SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame has won 14 straight regular season games dating back to the start of the 2018 season. None of them were as difficult to secure as the 15th is likely to be.
The No. 7 Irish again find themselves at the center of the college football universe tonight, as they take on No. 3 Georgia between the hedges in Athens, Georgia.
While both teams are ranked among the best in the country, the Bulldogs are heavy favorites, and Notre Dame will surprise plenty of prognosticators if it keeps the game close.
The Irish have focused on themselves in their preparation, looking inward and trying to block out those who doubt Notre Dame has what it takes to win against an elite team such as the Bulldogs.
After relatively easy wins against Louisville and New Mexico, there was a different level of excitement at practice this week as the Irish get set to play a game they have had circled on its calendar all offseason.
“It's going to be a bigger stage, going to be a lot of people, going to be really loud,” quarterback Ian Book said. “We've played in a couple of environments like that, Clemson (in the Cotton Bowl) being one. A lot of the guys on this team know what it's like to travel to a pretty hostile environment.
“You really just have to embrace it and have fun with it. These are the reasons you come to Notre Dame, to play in these games. I think our team's ready. We've got a lot of guys who have been there.”
The Irish are traveling to a true road game for the second time this season after opening the year at Louisville. By the time the season is over, they will have played five true road games, including matchups at Duke, Michigan and Stanford. Sanford Stadium is likely to be one of the most raucous environments Notre Dame has to deal with this season, but it's one the Irish have been preparing for since January.
All offseason, the Irish have geared up to be “road warriors,” a theme coach Brian Kelly and strength coach Matt Balis cooked up to get the team ready for some grueling road trips. Building that mentality was part of everything Notre Dame did during its offseason workouts.
For one particular workout, Balis set up an obstacle course in which each opponent the Irish will meet on the road this season was labeled as an obstacle. Georgia was a heavy sled the Irish had to push the width of the field over and over again. For an added away-from-home feel, Notre Dame completed the course at the rugby fields, where the Irish had never worked out.
“(Road warriors is) something we had drilled in our heads this summer, knowing what our schedule would be like,” wide receiver Chris Finke said. “We were put in some scenarios and trained our bodies and minds to attack anything that's put in front of us in a hostile situation. So, now's the time to put it on display.”
The excitement for tonight's matchup will begin building in the morning with ESPN's “College Gameday” on campus adding to the buzz surrounding the game. The Bulldogs and Irish are the only top 10 matchup of the week and the game will go a long way toward cementing the winner as a College Football Playoff contender.
“We'll try to muster together 22 guys, get them on a plane, go down to Athens and see what we can do,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame at Georgia
Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga.
When: 8 p.m. today
Records: Notre Dame (2-0), Georgia (3-0)
Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM
Return trip: Notre Dame and Georgia have only met twice, but one of those matchups came in 2017, when the 15th-ranked Bulldogs traveled to South Bend and beat the No. 24 Irish 20-19 on a field goal late in the fourth quarter. Since that game, both teams have been on a distinct upward trajectory. The Bulldogs went on to the national championship game that season, while Notre Dame has gone 23-3 since that defeat. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, who was a true freshman at the time, went just 16 for 29 for 141 yards in that game. Running back D'Andre Swift had two carries for 42 yards.
Big-game Irish: Notre Dame has fallen flat in its two biggest primetime matchups in the last decade, losing to Alabama in the 2013 BCS Championship Game and against Clemson in the 2018 Cotton Bowl. After the 30-3 loss to the Tigers, the Irish, including coach Brian Kelly, insisted they were much closer to a breakthrough than they had been after the blowout defeat at the hands of the Crimson Tide. Tonight is another chance for Notre Dame to prove it has the athleticism, speed and depth to go toe to toe with a national heavyweight. Notre Dame believes it can, but outside of South Bend there is plenty of skepticism.
Ian Book vs. Pressure: The Notre Dame quarterback spent much of the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson running for his life as the pocket broke down around him. He looked a little skittish again in the season opener against Louisville and sometimes pulled the ball down to run too early. Kelly has raved about the Bulldogs' defensive front, and Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a former Alabama defensive coordinator, is sure to come up with some creative ways to make Book uncomfortable. The senior quarterback looked better against New Mexico, but Georgia's athleticism and strength up front are so far beyond what the Irish saw last week that it's tough to even compare them. Notre Dame needs Book to be fearless in staring down the rush if it is going to have a chance to move the ball.
Prediction: Georgia 29, Notre Dame 21
- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette