Two famed programs will clash on Thursday night when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-4) face the Florida State Seminoles (8-4) in the Champs Sports Bowl, otherwise known as the Citrus Bowl, in Orlando.
Both teams got off to a slow start but finished the season strong. Florida State cruised to two easy victories against weak non-conference opponents, but then went on a three-game losing streak to quality teams, and made each game competitive. The Seminoles then ended the season by winning six out of seven games, and the lone loss was by one point.
Notre Dame lost their first two games in a pair of tight battles, but finished the season by winning eight of 10 games. The two losses were to teams ranked in the top five: USC and Stanford.
The Fighting Irish feature three excellent offensive players, but inconsistent play at quarterback. Sophomore Tommy Rees gets the nod on Thursday despite being benched for Andrew Hendrix in the Irish's last game. Rees, who has thrown 19 touchdown passes but also 12 interceptions, has two elite targets to throw to, and perhaps the best rusher in a decade.
Wide receiver Michael Floyd might be the best wide receiver in the nation. The senior set a Notre Dame single-season record with 95 receptions for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns. Junior tight end Tyler Eifert racked up 57 catches for 713 yards and five touchdowns.
The running game is led by junior tail back Cierre Wood, who finished with 1,042 yards on 199 carries, and added nine touchdowns. Wood became the first Notre Dame player to rush for 1,000 yards since 2006.
In his last game with the Fighting Irish, Floyd will be looking to make a statement against a Florida State defense that will likely place special focus on him.
They have a great defense, and it's going to be very challenging for the offense, Floyd said. I gotta bring my 'A' game. This is my last game playing for the University of Notre Dame, so I want to go out with a bang and I'm gonna try to do whatever I can to make that happen.
The Seminoles' defense led the ACC, and finished fourth in the nation, in allowing just 15.2 points per game. The leader of the unit might be defensive end Brandon Jenkins. The junior is expected to be selected in the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft.
E.J. Manuel, who has battled injuries this season, is a key weapon on offense. The junior quarterback threw 16 touchdown passes, and rushed for four on the season.
The running game and the offensive line has been rather suspect this season. Freshman Devonta Freeman led all rushers with 531 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Florida State offense will be wary of one specific Notre Dame linebacker. Junior Manti Te'o is one of the toughest competitors in college football, and finished with over 100 tackles on the season.
LINE: Florida State is favored by 3.5 points.
OVER/UNDER: 46 points.
PREDICTION: This is an intriguing matchup, as Notre Dame has the better offense, and Florida State has the better defense. The Fighting Irish can expect Floyd to go out with a bang, and should receive a better performance from Rees than he gave against Stanford. The Seminoles desperately need Manuel to create some magic. Florida State should run the ball more than usual and will need the offensive line to over-achieve. Notre Dame finished the season strong, and the loss to Stanford probably didn't hurt their confidence.
PREDICTED SCORE: Notre Dame over Florida State, 23-17.