Tomorrow night, the Georgia Bulldogs travel to South Bend, Indiana to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Both teams have a lot to prove after disappointing 2016 seasons but come into this one in the AP Top 25 after impressive wins in Week 1.
Georgia returns 10 starters on a defense that was ranked in the top 20 in total yards last season. Georgia’s loaded front seven, anchored by DT Trenton Thompson and LB Roquan Smith, gave offensive lines fits last season, but they are in for what could be their toughest challenge of the year against a Notre Dame offensive line that returns four starters, including 1st Team Preseason All-American Quenton Nelson at Guard and 2nd Team Preseason All-American Mike McGlinchey at Tackle. Notre Dame’s O-line will open running lanes for Josh Adams to get solid gains of 4 or 5 yards before Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter bottle him up. Notre Dame won’t run all over Georgia, but they should be able to pick up some first downs and keep their inexperienced but highly talented Quarterback Brandon Wimbush in manageable third down situations. While Georgia has depth and experience in the secondary, they lack a true shutdown corner to put on Notre Dame’s star wideout Equanimeous St. Brown. A well protected Wimbush will have time to find St. Brown and some of the other talented players in Notre Dame’s deep receiving corps. Georgia’s defense is excellent, but Notre Dame should be able to pick up some first downs and put a few points on the scoreboard.
The other matchup in this game is filled with unknown variables. Both the Notre Dame defense and the Georgia offense were terrible last season. Georgia lost three of their five starters on the offensive line as well as their best wide receiver in Isaiah Mckenzie. They’ll also be playing without their first string quarterback Jacob Eason, who is nursing a left knee injury. In his place, they’ll be starting true freshman Jake Fromm, who was the seventh ranked quarterback in last year’s class. On the other side, Brian Kelly brings in Mike Elko to revamp a Notre Dame defense that was just awful in 2016. Last season, Elko led a Wake Forest defense that was one of the best in the country despite lacking talent at all positions and experience in the secondary. Elko likes to be very aggressive with the front and very conservative with the back. This approach should be very effective against Georgia’s inexperienced offensive line. Elko will use his experienced linebacker corps, led by senior Nyles Morgan to try to stop Georgia’s dynamic rushing duo of Nick Chubb and Sonny Michel from making a big impact. If Elko succeeds, Fromm will be forced into making quick throws on third and long. There’s not a ton of returning production among the Georgia receivers, but sophomore Tight End Isaac Nauta is someone that Fromm will be able to count on in those third down situations. With Fromm’s talent, Georgia should be able to pick up some first downs and move into Notre Dame territory, but Elko’s red zone defense presents a challenge that few true freshmen are ready for. With the tightened field, Elko’s conservative secondary becomes more aggressive as the offense gets closer and closer to the end zone, and yards become harder to come by. His Demon Deacon defense allowed just 3.8 points per scoring opportunity last season, one of the best marks in the whole country. Georgia should move the ball but might have to settle for a few too many field goals.
Brian Kelly’s experienced offensive line will allow the Irish some success on offense, and his new defense under Mike Elko should make life difficult for Jake Fromm, especially in the redzone. Kirby Smart’s Georgia team will play tough defense as always, but if Fromm makes mistakes, they could find themselves backed up in some tough spots. Either way, this game will be close. Notre Dame was an embarrassing 1-7 in games decided by 8 points or less last season. Some of that was on Kelly and his staff, but a lot of it was just plain bad luck. I like a refocused Notre Dame with a little bit of luck on their side to get a statement win at home in South Bend by the score of 17-13.