CFB GAME PREVIEW: (7) Notre dame @ (3) georgia
By Joshua Edwards
Remember last year when 11-2 Georgia were convinced they deserved a shot at the CFB Playoffs? They were spurned by the selection committee in favour of Notre Dame, who lost so badly to Clemson in the semi-final they took the brunt of the Georgia’s ire. The Bulldogs have a shot at revenge on Saturday when they host the Fighting Irish for the first time in Athens. Josh Edwards takes a look at the matchup in detail here:
THE TWO TEAMS:
Notre Dame are 2-0 after winning at Louisville in the opener (35-17) and at home to New Mexico last week (66-14). They had a week two bye and now face their first ranked opponent of the season in Georgia. Quarterback Ian Book has been perfect so far and ranks among the most efficient passers in college football, albeit in small sample size against middling opposition (553 yards, 6 touchdowns and no picks). The defensive front has been getting great penetration so far and the Irish have a +6 turnover differential. It’s been an impressive start for Notre Dame but as an independent they’ll probably have to go undefeated again for a shot at the CFB Playoffs.
Georgia are undefeated too at 3-0 but Vanderbilt were the best team they’ve faced and that was three weeks ago (a 30-6 victory). Week two and three were layup wins against Murray State (63-17) and Arkansas State (55-0). Jake Fromm has been great too, throwing for 601 yards, 5 scores and no picks in three games. It’s consistent, mistake free, confidence inspiring football from the Heisman candidate who has seen his odds slashed in half from 40/1 to 20/1 already. The defense has been the strength of the team in 2019 with 12 sacks already and though they’re yet to face an offensive line as talented as Notre Dame’s, they’ll be chomping at the bit to get going on Saturday night.
The two teams have only played twice in their storied histories, Georgia winning on both occasions. The first game was a 17-10 Bulldogs victory in the Sugar Bowl in 1981 where RB Hershel Walker was named MVP – that year was the last time Georgia went undefeated. 36 years later they won again, this time by the slimmest of margins (20-19), in what was Jake Fromm’s debut performance for the Bulldogs.
Back in 2016 Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was under a lot of pressure. His team had gone 4-8 in his 6th season in charge and the Fighting Irish seemed to always be teetering on the brink of great potential and dangerous freefall simultaneously. Three years later and Kelly can broadly consider his tenure in Indiana a success – he holds an 83-35 record and went unbeaten with the Irish last season before losing to Clemson in the CFB Playoff semi-final. Kelly can be a fiery character and his ‘culture beats scheme’ motto was met with cynicism initially but wins breed positivity and there’s been a big buy in amongst players and fans alike the past couple of seasons.
It’s Kirby Smart’s fourth season in charge at Georgia, and he’s had year on year improvement since 2016. Last season’s 11-2 regular season and bowl game defeat to Texas (28-21) was the Bulldogs best outing since he re-joined the team (he started his career at Georgia as an administrative assistant back in 1999). After a few years under Nick Saban as defensive co-ordinator at Alabama, Smart was tempted back to Athens as head coach. He’s brought across elements of Saban’s defensive philosophy but, naturally, instilled his own concepts too – the result is a kind of hybrid defense borne out of having faced so many spread attacks at the collegiate level. Against Notre Dame he’s often employed run heavy sets even when the Irish have a third receiver on the field.
THE KEY MATCHUP: The trenches
Notre Dame will need to nullify a strong Georgia defensive front in order to give Ian Book the best chance to succeed on Saturday. The quarterback has played will in two starts but this Bulldogs defense is quite a few notches up in quality and they will come after him early and often. That makes the battle in the trenches the most intriguing and impactful matchup to keep an eye out for in Athens. Can Notre Dame’s offensive line maintain a clean pocket? Can offensive co-ordinator Chip Long game plan sufficiently to keep Kirby Smart’s talented linebacker corps at bay? Can Book buy time when things go awry? If the Irish line holds up in the first few possessions, this could go down to the wire.
THE DRAFT PROSPECTS:
Liam Eichenberg, OT: The Fighting Irish have an incredible run of first round picks starting at left tackle in the NFL. Eichenberg fought hard to win the LT spot last off-season and has a chance to develop further now in his senior year. He’s a fluid mover and does well to get to the second level, and would fit well in a zone blocking run scheme at the pro level.
Chase Claypool, WR: Claypool is big at 6’4 and 224lbs and he knows how to use his size. His 2018 numbers didn’t jump off the page (50 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns) but he has a lot of upside, especially as a contested catch type wideout. He has great hands, too, and though he’s a smooth runner, he may lack the speed to get genuine separation at the pro level.
Asmar Bilal, LB: Once considered a long shot for the draft, Bilal might have a better chance now that he has begun to convert his natural athleticism to on-field production. He moved to Rover last season and finished with 50 tackles. Bilal has 12 tackles in two games thus far this season and could be a mid-late round flier for an NFL team looking for a project in 2020.
Jake Fromm, QB: The 6’2, 220lb signal caller has come a long way since his debut against the Fighting Irish in 2017 and has started this season brilliantly, throwing for 601 yards and 5 scores with no picks and a completion percentage of 75%. Fromm is accurate, poised in the pocket and consistent – all traits which will have pro scouts excited, even if he doesn’t have the dual threat skillset which is now so fashionable. There’s a question mark over arm strength too, and there’s also always a chance he might decide to return to Georgia for his senior year.
Andrew Thomas, OT: Thomas is big even for a left tackle, standing at 6’5 and weighing in at 320lbs. He’s got a fantastic skill set and will have started three full years in a pro-style offense, which helps sets him apart as a draft prospect. A pass protector first and run blocker second, Thomas is more than proficient at both and has faced some tough opponents in the SEC and post-season play. He’s a first day lock with potential as a top 5 pick for a franchise left tackle needy team.
D’Andre Swift, RB: A great name for a ball carrier. Swift by name and swift by nature, the 5’9, 215lb running back has turned in some decent performances already as a junior, racking up 290 yards in three games with an average of 9.4ypc. It was noteworthy that in 2017 Swift got carries as a true freshman on a roster which included Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. His speed is exceptional and he has great field vision with upside as a pass catching out of the backfield. He probably needs to improve on his pass protection (like most college backs) but is in contention as a top 20 first round pick when he declares.
Tyler Clark, DT: Clark had memorable campaigns as a freshman and sophomore but his junior season was underwhelming to say the least. The 6’4, 300lb defensive tackle played all ten games and was consistent but only registered one sack and 31 tackles. He’ll need a more impressive senior year to once again catch the eye and be considered as a decent prospect in April next year. He’s started well, that’s for sure, with 1.5 sacks and 10 tackles over the first three games.
Notre Dame are two touchdown underdogs which shows how much confidence there is in Georgia. If Fromm is given time to carve up a defense from a clean pocket then the Bulldogs will have no trouble putting up lots of points and if their defense is on song it could be a rude awakening for Ian Book in a hostile environment. ESPN Gameday are in town, obviously, and some reports suggest there will be as many fans show up outside as will have tickets for the game (95,000). Notre Dame haven’t beaten a top 10 ranked team on the road since Oklahoma (8th overall at the time) way back in 2012, and Georgia won’t have forgotten their perceived CFB Playoff snub last year. The Bulldogs will be keen to vindicate their outspoken response by living up to the hype and getting the win.
Score Prediction: Notre Dame 31-45 Georgia
cfb AND NFC EAST
JOSH IS A CFB SPECIALIST, LONG SUFFERING RESKINS FAN AND BUDDING HISTORIAN OF THE GAME BASED IN LONDON. CHECK OUT HIS ARTICLES HERE AND FOLLOW HIM @JOSHWA_1990 ON TWITTER.