Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia, undeniably the season’s greatest challenge
There are two certainties in college football in 2019: Both Alabama and Clemson will be in the mix for a Playoff berth come mid-to-late November. Notre Dame joins a few Big Ten heavyweights in a tier behind the Tide and the Tigers. Arguably moving from the latter grouping to the former? Georgia and Oklahoma.
The Irish do not face the Sooners this season, but the Bulldogs await in Athens on Sept. 21, a top-10 matchup that will be the first worthwhile test of both Notre Dame’s and Georgia’s seasons.
If the Bulldogs could overcome the small Everest that is Alabama, they would be in college football’s top tier. Yet, that was not the failure that cost Georgia a Playoff berth last season. (That would not have knocked out the Irish, but rather Oklahoma. However, it may have dropped Notre Dame to No. 4.)
Losing by a touchdown to the Tide in the SEC Championship game is a forgivable misstep, even if Georgia at one point led 28-14. What they could not overcome was a 36-16 loss at LSU in October in which they were held to 3.8 yards per rush, one of three games all year in which that figure did not reach at least 4.6. Yes, all three of those resulted in losses. To compound matters in Death Valley, Georgia incurred a -4 turnover differential.
That third loss came in the Sugar Bowl to Texas, 28-21, a moment in which one could argue the Bulldogs were deflated from missing the Playoff.
WHAT GEORGIA LOST
Among seven draft picks were three of the Bulldog’s top-four receivers as well as their tight end, the third pass-catcher overall. That alone was going to be a challenge to overcome. Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman, Isaac Nauta and Terry Godwin accounted for 23 touchdowns and averaged 14.6 yards per reception.
Then Georgia lost its top returning receiver this offseason, dismissing junior Jeremiah Holloman amid assault allegations. Hollomon had 24 catches for 418 yards and five scores last season. He has since joined the Florida International roster.
Offensively, the other notable losses were 1,000-yard rusher Elijah Holyfield and third-team All-American center Lamont Gaillard.
On defense, the Bulldogs return six starters, but not cornerback Deandre Baker, the first corner drafted in April.
WHAT GEORGIA GAINED
All that said, specifically regarding the receiver attrition, the Bulldogs simply reload at this point. They pulled in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, per rivals.com, one that included three 5-star recruits. The first of that trio likely to have an immediate impact is receiver George Pickens. Even before Holloman’s departure, Pickens was looking at immediate playing time; now the two 4-star receivers in the class likely also will be.
Another receiver possibility is former Cal transfer Demetrius Robinson. He was eligible in 2018, but struggled to adapt and did not make a single catch. He still flashed his athleticism in taking four rushing attempts for 109 yards and a touchdown. After a year of work in the playbook, the mercurial receiver could break through.
Kirby Smart enters his fourth season away from Nick Saban still indirectly in that shadow. After an 8-5 debut in 2016, Smart’s national title hopes have been dashed by Saban each of the last two years, including in overtime in the championship game in 2017.
That will remain the story about Smart’s tenure in Athens until it, well, is not the case anymore. He needs to beat Saban in order to truly escape that asterisk on each strong season.
It may be counterintuitive to hint at an increased aerial presence from an offense returning nine receptions from its receiving corps, especially so when it returns a 1,000-yard rusher, but that should be the case with Georgia. That’s what happens when a future first-round pick reaches his third year as starting quarterback.
Jake Fromm threw 30 touchdowns last year against just six interceptions. Not only is he exceptionally accurate, completing 67.4 percent of his passes, but he rarely makes the wrong decisions. As he develops chemistry with his new receivers, Fromm’s accuracy will make them look good early on. Even in tight coverage, Fromm consistently puts the pass where no one but his target can pull it in.
Second-year offensive coordinator James Coley has some predilection toward the passing game, but leaning that direction this season makes sense simply because of Fromm.
Aiding Fromm’s cause even more than junior running back D’Andre Swift (1,049 yards on 163 carries, a 6.4 yards per rush average, and 10 rushing touchdowns) will be his offensive line, which returns four starters and 83 career starts. The greatest concern, replacing a third-team All-American at the pivot, is somewhat mitigated by filling it with a sophomore with starting experience at right guard in four games and appearances in all 14. As good as Notre Dame feels about moving sophomore Jarrett Patterson from left tackle to center, the Bulldogs feel even better with Trey Hill.
To Hill’s right will be the massive duo of junior guard Ben Cleveland, 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, and junior tackle Isaiah Wilson, 6-foot-7 and 340 pounds. Somehow, neither of them is the heralded piece of this line. That would be junior left tackle Andrew Thomas, a presumptive first-round draft pick.
Georgia leaned on its running game to average 37.9 points per game last year and 35.4 in 2017. It averaged 5.9 and 5.8 yards per rush, respectively, in those two seasons. But given the time Fromm will have behind that offensive line to pick apart opposing secondaries, it will be the passing game that elevates the Bulldogs offense in 2019, known receivers or not.
Smart’s experience comes as a defensive coordinator, but for the second year in a row, Georgia’s defense brings questions. Then again, 127 other programs would love to have the concerns the Bulldogs do.
Three starters return in the secondary, the clear strength of the Georgia defense, led by senior safety J.R. Reed, who could have jumped to the NFL in the spring. Instead the second-leading tackler returned to lead a group that while adept in coverage, struggled to make interceptions last year.
At linebacker, there is speed and talent through a three-deep depth chart on the edge of the 3-4 scheme, but none of it is proven yet. The latter point rings true along the defensive line, as well, despite it returning two starters. Senior tackles Julian Rochester and Tyler Clark combined for 2.5 sacks last season, part of a unit-wide lacking. The Bulldogs managed just 24 sacks in 2018, with no returning player logging more than 1.5.
Those few interceptions and minimal quarterback takedowns would usually point to a lapsed defense. Not in this case. Georgia gave up only 19.2 points per game last year, up from 2017’s 16.4, but hardly a panicking figure, and one that could fall this season.
Bulldogs fans do not much care about a season win total over/under setting expectations at 10.5 wins. They focus on being the odds-on favorite to win the SEC East and return to the conference title game, where a victory would nearly-assuredly send Georgia to the College Football Playoff.
Trading a trip to LSU for a visit from Texas A&M should help that cause, though the Aggies will be no slouch. Otherwise, the game to make-or-break the Bulldogs regular season will be … Sept. 21 against the Irish.
For what it’s worth, should either or both of those games come down to a kick, give Georgia the advantage. Senior kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is 53-of-64 in his career with a long of 55 yards, and he has not missed in 154 point after attempts.