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Notre Dame-Florida St. Preview

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Top-five opponents have spelled doom for Notre Dame in the last 16 years, and a win over such a foe might be just what Florida State needs to regain the No. 1 ranking.

With growing uncertainty surrounding their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, rankings might not be the No. 2 Seminoles’ greatest concern as they prepare to host the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish on Saturday night.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said he expects Jameis Winston to play, despite the university’s decision to conduct a student code of conduct hearing for an ongoing sexual assault investigation. A hearing date hasn’t been set for a woman’s allegations of a December 2012 sexual assault that did not result in charges last December.

Adding to Winston’s list of controversies is the question of whether the reigning Heisman winner is also tied to the autograph-authentication business that led to the suspension of Georgia running back Todd Gurley for allegedly accepting money for signings.

“I talked to him and I know people have talked to the owners of the company and different people, and from what I understand, we’ll see, but I’m not concerned,” Fisher said.

The list piled up in the days following Saturday’s 38-20 win over Syracuse that coincided with Mississippi State topping then-No. 2 Auburn before overtaking the Seminoles (6-0) for the No. 1 ranking.

Fisher was as dismissive of the importance of the rankings drop as he was of the potential for his quarterback to miss time, and cornerback P.J. Williams said it just provides motivation to further prove themselves.

“Every week we look to do that,” Williams said. “But when we’re playing a bigger team on a bigger stage, we definitely look to play a lot harder and show everybody that we are one of the best teams and we can definitely compete on that level. I definitely like having doubters.”

Notre Dame (6-0), though, has provided little reason for doubt against elite foes. The Irish are 1-16 against top-five teams since 1999, including eight straight losses overall and seven in a row by at least 13 points.

They became a top-five team themselves after beating North Carolina 50-43 on Saturday and now face a Florida State squad that has won its last two top-five matchups.

“You get yourself in it consistently, and then you breakthrough and you start playing at that caliber,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I think it’s a process and a journey that we’re on as a program. And we expect to beat Florida State.”

Notre Dame will also be playing its first true road game after four in South Bend and two at neutral sites. It went 2/3 away from home a season ago, ending with losses at Pittsburgh and Stanford.

Florida State, meanwhile, has won in all environments with a school-record 22 straight victories, including 10 straight at Doak Campbell Stadium.

Winston has started 19 of those contests, and his efficiency was on display against Syracuse: 30 of 36 for 317 yards and three touchdowns. The offense has scored on 28 of 29 red-zone trips this season, a mark of 96.6 percent that ranks second in the FBS.

“What stands out here is efficiency,” Kelly said. “Not turning the football over, minimizing any of the mistakes that they make. I think you have to look at yourself the same way. Not giving up big plays is important for us. Not forcing us in a situation where we make that big mistake. They’re waiting for you to make a mistake, and I think that’s where they’ve shown themselves to be very, very good, and Winston in particular, he’s waiting for you to make a mistake. We have to be on top of our game.”

Kelly’s own quarterback, Everett Golson, hasn’t been far behind with 16 victories in 17 starts. The senior has established himself among this year’s Heisman candidates, though he’s thrown four interceptions in three games after not throwing one in his first three.

Of greater concern might be last weekend’s defensive effort by the Irish, who surrendered 516 yards, their most since the national championship loss to Alabama two seasons ago. They also hadn’t allowed 43 points since a 45-38 loss at Stanford to conclude the 2009 season.

Florida State leads the all-time series 5-2, but the only meeting in Tallahassee resulted in a Notre Dame win in 2002. Two meetings since have gone the Seminoles’ way, the latest in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl.

Seminoles running back Mario Pender is questionable with an ankle injury. He made his first career start for the injured Karlos Williams (ankle) against Syracuse, but Williams is expected back.

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