Notre Dame should be the test Georgia needs

The Notre Dame leprechaun mascot is seen along with cheerleaders during a game against the Louisville Cardinals at Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 2, 2019 in Louisville, Ky.

Credit: Joe Robbins

Credit: Joe Robbins

The Notre Dame leprechaun mascot is seen along with cheerleaders during a game against the Louisville Cardinals at Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 2, 2019 in Louisville, Ky.

It’s not just that Notre Dame is coming to town, although let’s not pretend Notre Dame coming to town isn’t a big thing. But you don’t need a crash course in Fighting Irish history. Even if you’re an SEC zealot who insists the halo atop the South Bend program was a creation of the East Coast media between World Wars – it wasn’t, but don’t let me intercede on your conspiracy theory – you still know about Notre Dame.

Notre Dame in Sanford Stadium, for the first time ever: That sells itself. But there’s another facet to this massively anticipated game, and it’s a far more prosaic that the memory of the Four Horseman and the sight of the leprechaun. Notre Dame is an opponent that might – might, we say – give Georgia a game between the hallowed hedges.

The last time the Bulldogs trailed in the second half on what’s now known as Dooley Field was Nov. 26, 2016. That was against Georgia Tech, and it was only for the final 30 seconds. Paul Johnson strutted away with his third victory in Sanford Stadium in five tries. It was Georgia’s third home loss – the first two came against Tennessee on the Juan Jennings Hail Mary and Vanderbilt when Nick Chubb didn’t get the ball on fourth down – in Kirby Smart’s first season as coach.

To say that Smart’s Bulldogs haven’t lost another game in Sanford Stadium doesn’t tell half the story. Since Tech’s Qua Searcy made his improvisational leap, Smart’s Bulldogs haven’t come close to losing in Athens. Only twice over 15 games have visitors come within 20 points – South Carolina losing 24-10 in 2017, Auburn falling 27-10 last year. And the gap hasn’t been narrowing. On the contrary.

In 2017, the season Georgia broke upward, it won its six Sanford tests – not that there were many hard questions – by an average of 24.2 points. The widest margin was 29 points. The average margin over nine home games since is 35.8 points.

Since 2016, two ranked opponents have come to Athens. Mississippi State was No. 17 in the Associated Press poll on Sept. 23, 2017. It lost 31-3. It would finish 9-4, ranked No. 19. Auburn was No. 24 last year. It would finish 8-5 and unranked. Note the absence of any ranked visitor from the SEC East. Note that something similar is apt to occur again. The three division visitors in 2019 are South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky. None received a vote in this week’s AP poll.

About here, you might be saying, “Look, this happens with Alabama, too.” But it doesn’t, not quite. LSU and Auburn and Texas A&M come to Tuscaloosa every other year. Florida has played in Athens once since 1932.

The ongoing oddity in this home schedule rests with Georgia fans’ love of their annual autumn getaway to Jacksonville/St. Simons. (If Smart gets his way, that could change – and Smart tends to get his way.) As it stands, the only SEC East program that can match Georgia’s resources always plays the Bulldogs in the state of Florida. To the neutral, it makes no sense. Then again, neutrals don’t donate.

But enough about Florida. This is about Notre Dame. The Irish represent a hurdle, same as in September 2017, when the Bulldogs went to South Bend and won 20-19. The first signature victory under Smart bought the program enough credibility that, by Halloween, Georgia was No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings. No, the Irish haven’t won a national championship since Jan. 2, 1989 – Bulldogs fans recall that as the day Ray Goff was named head coach – but they’re both a brand name and a solid team. They’re also something different.

Even if you’re the world’s biggest Georgia fan, these home games have become a snooze. Sure, you want your team to win, but you’d like winning to carry some currency. The biggest victories of the 2017 season were Notre Dame (road), Auburn for the SEC title (Atlanta) and Oklahoma in the CFP semis (Rose Bowl). The biggest of last year were Florida (Jax) and Kentucky (Lex). Wouldn’t it be nice to have a lasting memory of a day in Athens beyond the tailgating?

There’s also a pragmatic aspect: Georgia needs a competitive game. It didn’t get one last year until it arrived in Baton Rouge on Oct. 13. It left a 20-point loser. Indeed, we tend to remember last season, which saw the Bulldogs go 11-3 and narrowly miss both an SEC title and the playoff, more for the three losses than the 11 wins. When you rise as high as Georgia, you crave the occasional challenge. It has been a long time since any Sanford visitor provided one.

There’s a chance Notre Dame mightn’t, either. The Irish lost 30-3 to Clemson in a playoff semi last year, prompting the CFP-spurned Bulldogs to vent via social media. (Guessing Brian Kelly made a note of that.) The Irish are two-touchdown underdogs, a huge spread in a match of top-10 teams. So maybe Georgia will beat the famous visitors the way it beats everybody who comes to Athens. Me, I’m thinking Notre Dame is somewhat better than South Carolina.