SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When Texas’ finery is stripped away, what’s left is a football team undergoing a massive overhaul that went 6-7 last year.
Texas, of course, is one of college football’s most historically successful, powerful programs. It’s figuratively printing its own money with the Longhorn Network, even if that channel precipitated a massive cycle of conference realignment at the beginning of this decade. Ticket prices for Saturday’s season opener at Notre Dame Stadium are astronomical (the cheapest seat on StubHub, as of Friday afternoon, was $265), which isn’t surprising two of college football’s biggest, most rabid fanbases will be in one place.
“Historically they are a very good program,” Irish quarterback Malik Zaire said. “They’ve done a lot of great things, they have a lot of legends and hall of famers that came from there. I respect them a lot.”
But Ricky Williams, Vince Young, Earl Campbell & Co. won’t take the field with Charlie Strong’s Longhorns on Saturday. Instead, it’ll be an unproven offense that lost its leading rusher, two leading receivers and most experienced offensive lineman. It’ll be a defense that lost six of its seven leading tacklers from a group that was pretty solid last year. There are a lot of new faces to break in, and doing it in front of a primetime crowd of over 80,000 doesn’t seem like the ideal atmosphere for it.
Strong is a good coach who won 23 games in his final two years at Louisville. But it took him a little while (back-to-back 7-6 seasons) to get the Cardinals to that point. He very well may get Texas back on top in the Big 12, but it’ll probably take time.
“(We) brought a very good Louisville team in here last year under coach (Bobby) Petrino, but we know a lot of that was (Strong’s) work,” coach Brian Kelly said. “His fingerprint were on that team. Great program builder. He'll do the same thing at Texas. You can already see that taking shape. In particular in the recruitment of very good, young football team, again.”
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Texas’ scheme, though, does present a few challenges on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, Notre Dame doesn’t have much film to work off except “a grainy, Longhorn Network” spring game, as Kelly quipped. Strong and offensive coordinator Joe Wickline began implementing a spread attack this spring, which features more tempo — which gave Brian VanGorder’s defense plenty of problems last year. But Texas will start two freshmen on its offensive line (which wasn’t very good last year) at left tackle and right guard, so Notre Dame should be able to get some pressure on quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.
Texas’ 3-3-5 defense isn’t out of the ordinary in the pass-happy Big 12, but it features a front Notre Dame isn’t used to seeing. Kelly said facing it out of the gate isn’t ideal — “they’re not the cookie-cutter defense that’d you’d love to play in the opener,” and his quarterback agrees.
“The things they do in that defense can confuse a lot of the schemes and protection we may have,” Zaire said. “They do a good job of locking the front and showing different blitzes they bring out of that. Also, it’s effective in the run game. It’s kind of hard to figure out combination blocks up a 3-3.”
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Scheme is one thing, but personnel is another. Texas may give Notre Dame more of a fight if this game were played in late November, and 2016’s opener in Austin should be difficult for the Irish. But as it pertains to Saturday, a win over Texas likely won’t stand a playoff resume-builder come November.
Still, Notre Dame isn’t approaching Texas like it’ll be an easy opponent to roll through in Week 1.
“A lot of other teams play lesser opponents,” safety Max Redfield said, “and we feel like Texas is obviously a great opponent, a storied program and we’re ready for it.”