Notebook: Weighing the risk and reward in bringing the SEC back onto ND's schedule

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly’s voice matters in Notre Dame’s football scheduling, even though some of the games now filling in vacancies go well beyond the 2021 season, when his current contract runs out.

The eighth-year Notre Dame head coach pushed for the end of a cold war with Michigan, for instance, and backed athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s notion of prioritizing a reintroduction of Southeastern Conference teams onto the regular-season schedule.

Saturday night’s Notre Dame Stadium showdown with 15th-ranked Georgia (7:30 p.m. EDT; NBC) — the first regular-season game between the Irish and an SEC team in 12 seasons — is the first taste of those efforts.

Kelly and Swarbrick both are willing to live with the potential acid reflux.

Geography plays a supporting role in that commitment. The Irish (1-0), who popped into the AP poll this week at No. 24 on Tuesday, would like to make stronger recruiting inroads into talent-rich Georgia, for instance.

Of the 178 high school players Kelly signed at ND between his arrival in 2010 and last February’s 2017 recruiting cycle, only four played their high school ball in Georgia. Senior punter Tyler Newsome is the lone scholarship player from the Peach State on ND’s current roster.

The others to matriculate from Georgia were all multi-year starters at ND as well, and all are currently in the NFL — defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Isaac Rochell, and wide receiver TJ Jones. Additionally former Cal grad transfer safety Avery Sebastian was a Georgia high school product.

Four-star safety Derrik Allen, of Marietta, Ga., is a member of the 2018 Irish recruiting class.

The more pivotal issue is a sort of football algebra.

As an independent Notre Dame plays 12 regular-season games. In years in which they have the credentials for College Football Playoff consideration, the Irish are often competing with teams having played 13 games and likely with a conference title on their résumé.

Ohio State, a non-champion with only a 12-game slate in 2016, became the first such team to make the playoffs, after two straight four-team fields all with 13-game résumés and all Power 5 league champions.

“It has to have this kind of strength of schedule for it to stand up, and we think it does,” Kelly said of the 2017 Irish schedule.

“So those conversations were about, 'How do we best balance it without it being too strong of a schedule to sustain itself throughout the entire year?' And this game fit pretty good in that balance.”

The potential reward emphatically touches both the real world and the world of perception.

The risk is getting exposed.

Notre Dame has played three SEC teams in bowl settings since the last time the Irish scheduled an SEC game on purpose. That was a home matchup against Tennessee. An eighth-ranked Irish team outgunned the Volunteers, 41-21, in coach Charlie Weis’ first season (2005).

But in the Sugar Bowl to end the 2006 season, No. 4 LSU routed the 11th-ranked Irish of Weis, 41-14. And No. 2 Alabama similarly dismissed Kelly’s 2012 top-ranked ND team, 42-14, in the BCS National Championship Game.

ND’s last bout with an SEC opponent came against a 22nd-ranked LSU squad in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., at the end of the 2014 season. The Irish upended the Tigers, 31-28, but did so largely by playing keep-away. The Irish ran 77 plays to LSU’s 52.

“I think you walk away from those games knowing the talent level that you're going up against,” Kelly said. “But you also know that it still comes down to your preparation and execution and that you're capable of beating those teams.

“Certainly we weren't capable of beating Alabama that day. But we did against LSU. So I think the takeaway is that your preparation and execution, you can beat — with a Notre Dame football team — anybody that you play.”

The return trip to Georgia comes Sept. 21, 2019, with the series made possible by the cancellation on ND’s part of its final two games of what was originally a four-game agreement with Texas. The first two — 2015 in South Bend and 2016 in Austin — were played per the original contract.

In recent months and years, Swarbrick has repopulated the Irish schedule with upcoming series against Arkansas (2020 and 2025) and Texas A&M (2024 and 2025) of the SEC. The Irish have never played A&M since the Aggies joined the SEC, but did play five games with them prior to that.

The 2020 game against Arkansas will be the first against the Razorbacks.

Auburn, Mississippi State and Kentucky are the other three SEC teams to have never played the Irish in football.

The 2005-to-2017 SEC drought was a philosophical departure, though. From 1977 through 2004, The Irish played 19 regular-season SEC games. And that doesn’t take into account the aforementioned Texas A&M matchups, or those with South Carolina (4) and Missouri (4) before they joined the SEC.

"As our football schedules evolved with the start of our Atlantic Coast Conference competition in 2014, we had future games slated with top-drawer opponents in virtually all the major conferences," Swarbrick said back when the Georgia series was originally scheduled. "One exception was the Southeastern Conference, so we are pleased now to be able to check that box.”

NCAA says no to Gilman

At least Kelly didn’t have to wait long this time for an answer.

The Irish coach confirmed on Tuesday that the NCAA had denied the appeal for immediate eligibility for Navy transfer Alohi Gilman. Roughly a week earlier Kelly shared that the NCAA had turned down the original waiver.

The 5-foot-11, 199-pound sophomore from Laie, Hawaii, likely would have been a starter for the Irish this season had he been granted eligibility.

Instead Navy’s leading tackler in 2016 will sit out the season per NCAA transfer rules. He’ll have three seasons of eligibility, beginning in 2018.

“We're excited about his involvement in our program,” Kelly said. “That is now something we can move forward with.”

Making progress

Two players on the mend continue to look like they’ll be available to play against Georgia on Saturday night.

Starting tight end Durham Smythe, who took a blow to the head last Saturday against Temple, continues to successfully pass through the stages of concussion protocol and advanced to practicing in a non-contact format Tuesday, per Kelly.

“If he does well today, we'll initiate him to the full status,” Kelly said of the grad senior. “So he's doing quite well.”

Key backup defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway, who was held out of the Temple game with a knee strain, was set for full contact in Tuesday’s practice.

“Had a great day in the weight room (Monday),” Kelly said. “So we feel like he's ready to get out there and compete for us.”

Sizing up Fromm

Notre Dame didn’t pursue Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm during the recruiting process, but Kelly is quite familiar with the former five-star prospect who is set to make his first college start Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

Fromm replaced a quarterback the Irish did pursue, sophomore Jacob Eason, out with a knee sprain he suffered last Saturday night in Georgia’s season-opening, 31-10 win over Appalachian State. The 6-2, 225-pound Fromm went 10-of-15 for 143 yards and a TD with zero rushing attempts in relief of Eason.

“Somebody asked the question about what are the keys to stopping a freshman quarterback,” Kelly said. “I don't know what the keys are.

“I mean, you have to run your defense, do the things that you do. I think he's very comfortable running any offense. He looked very comfortable playing the game to me. You know, he's going to get the ball out of his hands.”

Coney surges

Perhaps Notre Dame’s most consistent linebacker in its 49-16 season-opening win over Temple was a player who began the day on the bench.

And finished with a flourish.

And Kelly didn’t deny Tuesday that junior Te’von Coney might be an ideal fit for an expanded role in Saturday night’s matchup with Georgia and its two elite running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

“His physicality and his strength is certainly there,” Kelly said. “What has changed in Te'von are his traits.”

Kelly went on to describe a pivotal play in last Saturday’s game late in the third quarter. A Temple interception of a Brandon Wimbush pass gave the Owls the ball at the Irish 14-yard line with a chance to cut into a 28-10 deficit.

On film, you can see a tight end running free in the end zone two plays later, with Temple facing third-and-five. But Coney explodes through the Temple offensive line on a blitz and sacks Owls QB Logan Marchi before he can get a good look downfield.

“If he doesn't do his job, they're going to find that tight end,” Kelly said. “And so he covers up for a mistake on a play. We were covering up for his mistakes last year.”

Coney finished with six tackles, including that sack and an assisted tackle for loss beyond that. Coney’s sack pushed the ball back to the 19, where Temple missed a 36-yard field goal.

“So it's not just the physical talent,” Kelly said. “He really had that in a large degree. Where he's taken the huge jump is in his traits — his attention to detail, his focus. He is a locked-in football player. And that's where he's making the jump.”

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Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and head coach Brian Kelly talk during Notre Dame football Pro Day Thursday, March 23, 2017, inside the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN