Florida State and Notre Dame entered 2011 with BCS-bowl expectations. They both went 8-4. A meeting between storied programs in a second-tier bowl provides an opportunity for one to finish a subpar season on a high note. The Seminoles are appearing in a bowl game for a 30th consecutive year, the longest active streak in the FBS. (Let's overlook that vacated 2006 Emerald Bowl appearance.) Brian Kelly, meanwhile, is looking to become the first Irish coach to win bowl games in each of his first two seasons. (Let's overlook the gap from 1926-68, during which the Irish had a self-imposed bowl ban.)
WHO TO WATCH: Shawn Powell. Seriously. The FSU punter led the nation in yards per punt (47.0) and is facing an Irish punt return unit that ranked last in the nation (0.3 yards per return). In a game featuring two strong defenses, the battle for field position becomes all the more important, putting the spotlight on the consensus All-American.
WHAT TO WATCH: The Tommy Rees-Andrew Hendrix dynamic. Rees will get the start, his 12th straight. Hendrix will play, though when and how much is anybody's guess. Rees is 12-3 as a starter but was replaced by Hendrix in the regular-season finale at Stanford, and Hendrix's rocket arm and quick feet have Irish fans giddy about their possible quarterback of the future. But Rees' record speaks for itself, and it remains to be seen what Hendrix can do against a defense like FSU's, which ranks sixth nationally.
WHY TO WATCH: This game is easily more recognizable than any of the other bowls that have taken place so far. Florida State and Notre Dame are two of the nation's most storied programs, each looking to put a nice cap on a season that failed to meet expectations. A victory could go a long way in carrying each team into 2012, and there's certainly some history here -- No. 2 Notre Dame upset No. 1 FSU in 1993 in what was then "The Game of the Century," only to see the Seminoles declared national champs when each team ended the season with one loss.
PREDICTION: Notre Dame 21, Florida State 13. The Irish's front seven is finally healthy, ready to face a Seminoles offensive line that could feature four true freshmen. Throw in the big-play capability of Michael Floyd and the fact FSU has dealt with some unrest since the regular season ended -- two arrests, one player academically ineligible -- and it adds up to a favorable Thursday for the Irish, who will notch their first nine-win season since 2006.