No question, it’s a big deal. Seeing one of the SEC’s flagship programs run into Notre Dame Stadium, for only the 15th night game in the facility’s history, will send shivers down the spine of any college football fan. Georgia has never been to South Bend, and hasn’t played the Fighting Irish since the Sugar Bowl after the 1980 season. Shake down the thunder, indeed.
And yet, for all of Georgia’s shortcomings last season in coach Kirby Smart’s first year at the helm, it remains a little mystifying how the Bulldogs have consistently remained an odds underdog heading into this game. The Superbook, the standard-setter for sports betting in Las Vegas, has No. 15 Georgia as a 4½-point underdog. But it’s not difficult to find other books in Sin City that favor the unranked Irish by nearly a touchdown.
I think the glint of the Golden Dome may be getting in their eyes. In a Week 2, with only a handful of games that look competitive, South Carolina getting 2½ at Missouri and Arkansas giving 3 at home to TCU are other solid underdog options. But our best bet remains Georgia, at a Notre Dame team whose 4-8 record last season seems to be lost in the lore of leprechauns and Touchdown Jesus.
1. Georgia runs it better …
No doubt, Notre Dame has talent along a senior-laden offensive line to go with a deep running back corps. Tailbacks Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush all ran for over 100 yards in last week’s victory over Temple, marking the first game since 1954 in which three Irish players have cracked the century mark on the ground.
But this isn’t Temple. Both teams will try to run the ball and control tempo, and few teams in America are better suited to do that than Georgia behind running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who rank fifth and 15th respectively among active rushers. Notre Dame is going to want to grind it out with Georgia, and they’ll be playing right into the Bulldogs’ hands.
2. … and stops the run better, as well
With both teams so ground-oriented, stopping the run will be paramount. Notre Dame allowed an average of 40 rushing more yards per game last season than the Bulldogs, who returned their defense almost intact. The Irish rebuilt their defensive line around 11 returnees — none of whom recorded a sack last season.
With freshman Jake Fromm stepping in for injured Georgia starter Jacob Eason at quarterback, Notre Dame will surely try to make the Bulldogs one-dimensional. But the Irish also have some questions in the secondary, questions that Temple did not provide definitive answers for. And by itself, Georgia’s change of starter behind center shouldn’t be enough to impact the outcome.
3. Fromm won’t have to win the game
This isn’t the Fun-n-Gun, people. Eason didn’t pass for more than 208 yards in any of Georgia’s final four games last season, three of which the Bulldogs won. With that backfield, the quarterback needs only to be efficient and keep the defense honest. It’s not unreasonable to think that Fromm, who’s been on campus since spring practice, can manage that much.
It doesn’t hurt that Fromm saw action in the Georgia’s opener last weekend against Appalachian State, against whom he completed 10 of 15 attempts for 143 yards and a touchdown. Smart raves about Fromm’s composure, which will surely be tested. And he has exactly one more career start than Notre Dame’s quarterback, Wimbush, who’s also being asked to take a sizable step up in competition.
4. Did we mention Notre Dame went 4-8?
No question, the Fighting Irish are on the short list of history’s greatest programs. But this is still a rebuilding team that had a terrible record last year by anybody’s standards, and shook up the coaching staff as a result. They lost three home games last season (including one to a Duke team that would go 4-8), further evidence that tradition can take you only so far.
But that tradition exists, and as a result Notre Dame is chronically overvalued — whether it was in a loss last season at Texas that made everyone believe the Longhorns had finally broken through, or being ranked 10th to start last year, or being favored in this game even when Eason was healthy. News flash: the leprechaun isn’t going to stop Chubb on third-and-short.
Prediction: Georgia 28, Notre Dame 20
It still promises to be an electric atmosphere, with Notre Dame meeting an SEC opponent in the regular season for the first time since Tennessee in 2005. As long as Smart doesn’t ask Fromm to do too much and allows his team to stick to its strengths, the Bulldogs have all the pieces to come away with a victory to match their Sugar Bowl triumph over the Irish 36 years ago.
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