Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel has completed 183 of 280 passes for 2,417 yards and 16 TDs this season and has led the Seminoles’ offense to a scoring average of 31.7 points per game as a full-time starter.
ORLANDO, Fla. — A win in today’s Champs Sports Bowl won’t give No. 25 Florida State or Notre Dame an express pass back into college football’s elite status.
But that doesn’t mean the coaches at both schools aren’t thinking about how a victory against another of the sport’s most-recognizable programs could aid their rebuilding.
“I think you have to understand the culture,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “You went through 10 years of not really being on top, and it’s not three years or two years, it’s been 10. And you have to understand that mentality, and that’s something that you have to change to get back to where you’re used to winning 10 or 11 games.”
With 70 previous bowl appearances between them, both programs have undergone several cycles of change and a fair share even since their last postseason matchup in the 1996 Orange Bowl.
Most recently longtime Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden relinquished the reins to Fisher, while at roughly the same time Kelly was tapped to lead the Irish’s latest reconstruction project following the firing of Charlie Weis.
Both Fisher and Kelly won bowl games in their inaugural seasons and came into 2011 with heightened expectations before early season missteps muddied that preseason hype.
The Seminoles (8-4) lost all three of their games this season against ranked opponents, including back-to-back early season losses to Oklahoma and Clemson and a one-point loss to Virginia in late November.
The Irish (8-4) won three of their final four games but were done in by back-to-back losses to South Florida and Michigan to open the season.
Kelly said this season has been a learning experience that factors into what it will take for Notre Dame to return to the program it once was.
“It starts with the ability to keep your football team together for another month. The ability to build more relationships and bonds with your players,” he said. You’re still evaluating and giving opportunities to freshmen that may not have that chance to go out and prove themselves. I think there’s a lot of things that go into having a bowl game.”
Today’s game achieved sellout status for the first time in just a few days, suggesting there’s a hunger to see how the teams will match up on the field.
To that end, the quarterback position on both sides certainly will play a role in who walks out of the Florida Citrus Bowl with the trophy.
The Irish must contend with E.J. Manuel, who as a full-time starter for the first time powered the Seminoles’ offense to a scoring average of 31.7 points per game while accounting for 16 passing and four rushing touchdowns.
“I think their offense goes off him,” Notre Dame senior safety and captain Harrison Smith said. “He’s big, strong and can throw it. He’s fast. So he’s really got the tools to do everything, and they really like to get him involved in the offense.”
The group protecting Manuel, though, has been battered and is expected to start four freshmen against the Irish.
Freshman right tackle Bobby Hart replaced senior Andrew Datko early in the season after he went down with a shoulder injury, and freshmen guards Josue Matias and Tre’ Jackson are expected to start as well, along with freshman center Austin Barron.
Bryan Stork, the sophomore starter at center is recovering from nearly having a finger amputated after an infection, and sophomore starting guard Garrett Faircloth will have surgery on his injured hip soon.
“It wasn’t really a future thing; it was really out of necessity,” Fisher said. “It’s great that they want to play, and it does help us for the future. ... But I think it gives us the best chance to win the game.”
Manuel said he likes what he’s seen out of them this week.
“They’ve done a good job,” he said. “Like I’ve always said, coach (Rick) Trickett is going to get those guys prepared for any game, no matter who we’re playing against. I think they realize the task at hand, knowing that those guys have 300 pounders down low, and they have to be ready for them.”
Kelly said he will play both sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees and redshirt freshmen Andrew Hendrix.
Rees started all but one game this season and threw for 19 touchdowns but also had 12 interceptions. Hendrix has appeared in just four games but gives the Irish some different options.
“They’re both prepared,” Kelly said. “We’ve had plenty of time, and there are no excuses. Both of them can go in there and play the game, and we’ll see how it goes.”
As for what happens for both programs following Thursday’s game, Fisher said he expects that to take care of itself.
“Are we disappointed about the wins? Yes, we wish we would’ve won more games. I mean, you’d like to win them all,” he said. “But for a young football team to deal with distractions, with criticisms, the things that come with not winning as many games as you’d like to, they never lost faith in each other. In fact, it maybe made them closer. I feel very good about the future.”