McKenzie Milton, the former AAC Offensive Player of the Year who led the Knights to 13-0 and 12-1 campaigns in 2017-18. During his career there he completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 8,683 yards and 72 scores, and added 1,078 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground.
The defensive line especially needed to be overhauled and added South Carolina’s Keir Thomas (142 career stops, 19.5 for loss) and Georgia’s Jermaine Johnson, Rivals’ No. 2 weak-side defensive end in the nation in 2019 who recorded five sacks for the Bulldogs last year in a part-time role.
Also from South Carolina is defensive back Jammie Robinson, who totaled 135 stops the past two seasons for the Gamecocks. More corner help also is arriving from Arkansas and UCF, while former Auburn running back D.J. Williams also has enrolled to complement Lawrance Toafili, whose 356 rushing yards as a freshman last year averaged 9.6 yards per attempt.
Where Florida State’s recruiting has been the weakest is the offensive line, and it has shown the past three years while finishing 111th, 125th and last year 112th in sacks allowed. The Irish had four sacks last year against Travis and missed at least four more because of his tremendous elusiveness. If Milton indeed is the quarterback, a role has to be found for Travis, who rushed for a team-high 569 yards in 2020 at 5.9 yards per carry with seven touchdowns.
Last year, both redshirt freshman center Maurice Smith and true freshman tackle Robert Scott Jr. earned some Freshman All-America notice.
Why No. 4 In Countdown
This strictly is a roll of the dice based on potential, time, place and gut feel. Had we ranked the Seminoles outside the top six, justification could have been applied that the ridiculously underachieving program has been a grease fire the past four years.
Individual talent is not the issue in Tallahassee. The program has been bereft of strong leadership and guidance, and last year there were even threats of player boycotts when some of new coach Norvell’s comments became interpreted as disingenuous.
This game reminds us a lot of Notre Dame’s only other Sunday night opener — a 50-47 double-overtime loss at Texas in 2016. The underachieving Longhorns were 11-14 under head coach Charlie Strong's first two years, were crushed 38-3 at Notre Dame the year prior and were in desperation, full-hunger mode to regain credibility in a new season versus the strong Irish program.
FSU is facing a similar situation under Norvell, and if full crowds return this fall, Doak Campbell Stadium could be rocking while Notre Dame adjusts to life with a new offensive line, new quarterback and new defensive coordinator.
The 2021 Irish are in a far better place with the infrastructure than they were at the start of 2016, but this has all the trappings of an early-season surprise on either side.
Fortunately, the Irish have been at their best in recent years in these kind of “beware the upset specials,” on the road, among them North Carolina in 2020. That's what has made Notre Dame a "program" while FSU has not been the past several years.
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, Blue & Gold Illustrated.
• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel.
• Sign up for Blue & Gold's news alerts and daily newsletter.
• Subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts.
• Like us on Facebook.