SOUTH BEND, Ind. — On Saturday night, Notre Dame got its 10th win of 2018 in what looked in August like it might be a big game—and was anything but. Against a struggling Florida State squad, the Irish were in control all night, keeping their playoff hopes alive in a 42–13 victory. It was Brian Kelly’s team’s final home game of the season before a brutal travel schedule in Weeks 12 and 13, which will take Notre Dame to Yankee Stadium and then USC, with a trip to college football’s final four on the line. What did Saturday teach us about the Irish? Not much; they won about as handily as expected against a mediocre team. In fact, the game may have been more of a bellwether for the Seminoles, which seem to be losing fight as the season ticks down to its final weeks.
1. Florida State looks like it’s in real danger of snapping its streak of bowl-eligible seasons, with two games to go. This one is a doozy; the Seminoles haven’t sat out December football since 1981. Right now, they have four wins and two ranked teams remaining on their schedule: No. 17 Boston College next week and No. 15 Florida in Week 13. It’s going to take a minor miracle for Willie Taggart and company to pull off a fifth win, much less a sixth, and it turns out last season was less an aberration and more an indicator that things in Tallahassee had soured, big time. (In 2017, the Seminoles needed a rescheduled game against ULM, which had been canceled due to a hurricane and was eventually held on Dec. 2, to earn their sixth win.)
Both of Florida State’s remaining games are at home, which works in the Seminoles’ favor; three of their four wins have come in Tallahassee. Still, Taggart’s team has struggled to put together any kind of consistent offensive attack all season. And if last week was the last we see of James Blackman at quarterback this year—another appearance would be his fifth game and burn the redshirt it looks like the team hopes to preserve—that doesn’t seem like it’s about to change anytime soon. It’s officially rebuilding time for the Seminoles, and in an ACC Atlantic division that got significantly more top-heavy this year, that’s going to be a multi-season task.
2. Dexter Williams may be the key to Notre Dame’s offense. Much has been made of the team’s performance before and after its switch from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book at quarterback. But for the entirety of the time Wimbush started before getting the nod Saturday in light of Book’s injury, Williams was suspended. Against the Seminoles, he finished with a season-high 202 yards, averaging 10.1 per carry, and two touchdowns. His 58-yard touchdown run in the second quarter broke the game open, pushing the Irish lead to 25–6.
Since returning from his suspension, Williams has had four games with more than 100 yards and two where he’s been barely a factor: last week at Northwestern, and on Oct. 13 against Pitt. Both games were closer than they should have been, and the Irish nearly blew the game against the Panthers. Their offense is best with Book under center, it seems, but to truly succeed, they need the Williams who showed up against Florida State.
3. Notre Dame had several sloppy mistakes against a lesser opponent—which won’t fly come December, should it make the College Football Playoff. The Irish are going to have to contend with concerns about their strength of schedule, especially after several opponents on their 2018 docket shaped up to be worse than expected (see: Virginia Tech, Florida State, USC). Still, what they’ve done has been enough to impress the CFP committee, and the biggest argument against their No. 3 ranking on Saturday came in the seemingly thoughtless mistakes: the two interceptions, the poorly timed penalties. In the end, only one of the Irish interceptions turned into a Florida State touchdown, and in that, Notre Dame was lucky. It also got a healthy margin of victory in some part thanks to Florida State repeatedly refusing to settle for (meaningless) field goals and then turning the ball over on downs. Against the cream of the college football crop, it won’t be so easy to keep a healthy cushion or rebound from turnovers.