John Crist: Junior E.J. Manuel completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 2,417 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but he injured his left shoulder Sept. 17 against Oklahoma and hasn't been close to 100-percent healthy since. While the 6-5, 235-pounder showed some improvement in the second half of the season and cut down on his turnovers facing mediocre ACC competition, he wasn't sharp the final three weeks -- a home win over Miami, a home loss to Virginia and a road win over Florida. The Virginia Beach native has what you look for at the game's most important position when it comes to measurables, plus he's a bright young man, but he battles accuracy issues at times and right now is suffering from a lack of confidence.
Tim O'Malley: Sophomore Tommy Rees, he of the 12-3 record as a starter, has earned the nod over classmate Andrew Hendrix for the bowl matchup. Rees struggled mightily in the first half of Notre Dame's last game, falling behind 21-0 at Stanford before ceding his role to Hendrix for the second half. Hendrix made two extended appearances this season (Air Force as a run-option change-of-pace to Rees, and the second half vs. Stanford) and finished with 18 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown while connecting on 15 of 28 pass attempts for 225 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Rees fired 19 touchdowns vs. 12 interceptions but also lost six fumbles in what amounted to 11 total games played. His 65.9 percent completion mark ranks second in team history -- his 64.9 percent accuracy over all appearances is first all time at the school.
Note: Senior Dayne Crist has been granted a transfer and is not expected to participate in bowl practices nor, obviously, the game.
JC: Florida State has had problems running the football consistently all season long, as senior Ty Jones couldn't make anything happen and junior Chris Thompson was ultimately sidelined with another back injury, but freshman Devonta Freeman finally emerged and led the team with 531 yards on 107 carries and eight touchdowns. The change-of-pace option off the bench is senior Jermaine Thomas, who has started his fair share of games over the course of his career, although he has made a series of head-scratching mistakes -- getting tackled for a safety at Wake Forest, losing a fumble at Florida, several missed blocking assignments -- unbecoming of a player with his experience. Junior Lonnie Pryor is a strong blocker from the fullback spot and can also do some damage with the ball in his hands from time to time.
TO: Notre Dame's highly effective two-headed monster of Cierre Wood (199 carries, 1,042 yards, 9 TDs) and Jonas Gray (114/791/12) was crippled by the latter's ugly season-ending knee injury vs. Boston College in Game 11. Gray had not scored a touchdown in his Irish career prior to Game 4 this season -- a 79-yard burst at Pittsburgh. He proceeded to score at least one touchdown in his remaining seven contests to lead the team with 12 touchdowns (all rushing) overall. Wood last year became the first former freshman redshirt to lead a Notre Dame team in rushing, and with a touchdown in the Champs Sports Bowl, he would become the first Irish running back to top 1,000 yards and score 10 touchdowns since Julius Jones accomplished the feat in 2003. Wood will be joined in the backfield for the bowl game by slot receiver Theo Riddick. A junior, Riddick played running back for former coach Charlie Weis as a true freshman in 2009 before converting to receiver.
JC: Despite the fact that the passing game fizzled down the stretch after starting the season relatively hot, the 'Noles feature one of the deepest and most gifted receiving corps in the country -- and with the exception of the lone senior, Bert Reed, they'll all be back in 2012. It doesn't really matter who the starters are, as coach Jimbo Fisher rotates a few players each at the X (split end), Y (slot) and Z (flanker) positions every week, but the potential game breaker is freshman Rashad Greene, who made the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award five games into his collegiate career before being derailed with an ankle sprain. Reed is the unquestioned leader, junior Rodney Smith is dangerous because of his size-and-speed combo and freshman Christian Green might be the most improved player on the entire roster.
TO: 6-3, 225-pound senior Michael Floyd is the most complete football player on the team and possibly the best overall wide receiver in the nation, keying the team's improved running game with spectacular perimeter blocking. He can catch, too, holding program records for touchdown receptions, receiving yards, receptions and 100-yard games. Joining Floyd in the lineup are diminutive targets Tai-ler Jones (5-11, 187) and Robby Toma (5-9, 175). Both are quicker than fast -- both can move the chains. Toma became a fan favorite after earning a starting nod for the final three games, catching a combined 12 passes for 128 yards vs. ACC foes Maryland and Boston College in mid-November. Jones scored three touchdowns for the second straight season, securing 37 passes (fourth on the team). The only other Irish receiver that will see action is senior John Goodman, who doubles as the team's punt returner (more on that collective train wreck later).
JC: It's been quite some time since FSU had a top target at tight end augmenting the aerial attack like freshman Nick O'Leary, even if the numbers don't necessarily back up that claim -- he has only recorded 12 receptions for 164 yards and one touchdown. The grandson of golf legend Jack Nicklaus, O'Leary can be a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties due to his ability to run routes with the crispness of a receiver and catch the ball with pillow-soft hands, although he still has a way to go as a blocker and sometimes loses snaps to seniors Beau Reliford and Ja'Baris Little the closer the offense gets to the goal line. When Fisher wants to throw it, because he features a lot of four-wide sets to spread the field for Manuel, O'Leary is the forgotten man on the sideline more often than many fans would like.
TO: Notre Dame brings one of the nation's best in 6-6 junior Tyler Eifert, who broke the program's 34-year record for receptions at the position (now at 57) while scoring a position record-tying six touchdowns. Eifert is a finalist for the John Mackey Award and often lines up detached from scrimmage, even split wide as Notre Dame's second best pass catcher. The Fort Wayne, Indiana, product led Notre Dame in chain-moving third-down receptions and caught eight passes in a game three times this season -- second most all time at the position in program history. The backups are a pair of freshmen: (true) Ben Koyack and (redshirt)Alex Welch. Both are highly touted, but neither has proven to be a passing-game threat to date.
JC: No question about it, the Seminoles trot out one of the worst offensive lines in the nation, which has led directly to the inconsistency of the running game, Manuel getting sacked way too often and a lot of headaches in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Senior Zebrie Sanders started the season at right tackle but is currently at left tackle. Junior Jacob Fahrenkrug originally lined up at center before getting moved to left guard. Sophomore Bryan Stork flip-flopped with Fahrenkrug, playing center now after beginning the year at left guard. Sophomore Garrett Faircloth will most likely get the nod at right guard yet is a tackle by trade. Freshman Bobby Hart -- he only turned 17 in August -- got thrown into the fire at left tackle prior to a switch to right tackle. Once their leader, senior left tackle Andrew Datko, was lost after the Clemson game due to shoulder concerns, a bad O-line progressively got worse.
TO: Left tackle Zack Martin, left guard Chris Watt, right guard Trevor Robinson and right tackle Taylor Dever each started 12 games this season -- Martin and Robinson started all 13 last fall for coach Brian Kelly and offensive line coach Ed Warinner as well. Joining the quartet for his fourth career start is backup center Mike Golic Jr., pressed into action when starter Braxston Cave was lost for the season to an ankle injury in Game 10 at Wake Forest. Notre Dame averaged a millennium-best 5.0 yards per rush in 2011. The front five allowed just 13 sacks, though eight occurred since Cave was lost to injury over the last three contests (three vs. Maryland in Game 10 and five vs. Stanford in Game 12 -- the latter due partly to Hendrix scrambling into danger). The Irish's front wall proved just average at the point of attack vs. solid defenses but excelled at finding and securing second-level blocks vs. opposing linebackers, regardless of foe.
Be on the lookout for Part II of our Champs Sports Bowl Introduction, where John and Tim break down the defenses for Florida State and Notre Dame, on Tuesday.
John Crist is editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com. Tim O'Malley is publisher of IrishEyes.com.