No. 7 Notre Dame faces maybe its most difficult test of 2019 on Saturday. The Irish travel to Athens, Georgia, to take on the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium.
Georgia has been a perennial national title contender during the tenure of coach Kirby Smart and reached the national championship game just two seasons ago. Over the last four years, Georgia's recruiting classes have ranked, Nos. 6, 3, 1 and 2, and the Bulldogs have athletes all over the field.
In his weekly news conference Monday, Irish coach Brian Kelly raved about the talent Georgia possesses up and down the roster.
“The competition that we're playing this weekend will certainly require us to play our very best,” Kelly said. “Kirby Smart and the Georgia program are synonymous with winning and being successful, and we're quite aware of that.”
When he finished extolling the Bulldogs' virtues, Kelly added a comment that sounded like a general from antiquity getting ready to lead his troops on a doomed march.
“We'll try to muster together 22 guys, get them on a plane, go down to Athens and see what we can do.”
When those 22 – or more – Irish players reach Georgia, this is who they will seeing staring at them across the line of scrimmage:
When Kelly was asked specifically what makes Georgia difficult to beat, he answered, “The quarterback. The quarterback.” Junior Jake Fromm is in his third season as the starter and has improved significantly since he completed barely 50% of his passes for 141 yards against Notre Dame in 2017.
He's averaging nearly 11 yards per attempt this season and is completing 75% of his passes. Kelly called him “unflappable.” There's a reason former Bulldogs quarterback Justin Fields transferred to Ohio State.
It has become the norm for Georgia to have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield and this year is no different. The lead back is junior D'Andre Swift, who is coming of a 1,000-yard season and is averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
Georgia has four other backs who have also run for more than 100 yards this season and averaged at least 5.8 yards per carry, led by former five-star recruit Zamir White.
The Bulldogs' pass-catching corps is relatively inexperienced: Their top two, George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock, are freshmen. They've been trying to incorporate Demetris Robertson, a speedy transfer from California, into the offense, as well, and he's been involved in running and passing packages. But Robertson is dealing with a hamstring injury and is questionable for Saturday. Fromm is still developing chemistry with this group.
The Bulldogs' offensive line returns four starters and is one of the most physical groups in the country with an average weight of close to 320 pounds. Kelly called junior left tackle Andrew Thomas “probably a first-round pick.” Georgia is averaging 7.6 yards per carry behind this line. Right tackle Isaiah Wilson has a sprained ankle and is questionable for Saturday.
Through three games, Georgia is giving up just 2.1 yards per rush and Kelly called the Bulldogs' front “talented, but really deep, as well.” On the line, the key player is massive defensive tackle Jordan Davis, a 6-foot-6, 330-pound sophomore who was an All-American as a freshman. On the other side, senior Tyler Clark is 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds and has 21/2 tackles for loss this season.
The Bulldogs aren't quite as deep at linebacker, but they are fast. They brought in the No. 1 junior college recruit in the country, Jermaine Johnson of “Last Chance U” fame, and he has 11/2 sacks. Junior Monty Rice is in his third year as a contributor, while redshirt freshman Azeez Ojulari seems like a future star. There isn't a Roquan Smith in this group, but it's talented nevertheless.
Notre Dame is familiar with one of Georgia's top safeties, senior J.R. Reed, who Kelly said was all over the field in the Bulldogs' meeting with the Irish in 2017, racking up nine tackles, a tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries. Here, too, however, the Bulldogs have injury issues. Sophomore cornerback Tyson Campbell, a five-star recruit coming off a head-turning freshman season, sprained his foot against Arkansas State and has been limited in practice. D.J. Daniel, another JUCO transfer, would seem to be next in line if Campbell can't go.
Notre Dame at Georgia
Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Records: Notre Dame 2-0, Georgia 3-0
Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM