SOUTH BEND — Through some ugliness statistically and unflattering optics to go along with those at times, Aaron Taylor sees the kind of talent and upside that could catalyze into an elite offensive line for Notre Dame.
Georgia? Its massive offensive front — averaging a school-record 6-foot-5 and 328 pounds — appears to have already arrived.
Both will be central story lines Saturday night (8 EST; CBS-TV) at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., where No. 7 Notre Dame (2-0) clashes with the No. 3 Bulldogs (3-0), winners of their last 15 home games.
“It’s way more times than not that the top offensive lines in the country at the end of the year aren’t as good at the beginning,” said Taylor, a former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman, current CBS college football analyst and co-founder of the Joe Moore Award for offensive line excellence on the college level.
“The 2016 Joe Moore Award winner, Iowa, is a good example,” he said. “The 2017 winner, Notre Dame is another one. What makes the offensive line position group so challenging and so technique-dependent is that it takes continuity and chemistry to develop the level of production that they’re capable of doing.
“It’s one thing doing it against your own defense. It’s another entirely when you see it on tape, learn from it, build some reference points and then make it second nature when you see the same looks from a defense again.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly earlier this week sort of filibustered his way through the pointed questions about his offensive line’s play so far, which includes a No. 72 national ranking in sacks allowed and a No. 121 ranking (6-of-22) on third-down conversions, many of which were short-yardage opportunities against the outsized defensive fronts of Louisville and New Mexico.
The Irish, 1-of-10 Saturday on third down in its 66-14 romp over New Mexico, did convert five times in as many opportunities on fourth down.
“And you can get away with that against New Mexico,” Taylor said. “Georgia will gash your ass.”
“I thought they showed good resolve,” Kelly ultimately offered of a unit he beamed about last month in training camp. “If they had a negative play (Saturday), they came back the next play and, you know, were fighting.
“We’re not a finished product. We’ll keep working at it.”
If Georgia’s offensive line isn’t a finished product either, then the rest of the SEC is in for some culture shock.
“They’re gigantic. They’re physical,” Taylor said. “I think Notre Dame would be smart to move on them and to bring some second-level linebackers downhill to force them to be athletic. If Georgia’s offensive line gets their hands on the ND defensive front, it’s over.
“Knowing that defensive tackle and the linebacker position is still a work in progress for the Irish, I don’t know if they can go toe to toe with Georgia, but using the athleticism they have in spades and moving around and changing the picture pre- and post-snap to make Georgia adjust is something I’d expect to see on Saturday.
“It’s at least worth trying.”
As for the Irish offensive line long term, Taylor praised left tackle Liam Eichenberg for being ahead of the curve, with most of the unit’s work to do on the interior.
“They’re all extremely talented and physical and have gotten bigger and stronger through the weight room,” Taylor said of the ND O-line. “But again it’s about getting better each week, so that by the end of the year, you can have that special level of development that often doesn’t show up right away.
“I’m not discouraged at all by what I saw for two weeks from them. If I saw that in week 6? Yes. But in week 2, no. Not at all.
“They still have the potential that we all thought they would be by the end of the year. They’re making their way toward making that a reality. Georgia will be by far their biggest opportunity to prove that right.”
Equanimeous St. Brown, Arizona State grad transfer Cam Smith and Michigan grad transfer Freddy Canteen. … That was Notre Dame’s starting wide receiver contingent in the 20-19 loss to Georgia in 2017 at Notre Dame Stadium.
• A total of 24 current Georgia players and 24 current Irish players saw action in the 2017 game. Four players on the Bulldogs’ 2019 roster were starters in that game. Three 2019 Irish were: Current guard Tommy Kraemer at offensive tackle, Daelin Hayes at defensive end and Jalen Elliott at safety.
The 2019 Irish who played as reserves and/or on special teams were Asmar Bilal, Ian Book, Chase Claypool, Shaun Crawford, Chris Finke, Robert Hainsey, Jordan Genmark Heath, Kurt Hinish, Jamir Jones, Jonathan Jones, Tony Jones Jr., Khalid Kareem, Cole Kmet, Julian Okwara, Troy Pride Jr., Isaiah Robertson, John Shannon, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Donte Vaughn, Brock Wright, and Michael Young
• Led by middle linebacker Roquan Smith, Georgia’s speed on defense ultimately was the deciding factor in the game.
Behind an offensive line that would go on to win the Joe Moore Award at season’s end, the Irish managed 55 rushing yards on 37 carries with a long run of eight yards.
No back door
Even though Notre Dame was ranked 24th when the Irish met Georgia in week 2 of the 2017 season and the Bulldogs were a modest 15th, it didn’t take long to uncover a reasonable scenario that could have led to a one-loss Irish team finding a back door into the College Football Playoff.
Or at least creating a robust debate for their inclusion.
That’s hardly the case two years later.
A rapidly softening schedule in 2019 means a victory over Georgia is an absolute must for the Irish to be in the November playoff discussion.
Currently, the only opponents on ND’s schedule in the top 35 of The Athletic’s Top 130 are No. 6 Georgia, No. 16 Michigan and No. 18 Virginia.
ND’s November schedule, when most playoff aspirants are playing at least some elite teams, looks like this in the current snapshot: No. 72 Virginia Tech, No. 74 Duke, No. 87 Navy, No. 71 Boston College and No. 62 Stanford.
The Irish have beaten No. 73 Louisville and No. 125 New Mexico. Also on the ND schedule are No. 119 Bowling Green and No. 38 USC.
In 2017 Georgia and Notre Dame were actually Nos. 1 and 3, respectively in the initial and second CFP rankings that year. The Bulldogs rebounded from a 40-17 loss to Auburn and made the playoff. The Irish faded in November and ended up No. 14 in the final CFP rankings.
Fun and not-so-fun facts
• In 45 games under Kirby Smart, Georgia has allowed a 100-yard rusher in five of those games.
• ESPN College GameDay’s presence Saturday in Athens, Ga., isn’t a positive omen for either team in Saturday night’s matchup there, but it’s the lesser evil for the Irish, who are 13-16 in College GameDay games versus 6-14 for Georgia.
• Among the young talent in Georgia’s impressive stable of running backs is freshman Kenny McIntosh, Georgia’s third-leading rusher, with 128 yards on 13 carries and a TD.
He is the younger brother of former Notre Dame running back Deon McIntosh, deposed from the Irish program after the 2017 season and now a backup at Washington State. Deon isn’t mentioned in Kenny’s bio in the Georgia media guide, but their brother, RJ — a former Miami defensive line standout and current New York Giant —is.
• Former Notre Dame quarterback/holder Montgomery VanGorder will oppose his alma mater Saturday night. After finishing his college career as Youngstown State’s starting QB and throwing for almost 2,000 yards (1,934) last season, he landed an internship with Smart’s staff at Georgia.
His father, Brian, will face the Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 5, when the former Irish defensive coordinator returns to South Bend as Bowling Green’s defensive coordinator.