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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Despite influx of transfers, Florida State looking at another ugly season

Florida State 2021

Renardo Green

Notre Dame Athletics

In a disappointing way for any Seminoles fans, there may be no greater testimony to the late Bobby Bowden’s achievements than Florida State’s current woes. Bowden created a powerhouse out of thin air in Tallahassee, one that maintained most of its dominance under his immediate and hand-picked successor, including a particular victory against No. 5 Notre Dame back in 2014.

But since Jimbo Fisher left Florida State, life for the garnet-and-gold has gotten worse and worse, partly due to Fisher’s mismanagement as he readied to cash in at Texas A&M.

The Seminoles are coming off their third straight losing season, and the odds suggest a fourth awaits them, if not also a fifth. Florida State’s roster inspired so little confidence for a quick return to dominance, the coaching staff needed to go all-in on the transfer market. That may yield mild short-term success, but it can complicate long-term growth.

What was once derisively (and, really, unnecessarily considering the level of the offense) known as Free Shoes University could now be known as First Semester University, given how many upperclassmen are in their first semesters in Tallahassee, either this fall or this past spring, as transfers. If the word seems to pop up too often in this discussion, do not take it as a reflection of modern college football. While transfers are more commonplace nowadays, this is more a reflection of an attempt at a quick rebuild, an attempt that may need to rely on hope to reach .500 in 2021, an attempt that will face a tough start on Sept. 5 at 7:30 ET on ABC against the Irish.

So much of last season should be disregarded for every team in the country. In some obvious respects, though, it happened and it influences how programs are looked at moving forward.

In Florida State’s case, it was a year to forget, even more so than anywhere else. Head coach Mike Norvell arrived from Memphis anticipating a significant amount of work ahead of him, but even in firing Willie Taggart after just two seasons, the Seminoles had not revealed how deep the program’s issues went.

And then Norvell arguably made them worse, sticking his foot in his mouth when he claimed to have spoken individually with every player on the roster about systemic racism. The team seemed to move on relatively quickly, but since Norvell was already physically distanced from a roster he did not know, that misstep did not help with buy-in.

With no spring and only something of a summer, Norvell and his new coaching staff did not get up to speed as would usually be hoped for in a debut season. If ever there was a “Year Zero,” it was last season in Tallahassee.

Florida State went 3-6, losing two games to pandemic protocol cancellations, both of them shortly before kickoff, much to Dabo Swinney’s and Clemson’s chagrin. By the end of the season, the Seminoles reportedly had only about 50 scholarship players available.

Oh, and Notre Dame came back from its own pandemic pause to ease by Florida State, 42-26.

Not much. Then again, very few teams did. Most notably, cornerback Asante Samuel, Jr. headed to the NFL after being named first-team All-ACC, in part because of three interceptions. The Seminoles lost a few other defensive pieces, but not key ones that were healthy contributors last year.

Instead, Florida State returns 17 starters and 77 percent of its total 2020 production, right about the elevated national average due to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. (The usual national average is 62.6 percent.)

So many transfers. The headline heading into Labor Day Eve will focus on former Irish offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons, who opted to transfer to Tallahassee during the spring when it became clear he had fallen behind early-enrolled freshman Rocco Spindler in pursuing a starting guard role at Notre Dame.

And Gibbons deserves those headlines. He took the change in name, image and likeness rights as an opportunity to help others rather than himself.

But Gibbons is only one headline. The bigger headline should go to former Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton. He was once a star known across the sport before a devastating knee injury nearly ended his career. Now Milton has spent the preseason competing with sophomore Jordan Travis for the starting gig, with nearly all expectations leaning on Milton, partly because the story would be too good to end with a scrambling experiment winning the August competition.

The list of other offensive transfers includes, but is not limited to, Auburn running back DJ Williams and Kansas receiver and 2019 third-team All-Big 12 Andrew Parchment.

Defensively, the list is even longer, led by Georgia defensive end Jermaine Johnson, who managed five sacks with the Dawgs despite playing in only a limited role. Johnson will be featured with the Seminoles, both a reflection of how potent Georgia’s roster is from top to bottom and how far from the elite Florida State’s is.

He will be joined by South Carolina end Keir Thomas, South Carolina safety-turned-linebacker Jermaine Robinson, Maryland linebacker Cortez Andrews (though probably not a starter), Arkansas defensive back Jarques McClellion and Central Florida defensive back Brandon Moore.

First Semester U was not an exaggeration.

Norvell’s rocky entry to Florida State is now in the rearview mirror, 3-6 record notwithstanding. The luxury of actually having spring practices made that clear, with a limited crowd enduring rain to watch the Seminoles’ spring-ending scrimmage.

“Incredible to see how many people were here today, the excitement, the energy within the building was pretty special,” Norvell said in April. “... To see everyone show up and have tremendous energy, I was really grateful for all of our fans that came in and watched our guys play today.”

Within the program, the chance to genuinely install the playbook and get to know each other was crucial for Norvell. Florida State has fallen a long way since Bowden’s prime, so far that Norvell has a bit of a runway to get things up and running anew. For all practical purposes, this will be considered his first year. Yet, that runway will not be limitless.

If Milton plays in a few weeks, it will be worth applauding. If he plays well, it will be worth watching. If he plays like he used to, the Seminoles’ entire season could change. But he will need help.

Florida State has three intriguing running back options, all hoping the offensive line has found some semblance of competence. The Seminoles have gone through four offensive line coaches since 2017, with Alex Atkins now entering his second season. Little else needs to be said about the struggles in offensive consistency.

At receiver, Milton will look beyond Parchment — though anyone who could earn all-conference honors while at Kansas should be looked at as potent — to early-enrolled freshman Malik McClain. Standing at 6-foot-4, McClain garnered plenty of springtime praise.

If Florida State had not brought in the pair of defensive end transfers, particularly Johnson, then this would look like the absolutely perfect opportunity for the new-look Irish offensive line to find its own chemistry. The Seminoles managed only 14 tackles for loss in 2020, ranking No. 87 in the country, and 6.5 sacks, No. 119 in the country, while giving up 199 rushing yards per game.

They were terrible up front.

And that led to trouble everywhere.

Johnson will improve things, as will Thomas after having already played five seasons in the SEC, not to mention Robinson in a role similar to Notre Dame’s Rover. But still, there was vast room for improvement.

Even if this is the closest thing to stability that Florida State has known since 2017 — and it is, with the entire coaching staff returning intact — the Seminoles are in for a rough 2021. Past recruiting misses in Irish safety Houston Griffith (de-committed as Florida State stumbled to 7-6 in 2017) and North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (ditto, 2018, 5-7 as the floor began to fall out under Taggart) will make life not only harder but also more humbling.

Both Griffith and Howell are the type of elite recruits that the Seminoles used to haul in without worry. Now they will almost assuredly hand Florida State two losses.

That is not presumptuous, both Notre Dame and the Tar Heels are ranked in the top 10, while the Seminoles did not receive any top-25 votes.

Frankly, there is precedent to even doubt Florida State’s ability to cruise past Jacksonville State on Sept. 11.

PointsBet sets the Seminoles’ season win total over/under at 5.5 with some incentive to take the under, suggesting the over has caught more attention to date. To reach .500 this season, Florida State would need to have no trouble with Jacksonville State and then UMass in mid-October while sweeping at Wake Forest, vs. Louisville, vs. Syracuse and vs. North Carolina State. That is unless Norvell can find a late-season upset against Miami or at Boston College.

Some may fret Notre Dame will struggle with the Seminoles, but those defensive line woes set up perfectly for Irish junior running back Kyren Williams. From an analytics standpoint, SP+ favors Notre Dame by more than 10 points on a neutral field, fitting with PointsBet’s 8-point spread.

It will be a frustrating start to 2021 for The Chop, a mood that Doak Campbell Stadium is increasingly used to and will only be more so through the rest of the year.

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