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No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 3 Georgia: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

The biggest game of the weekend is in Athens, Georgia, as the Bulldogs host the Fighting Irish. Chris Simms joins the show to break down the matchup.

WHO? No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Georgia.

WHAT? The conclusion of a home-and-home series, the first game of which serves as the common reference point as to when these two programs proved they had turned around their trajectories. The Irish were a game removed from an offseason ripe with criticism and staff turnover following the 4-8 debacle of 2016. The Bulldogs had just gone 8-5 in head coach Kirby Smart’s first year, going a paltry 4-4 in SEC play.

Immediately following that 20-19 Georgia victory, it was simply seen as a great, dramatic game with a colorful sidebar of how many Bulldogs fans filled Notre Dame Stadium. It was not necessarily seen as a positive referendum on either team until they kept winning. Neither lost until the Irish collapsed in Miami in November. In fact, since that second week of the 2017 season, Notre Dame and Georgia have gone a combined 48-8 with two Playoff appearances between them.

“I don’t know that we were thinking about anything other than putting our football team in position to be successful for that season,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “It was early in the year. We were certainly feeling as though we had done the things necessary to get our program back to where it needed to be, but we weren’t thinking into the future about anything else.

“... Looking into where it’s taken us is where certainly, I’m sure, if we were to take a moment to think about it, that is where we want it to be. At that moment, we were just thinking about that week, that game.”

In some respect, the second leg of this series should provide another data point for Notre Dame more than for Georgia. The latter has faced Alabama three times in the last two seasons, not to mention dates this year against No. 9 Florida, at No. 8 Auburn and vs. No. 17 Texas A&M.

If the Irish can be competitive with the Bulldogs, they will establish another sign of progress in Kelly’s already-successful rebuild following 2016.

WHEN? 8 ET, the latest kickoff at Sanford Stadium in 34 years, a 1985 Labor Day tilt against Alabama. Oddly enough, that was a game of two unranked teams, one which the visitors won 20-16.

WHERE? Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga., which will add 500 seats to its usual capacity of 92,746 to accommodate a few hundred extra Irish fans.

CBS has the broadcast. To be completely honest, this space has no idea how to access the eye on anything but a television. That is not a bucket of company water in hand or a shot at a competitor; this scribe has just never needed to find CBS via anything but a TV.

WHY? This series marked the first foray into the SEC from Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick in his pursuit of getting data points against four of the Power Five conferences each season. This year, the Irish will also face the Big Ten (Michigan), the Pac 12 (USC, Stanford) and the usual five ACC opponents.

Why Georgia in particular? That was both self-congratulatory and self-serving, understandably so.

“We were looking for an SEC opponent, one that shared at least some commonality,” Kelly said. “We liked the fact that we were going to be in that area, in the state of Georgia recruiting.

“We have a lot of alumni in that area, so that was a draw for us, as well. It’s not only the school itself, but there’s some geographical concerns that we look at it in terms of putting the schedule together, as well.”

The band in this Athens dive bar said it would begin its set at 8 p.m. It is currently on its second or third song, so as of approximately 8:06 ET on Friday night, the Bulldogs remain 14.5-point favorites with a combined point total over/under of 57.5. That math equals a 36-21 Georgia victory.

Simply enough, if the Irish do not reach 30 points, they have no chance. Their rush defense, at its best, will not be able to keep the Bulldogs to a lower threshold than that, though there is reason to think that rush defense’s best has not yet been seen.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has mixed-and-matched defensive tackles and inside linebackers through two games, both to find the right combination and to get experience across the board. That has played a part in the Irish ranking No. 120 in the country in rushing yards allowed per carry at 4.96, despite opening the season against the lackluster offenses of Louisville and New Mexico, far cries from the running back stable featured by Georgia.

Lea will not be able to afford an evaluation process between the hedges, instead committing to whatever pairings he is most confident in at this point. That should help shore things up, but only to a point.

A more likely deterrent would be sending senior safety Alohi Gilman crashing toward the line on more snaps than not, perhaps giving him a chance to match his Cotton Bowl total of 18 tackles. Gilman is physical enough to match up with any running back and quick enough to stand a chance against D’Andre Swift in a gap.

Presume Lea takes that route, that could also lead to more playing time for freshman safety Kyle Hamilton. Is it risky to give a freshman his first extended playing time in a hostile environment like this will be? Absolutely. Would Hamilton relish a chance to shine in his homestate? Assuredly. Between Hamilton and senior safety Jalen Elliott, not to mention fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford, Notre Dame would have its best ballhawks on the field, looking to build on its current +6 turnover differential.

That all could, theoretically, maybe keep the Bulldogs to a reasonable point total, at which point the question would be if the Irish can score four touchdowns against a stout Georgia defense. Unless sophomore Lawrence Keys breaks loose on a kickoff return a la his debut’s near-miss in that role a week ago, 30 points from Notre Dame would be a surprise.

Georgia 35, Notre Dame 24
(2-0 in pick, 0-2 against the spread, 1-1 point total)

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