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‘All eyes on Tallahassee’: Norvell, Seminoles ready for season-opening challenge versus Irish

| Friday, September 3, 2021

When you’re a major program that’s been struggling for a few years and hoping to bounce back, sometimes a quietly strong start out of the spotlight is desirable as you try to right the ship. 

The 2021 Florida State Seminoles won’t be getting that, but head coach Mike Norvell is ready and excited for the challenge:

“All eyes will be on Tallahassee,” Norvell said in a post-practice press conference on Thursday. “We’re excited for the opportunity we have, and now we just get to go play the game.”

Indeed, Florida State’s season opener could not come in more of a national spotlight. The Seminoles will face No. 9 Notre Dame on Sunday night as the lone college football game of the day. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. EST, and the game is going to be nationally broadcasted on ABC. 

The Seminoles of old may be used to this spotlight, but recent years have been tough on the boys from Tallahassee. After winning at least nine games every season from 2010-2016, winning a national championship, and appearing in four other major bowl games, Florida State dropped off a cliff. They sport a 21-26 record over the past four seasons. They have not been ranked to end a season since finishing 2016 at No. 8. There’s no doubt that one of the game’s most historic programs has been down in the dumps. However, Sunday night presents an opportunity to turn the page and start a new chapter. 

While Notre Dame may need to prepare for a new-look FSU team in the season opener, Norvell is doing the same for his squad.

“You don’t really know what to expect,” Norvell said of the Irish. “You’re facing a new coordinator [Marcus Freeman], and offensively, we’re seeing a new quarterback and some new guys up front.”

Norvell said he faces a challenge in preparing for Notre Dame’s Freeman-led defense.

“They have experience sprinkled all throughout the direction — guys that play hard, play fast,” he said. “This is one of the best defensive coordinators in college football.”

How Norvell attacks the Irish — or plans to — is tough to predict, namely because he hasn’t named a starting quarterback, and he doesn’t plan to before Sunday night.

“It will be revealed when someone runs out on the field at 7:44 on Sunday night,” Norvell said of the quarterback situation. “We’re excited about the quarterback room, and those guys have competed really well, and we’re excited about what we’ve seen.”

The contenders for the starting position are incumbent Jordan Travis, who showed high upside but also lots of inconsistency last season, and McKenzie Milton. Milton is a transfer from UCF who missed the past two seasons with a horrific leg injury suffered in his final game of 2018. Both could see significant snaps on Sunday night. Norvell praised both signal-callers for their adaptability, noting that it was an important attribute entering a game with so many unknowns in Week 1. 

The Seminoles are also still tinkering with various offensive line combinations, which means we could see more than five players in the offensive trenches. That could be dangerous against Notre Dame’s defensive line, one of the most experienced units on their team.

“They got great length; they’re a physical bunch upfront,” Norvell said. “The way that [Freeman] can disguise the ways that he brings pressure is a challenge. They’ve got really great depth and guys with a great experience. It’s going to be a great challenge for our guys up front.” 

Jashaun Corbin and Keyshawn Helton will be key players at the skill positions for Florida State, as Corbin will be the featured back who can contribute in the passing game as well. Helton’s been limited by injury before, but the receiver has emerged as a leader. 

“Keyshawn has such tremendous leadership qualities,” Norvell said of Helton. “He’s very passionate about the opportunity to play the game. To see him come out and try to impact others, make sure they’re making the most of the moment, I’ve got the utmost respect for who he is and the way he works.”

Defensively, Florida State will be stronger, having added some key transfers like Keir Thomas and Jermaine Johnson, who should bring pressure off the edge. Amari Gainer will be a jack of all trades at linebacker, which may help alleviate the concerns of an inexperienced secondary. 

Certainly, the Irish bring a different offensive look to Tallahassee than the one Norvell saw in South Bend last season. That was an October clash, won by the Irish 42-26. But Notre Dame lost eight offensive starters from that team. However, Jack Coan transferred in as the starter, ensuring the Irish won’t be without experience at a pivotal position. Coan went 10-4 as a starter with Wisconsin, leading them to a Rose Bowl appearance. 

“He’s a very talented player,” Norvell said. “He’s played in big games and in big atmospheres. The thing you hear is how consistent, how accurate he is. He’s a new starter at Notre Dame, but he’s got a lot of productive collegiate experience. We have to try to make him uncomfortable.”

Coan will look to take advantage of the less-experienced Florida State secondary, but the Seminoles will throw a lot of packages at him. Based on the depth chart, a five-man secondary even seems possible at times, in order to limit what Coan can do down the field. That puts more pressure on Coan to be accurate in the short game, where he has to deal with more of Florida State’s defensive playmakers. 

Almost unarguably though, the bigger concern for Florida State is Notre Dame’s running game. Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree remain an electric duo, and they torched the Seminoles last season. In possibly their best joint effort, Williams and Tyree combined for 288 rushing yards in that October battle. 

“They’re very well-coached,” Norvell said. “They have great guys up front, at tight end, and they run with a purpose. It’s a challenge to stop.”

Just a few years ago, to suggest that Notre Dame would clearly be the most talented team — and a 7.5 point favorite — entering a season opener on the road at Florida State, would have been ridiculous. But times have changed in these past few seasons, and the Irish bring a talented roster that will push Florida State to the limits. The Seminoles have no choice but to step up in the spotlight and try to punch back. 

The whole country will be watching, and Norvell knows it. 

“Everyone,” Norvell said, repeating it for emphasis. “Everyone will be watching what goes down at Doak Campbell Stadium on Sunday night.”

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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