John Crist: With junior quarterback E.J. Manuel and the rest of the passing game not finishing the regular season especially sharp, Florida State must stay ahead of the chains with a sound running game.
However, because the Seminoles have been bruised and battered along the offensive line all year long, both in terms of injuries and ineffectiveness, that's easier said than done. Especially since coach Jimbo Fisher has tinkered with his front five so far during pre-bowl game practices, so it remains to be seen if some inexperienced blockers like sophomore right guard Garrett Faircloth and freshman right tackle Bobby Hart even keep their jobs.
Therefore, if freshman tailback Devonta Freeman -- he emerged midseason as FSU's leading rusher but didn't put up monster numbers because he could never get to the second level of the defense with a full head of steam -- wants to threaten 100 yards rushing against Notre Dame, then he'd be wise to follow junior fullback Lonnie Pryor as often as possible. Pryor didn't do much statistically in 2011, as he only rushed 27 times for 74 yards (2.7 yards per carry) and two touchdowns and caught five passes for 56 yards and another TD, but he knows how to blow up a linebacker in the hole to help create a little daylight. Additionally, he's one of the program's few veteran leaders and, despite his smile-a-minute attitude on and off the field, has a respected voice in the locker room.
While Fisher is a former signal caller himself and no doubt likes to throw the ball, he showed Nov. 26 in the 21-7 victory over rival Florida that he doesn't mind grinding it out on the ground if that's what it takes to win a particular game. The strengths of this club are defense and special teams, not running the ball.
But if the 'Noles do manage to iron out the kinks and rush for 150 yards or so vs. the Irish, you can bet that Pryor's lead blocking was a major factor.
Tim O'Malley: From Game 5 at Purdue through his season-ending knee injury in Game 11 vs. Boston College, senior Jonas Gray was Notre Dame's best runner. Over the course of the season, that honor belongs to shifty junior Cierre Wood, who'll lead the backfield's charge in the Champs Sports Bowl with a little help from classmate and former running back Theo Riddick -- Riddick is moving from slot receiver to the backfield for the contest and possibly his senior season.
Regardless of which back handles the pigskin, the most important player in Notre Dame's vastly improved rushing attack is the perimeter tandem of junior left tackle Zack Martin and senior wide receiver Michael Floyd.
Martin is the program's best move blocker in a generation and its best overall offensive lineman since center Jeff Faine won over Irish fans with his toughness and through-the-whistle approach in 2002. From his left tackle position, the 6-4, 303-pounder doubles as a lead fullback on the offense's preferred delayed draws and possesses the unique ability to fire out to the boundary sideline to secure opposing defensive backs on bubble screens -- a play Notre Dame coaches consider an extension of their running game. Find another left tackle that's asked to throw the lead block on a cornerback for passes thrown behind or at the line of scrimmage.
Augmenting Martin's efforts is the massive Floyd, who at 6-3 and 225 pounds is the top blocking wide receiver in the nation and the best in more than 15 years at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame's running game was held in check just twice this season: Once due to lack of opportunity (USC), and more recently -- and possibly telling -- because it didn't possess the passing attack to help balance the effort (Stanford).
Florida State's rush defense (No. 2 nationally) is as good or better than both (Stanford No. 5, USC No. 19), although the Cardinal and Trojans had to face Oregon, while the Seminoles' top rushing foes were Maryland at No. 44 and Oklahoma at No. 49.
If Wood or Riddick can make Florida State pay up front, it's likely because Martin and Floyd paved the way.
Passing GameJC: Bert Reed suffered a hamstring injury this past week and won't be available for the Champs Sports Bowl, but even though he's the only senior receiver on the roster, Florida State is deep and talented enough at that position to hide his absence.
The Seminoles will play six rotating wideouts in Orlando, with junior Rodney Smith, sophomore Greg Dent and freshmen Rashad Greene and Christian Green manning X (split end) and Z (flanker) while sophomores Kenny Shaw and Jarred Haggins handle Y (slot). Aside from Greene's early-season explosion, when he went from new face to Biletnikoff Award watch list in the span of five games prior to an ankle sprain, FSU doesn't really have a Floyd-like primary target.
However, a play-making tight end can be a quarterback's best friend, especially when that quarterback has been struggling with health issues -- it's obvious Manuel's tender left shoulder, injured Sept. 17 in the Oklahoma game, bothered him again late in the year -- and has become gun-shy in the face of the pass rush. Freshman Nick O'Leary is the most dangerous weapon the 'Noles have had at tight end in quite some time, yet he caught just 12 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown since Fisher prefers to throw out of three- and four-wide sets. Following a three-catch, 87-yard performance Nov. 3 at Boston College, O'Leary didn't so much as dent the stat sheet vs. Miami, Virginia or Florida to close out the schedule.
The grandson of Jack Nicklaus, who during one game criticized Fisher's plan of attack on a national-television broadcast because it didn't get O'Leary the ball enough, the 6-4, 240-pounder is a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties alike. It remains a mystery why Fisher isn't constantly running O'Leary on drag routes over the middle or using his receiver-like skills in the red zone, although, in Fisher's defense, the Palm Beach Gardens native has whiffed on a few blocks and messed up some assignments here and there.
O'Leary might not possess the quick-strike capability of Greene and Co., but with the offensive line incapable of giving Manuel a clean pocket snap after snap, short- and intermediate-range throws to O'Leary could keep the chains moving.
TO: Floyd is the most well-known, productive and valuable member of the team, not to mention the offense. But Seminoles fans looking for an Irish X-factor vs. their team's stout defense should monitor the efforts of junior tight end Tyler Eifert, especially when the chain gang flips the card to signal third down.
Eifert, who broke a 34-year-old program record for receptions by a tight end this season with 57, led Notre Dame in third-down receptions that resulted in first downs or touchdowns (20), emerging as the quarterbacks' security blanket and one of the top No. 2 receiving options in the nation.
Of his 57 receptions, 16 gained more than 15 yards, which was third on the team behind Floyd and Wood (rushing). Nearly 11 full games passed between drops by the sure-handed junior. At 6-6 and 250 pounds, Eifert runs routes as well as wide receivers, catches the ball at its highest point -- the most recent example a third-and-19 stab for 23 yards in traffic at Stanford -- and has the agility to go low for throws, as he did for 22 yards at Michigan to move the chains on a crucial fourth-quarter grab.
Floyd will likely lead the team in receptions and receiving yards on Dec. 29. He did so in nine of 12 games this season and 16 of the 23 he has played during the Brian Kelly era. But Eifert is the midfield maven, the chain mover, a one-on-one mismatch vs. every linebacker in college football and, on one occasion this season (at Pittsburgh), an unstoppable target and best player on the field.
Defenses have occasionally taken Floyd out of the game over the last two years with double coverage and rolling coverage on every snap. It's nearly impossible to do so vs. Eifert with Floyd's presence on the perimeter.
John Crist is editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com. Tim O'Malley is publisher of IrishEyes.com.