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Schedule Preview: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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Florida State has a chance to start the year off with a bang — or a whimper

Notre Dame Athletics

As we get closer and closer to the start of the 2021 Florida State Seminoles football season, Tomahawk Nation is breaking down each opponent the Noles will face over the course of the year.

After a short-lived run in the Atlantic Coast Conference that saw it make the ACC Championship — and lose the ACC Championship — Notre Dame is back to its independent status quo in 2021. Head coach Brian Kelly (81-39) is heading into his 12th season with the Fighting Irish, coming off a College Football Playoff appearance that resulted in a blowout loss to Alabama.

Opponent: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Date: Sunday, September 5

Time: 5:30 p.m.

Last matchup: 42-26, Notre Dame

FSU’s game at Notre Dame last season seemed to symbolize a turning point — even moreso the following week as the Seminoles raced out to a huge lead vs. North Carolina — despite Florida State faltering in a potential upset bid. It wasn’t a solidifying change in the team’s ability to execute, as we learned over the rest of the season, but it did showcase the potential that Mike Norvell’s teams can tap into.

Offense

Notre Dame’s big question mark heading into the 2021 season is quarterback — not necessarily who will be starting (Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan has been pinpointed as QB1) but how the offense will function without departed multi-year starter Ian Book. The Irish lost four starting offensive linemen but still have talent in the trenches, including new Marshall transfer Cain Madden, heading to South Bend.

Running back Kyren Williams led the team in rushing last year, putting up 1,125 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Two of those scores came in last year’s matchup vs. FSU, alongside 185 yards on the ground. As far as the receiving corps goes, it’s similar to Notre Dame’s offensive line situation — talent galore paired with experience-centered question marks. Avery Davis (322 yards, two touchdowns) is the main receiver returning with on-field experience, though tight end Michael Mayer — the team’s second-leading receiver in 2020 — also presents issues through the air.

Defense

Schematically, the Irish will have to deal with the loss of defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who left to become head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores. His replacement is former Cincinnati Bearcats DC Marcus Freeman, a talented coordinator in his own right. He’ll have to compensate for the loss of linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, now playing for the Cleveland Browns, something that’ll by one name to above all — safety Kyle Hamilton.

Hamilton has been pegged by many a national analyst as one of the best defensive backs in college football.

Here’s how our SB Nation sister site One Foot Down broke down Hamilton:

Originally a 3-star, relatively unknown safety recruit when the Irish secured his commitment, the 6’3”, 190-lb freak athlete quickly elevated himself in all the recruiting rankings with his performances at camps and his final season with Marist School in Atlanta, Georgia.

By signing day, Hamilton had emerged as Notre Dame’s most elite signee, finishing as the #60 player nationally in the 247sports composite rankings (#5 at the safety position).

Hamilton came in as a true freshman and, despite not being a starter in 12 of 13 games in 2019 (because seniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman had the position locked down after a CFP season in 2018), he managed to lead the team in interceptions (4), including a 34-yard pick-six on his first defensive snap in Notre Dame Stadium.

Sophomore year for Hamilton was another master class in being elite and also improving over time. In 10.5 games, he led the team in tackles with 63 (4.5 for loss), managed another 6 passes defended despite QBs rarely targeting receivers he was covering, and adding another INT for good measure.

Assuming he stays healthy (knocking on all the wood within a 100-mile radius in typing that), he will somehow show in his junior season that he’s gotten even better, and will put up numbers (tackles, INT, PD) across the board despite the opposing offense constantly trying to pass and run wherever Kyle will not be.

He’ll earn more All-American honors — probably unanimous or at least consensus first team ones, this time — and will without a doubt declare for the 2022 NFL Draft. In that draft, I think he’ll be a top-15 choice, probably top-10; the only limiting factor will be that he doesn’t play QB, OT, or DE, and so he’s simply not at a position typically taken in the top ~3 picks. But he’ll be the first safety off the board and maybe even the first DB taken. You can’t find many more sure-fire NFL studs than Kyle Hamilton.

Final thoughts on Notre Dame vs. FSU

This is likely FSU’s biggest home game — in terms of implications, excitement and attendance — since Willie Taggart’s debut vs. Virginia Tech. The list of recruiting target attendees for the matchup, already extensive, could continue to lengthen and after playing the Irish close in 2020, the expectation for the team to do the same in the season opener isn’t out of pocket.

It’ll be a proof of concept of many of the excuses and reasons (however valid and accurate) placed on the shortcomings of the 2020 season for Florida State. The Seminoles now have a full offseason under their belts, have flipped the roster and added mass through conditioning. Notre Dame has a penchant for starting off slow in openers, and if the culture has truly been flipped in Tallahassee, FSU has the chance to take advantage of it.