When No. 7 Notre Dame ventures into Sanford Stadium to play No. 3 Georgia on Saturday night in the biggest college football game of this weekend, many viewers will be thinking of another matchup: The Irish’s performance against Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal last season.
That 30-3 rout at the hands of the Tigers continues to give many pause about Notre Dame, despite their high national ranking. The Irish haven’t fared well recently against teams of Georgia’s stature, losing 10 straight games to top-five opponents. A victory in Athens would be their biggest since winning at No. 3 Michigan in 2005, a surprisingly lengthy timespan for a program with Notre Dame’s tradition.
Georgia won a one-point game two years ago in South Bend, notable as the debut of quarterback Jake Fromm. The Irish are better now, thanks in large part to quarterback Ian Book, who was Brandon Wimbush’s backup in that 2017 meeting. But the Bulldogs have improved, too, with depth and talent to rival any program in the country. Here are three best bets for the big game between the hedges.
Book’s ascension to starter revitalized coach Brian Kelly’s offense, and was the catalyst behind the Irish’s 12-1 record and CFP berth a year ago. In the 12 games in which Book has started under center, Notre Dame is averaging over 36 points per game. But his skill position players are more inexperienced this season, with his top rusher and receiver from 2018 both in the NFL.
For the new guys, the atmosphere will be an eye-opener. But the big challenge will be for the Irish defense, which lost its top cover corner from last season, and will have to be much, much better than it showed in the CFP to slow the Bulldogs down.
Georgia will almost certainly try the same tactic that worked for Clemson last year in the playoff: Shut down the Notre Dame run game, take away the deep ball and make Book try to beat them.
The result against Clemson was a slew of early mistakes, including a fumble, two turnovers on downs, and one interception. And Book on that night was surrounded by proven playmakers, a luxury he won’t have in Athens. The Notre Dame quarterback must show improvement as a downfield passer if the Irish are to stay in the game.
Whether it’s the 30-3 loss last season to Clemson or the 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2012 national championship game, Notre Dame under Brian Kelly has struggled to show it truly belongs among the nation’s elite. Meanwhile, the growth of Kirby Smart’s Georgia program is evident in razor-thin losses to Alabama in each of the past two seasons. The two-touchdown line against Notre Dame is a big one, to be certain. But the Bulldogs are playing at a different level, which should be evident once again Saturday night.