John Crist: Florida State features a five-man rotation along the interior, with junior Everett Dawkins as the starting defensive tackle and junior Anthony McCloud as the starting nose guard -- freshman Cameron Erving backs up Dawkins at defensive tackle, while sophomore Demonte McAllister and freshman Timmy Jernigan play behind McCloud at nose guard. Dawkins is the leader of the group, recently named "Defensive Warrior" at the program's annual awards banquet, but he's not a classic playmaker and won't blow away anyone with his statistical achievements. However, Jernigan has the ability of a future All-American and is nothing short of unstoppable at times despite being fresh out of high school, so look for the 6-3, 297-pounder playing one technique in 4-3 packages and also zero technique when defensive coordinator Mark Stoops shifts to a 3-4 in passing situations.
Tim O'Malley: The Irish feature a variety of defensive fronts, but redshirt freshman and Jacksonville native Louis Nix and senior Sean Cwynar comprise the nose guard tandem. Cwynar, undersized for a true nose at 6-4 and 285, was a godsend at the end of 2010, starting during the team's four-game winning streak after former Altamonte Springs product and current San Francisco 49er Ian Williams was lost to injury. Cwynar battled a broken hand for the first half of 2011. The 325-pound Nix lost a small child's worth of weight in the 2011 offseason and performed well stuffing the run in his first season as a starter -- Nix started 10 games, Cwynar two.
Shifting inside on passing downs will be massive freshman defensive end Stephon Tuitt. The 6-7, 295-pound man-child started at right defensive end after senior Kapron Lewis-Moore was lost in Game 7 (vs. USC) to a knee injury, and his versatility makes him the ideal swing player in base, nickel and dime packages. Fellow freshman and former UF verbal commitment Chase Hounshell backs up the interior trio.
JC: The Seminoles have what may be the best one-two punch at the defensive end position in all of college football, as junior Brandon Jenkins (right end) might be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft if he declares after the bowl game and sophomore Bjoern Werner (left end) enjoyed a breakout campaign himself. The two pass rushers complement each perfectly, as Jenkins majors in speed and quickness while Werner simply overpowers blockers with brute strength, but these guys do more than chase the quarterback -- both are excellent run defenders, too. Sophomore Dan Hicks is the No. 2 behind Jenkins but doesn't see the field much, but junior Cornellius Carradine plays quite a bit in Werner's stead and has been a tremendous addition coming from the junior-college ranks.
TO: Tuitt missed the final two games will an illness but is expected back as the starter at RDE for the bowl game. If not, senior Ethan Johnson will swing to the right side. Johnson, the normal LDE starter, missed five games due to an ankle injury and was not full strength when he returned for the final three. In his stead stepped true freshman and former Seminoles verbal commitment Aaron Lynch, who led the Irish with 13 QB hurries, including a remarkable six vs. Michigan State. Lynch will either start at LDE or simply play the bulk of the snaps -- he also shifts inside in the team's nickel and dime pass-rush packages.
Regardless of technical assignments, the trio will play the majority of snaps for this matchup. Because outside linebackers shift to defensive end in multiple sets, Notre Dame is likely to feature only the preceding six defensive linemen listed above, though senior Hafis Williams is also available for duty. Lewis-Moore is out.
JC: After a slow start and disappointing a lot of fans with his propensity for stupid penalties, senior Nigel Bradham played the best ball of his career down the stretch on the weak side and will probably have professional scouts drooling once it's time for testing at the Scouting Combine -- he's the first FSU defender to lead the team in tackles three seasons in a row since the legendary Marvin Jones did it from 1990-92. In the middle, there is a two-man rotation consisting of junior Vince Williams and sophomore Telvin Smith, although Smith is the more talented of the two and a much better athlete. While sophomore Christian Jones is off the charts when it comes to measurables over on the strong side, his play is still somewhat inconsistent at this point, as he'll be the best player on the field one week but disappear the next.
TO: The middle is manned by Butkus finalist Manti Te'o, who rarely leaves the field with the game in doubt. He's far and away the team's best front-seven defender at this stage and easily its top run stuffer (111 tackles, after 133 stops last year). Te'o led the Irish with 13 tackles for loss and also excels vs. the screen game, nearly eradicating the play from opposing playbooks. He can struggle in middle-zone coverage, however, and vs. tight ends down the seam. Joining Te'o inside is the WILL linebacker tandem of juniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese. The pair combined for 81 tackles, with Fox starting all 12 games as the more accomplished pass defender.
Outside linebackers Darius Fleming (the "Cat," aligned to the boundary) and Prince Shembo (the "Dog," aligned to the field side) stand up when the team features a 3-4 front. Both are better with one hand on the ground in pass-rushing situations. Fleming, a senior, improved as the season progressed, but Shembo was a bit miscast in space and replaced often late in the season by starting safety Jamoris Slaughter in a smaller front. Shembo can be overwhelming at times as a pass rusher. Also likely to play in pass-rushing situations is true freshman Troy Niklas, who began seeing time along the defensive front as a stand-up rusher aligned two yards off the ball on the nose. Sophomore Danny Spond could see time as a linebacker with strong coverage skills in the flat.
JC: Projected to be one of the team's strengths at the beginning of the campaign, the 'Noles haven't gotten the play out of their cornerbacks that they figured in preseason camp. Before the season finale at Florida, when senior Mike Harris intercepted one pass and junior Greg Reid picked off two, Florida State had but one INT from its corners through 11 games, and that came courtesy of sophomore Xavier Rhodes. Harris, Reid and Rhodes are very talented, as the three of them will be playing on Sunday before it's all said and done, but Harris is more reliable inside in the nickel package than outside in conventional sets, Reid has been beaten too often in crunch time -- see the game-winning touchdown pass Landry Jones threw to Kenny Stills in Oklahoma's 23-13 win at Doak Campbell Stadium on Sept. 17 -- and Rhodes keeps having to fight his way through minor injuries that limit his effectiveness.
TO: The Irish go two deep -- starters Robert Blanton (field) and Gary Gray (boundary) do the heavy lifting, with Blanton having the versatility to shift inside covering the slot receiver, a role in which he excelled last season. Blanton ranks among Notre Dame's better playmakers of the last 7-8 seasons, compiling 15 tackles for loss, 14 passes defended, four interceptions, a blocked punt touchdown and 121 total tackles during the Brian Kelly era (25 games). Gray starred on the boundary in 2010 but struggled vs. fade routes and jump balls often this season, notably in a nightmare fourth quarter in a shocking loss to Michigan. He remains strong in run support and is a quality tackler in space.
Sophomore Bennett Jackson – a former wide receiver – appeared to pull ahead of classmate Lo Wood in the pecking order. Jackson is a straight-liner but also a strong open-field tackler who excels in kick coverage. Wood added an interception touchdown in a Game 10 win over Maryland. The only other available scholarship cornerback is Josh Atkinson, who began to see time at mid-season on special teams.
JC: One of the keys to the Seminoles getting back to their ways as one of the premier defenses in the nation was moving sophomore Lamarcus Joyner from backup cornerback, which is what he played in 2010 as a freshman, to starting free safety, where he morphed into a second-team All-ACC choice. Joyner has the speed and range of a corner -- he led the team with three interceptions -- to help take away the deep ball, plus he packs a serious wallop as a run supporter at 5-8 and 204 pounds. On the other hand, strong safety has been a bit of a problem from time to time, as senior Terrance Parks is long on leadership but short on playmaking ability, junior Nick Moody has seen his name on the injury report entirely too often and highly-recruited freshman Karlos Williams has not been able to crack the lineup, presumably because he isn't picking up the nuts and bolts of the scheme.
TO: Three players rarely leave the field -- Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta and the aforementioned Slaughter, who finished the season as one of Notre Dame's 10 best overall players after a nondescript September. Slaughter covers slot receivers in the nickel, plays outside linebacker vs. teams that feature four-wide receiver and/or multiple tight end sets and is the team's most impressive hitter despite weighing in at 198 pounds. Smith is the lone team captain and the only player in program history to compile more than 200 tackles, 15 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss. He picked off three passes vs. Miami in last year's Sun Bowl victory and led the Irish with 10 passes defended this fall. With the possible exception of Slaughter, Smith is the only elite athlete (not football player) relative to his position among the team's back-seven defenders and quite often mitigates downfield damage with his speed/range trailing plays.
Motta's strength is run support, though he can struggle vs. quicker foes and is a bit more suited for play in the box than in space. Former wide receiver Austin Collinsworth enters as a dime linebacker in six-defensive back packages. Collinsworth was the team's best overall special-teams player this fall.
Note: Be on the lookout for Part III of our Champs Sports Bowl Introduction, where John and Tim break down special teams for Florida State and Notre Dame, on Wednesday.
John Crist is editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com. Tim O'Malley is publisher of IrishEyes.com.