Opponent outlook: How Notre Dame matches up with Georgia

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Much has changed since Georgia defeated Notre Dame in September of the 2017 college football season.

The No. 7 Irish (2-0) will face the No. 3 Bulldogs (3-0) this Saturday (8 p.m. EDT on CBS) in a different place as a program. That 20-19 loss in Notre Dame Stadium dropped the Irish to 5-11 in their last six games. ND has since won 23 of its last 26 games, appeared in a College Football playoff and changed quarterbacks from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book.  

The Bulldogs have positioned themselves well in the last couple seasons, too. They’ve rattled off 25 wins in their last 30 games and appeared in the 2017 national championship and back-to-back SEC Championship games.

Running the ball still figures to be one of UGA’s strengths. Powered by their elite offensive line, the Bulldogs rank No. 8 nationally in rushing yards per game (286.7). Run defense has been one of the biggest areas of struggle for the Irish and their linebacker rotation. They allow 230.5 rushing yards per game, ranking No. 120 nationally.

How do the Bulldogs matchup with the Irish in other areas? And how different is UGA now compared to 2017? We caught up with Seth Emerson of The Athletic for more insight on the Bulldogs.

What are the biggest differences between the 2017 Georgia team Notre Dame faced and this year’s squad?

Emerson: It’s a pretty drastic difference, with one exception: It is a run-oriented attack, with multiple running backs who can make big plays. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are in the pros now, but D’Andre Swift (who had two carries for 42 yards in that game) is now the lead back and has Heisman-type ability, with talented backs behind him.

Jake Fromm is obviously still the QB, but he’s much more refined than he was when he made his starting debut at Notre Dame. The offensive line is dominant, with future pros at every spot. The receivers are young but also very dangerous, particularly freshman George Pickens and junior Demetris Robertson.

Defensively, this isn’t as dominant a unit as two years ago, mainly because of experience. That group was veteran-laden, with Roquan Smith anchoring the defense at middle linebacker, and cornerback DeAndre Baker locking down his side of the field. They also had great edge rushers in Davin Bellamy (who made the game-clinching sack-strip) and Lorenzo Carter (now with the New York Giants).

J.R. Reed, who was Georgia’s leading tackler in the game, is back. But otherwise, you won’t recognize many other defensive players. The starters are guys who were on the team back then but not playing much yet. They have the potential to be a very good defense but aren’t quite there yet. Of course, if the offense dominates the way it’s capable of dominating, the defense only needs to be good, not very good.

You mentioned a few of the game-changing defensive players lost to the draft recently. What’s the identity of UGA’s defense now?

Emerson: Interesting you ask about the identity, because they’ve been preaching a change all year: havoc rate. As in they want to force much more in the way of negative plays, turnovers, etc. It’s been much more of a bend-but-don’t-break defense the last few years, and it’s been pretty successful. But after last season, Mel Tucker, who had been Kirby Smart’s defensive coordinator since he got to Georgia, left to become Colorado’s head coach. Smart promoted Dan Lanning, a 35-year-old who had only been with the program one year, to be his replacement. But obviously Smart still retains a lot of power over the defense.

Anyway, the emphasis on havoc has paid some early dividends, though you have to consider the competition. Georgia has improved its rate of negative plays, sacks and forced turnovers. But to me it still remains to be seen whether that works or backfires, allowing someone like, oh I don’t know, Ian Book, to burn the defense for big plays.

What are the biggest strengths in Jake Fromm’s game and what is his ceiling?

Emerson: He’s really best at the cerebral part, whether it’s looking at the defense before the play and checking into a certain play, or reading the defense as he goes through his checks, or anticipating his receiver’s route and when exactly to throw the ball. You can’t really underrate that part of his game. He’s not a speedy guy, and he doesn’t have the world’s strongest arm. But he’s also not weak, and he throws a good deep ball.

The question for Fromm is whether he can win a game on his own, and I don’t think he’s quite answered every critic on that. But as long as the running game is as strong as it’s been, it’s not an issue that Georgia is going to force right now.

Brian Kelly said he doesn’t think UGA has any weaknesses. If there was a weakness, what do you think that would be?

Emerson: He’s right in the sense that there isn’t one glaring area where Georgia has to shore up. Before the season, the wide receivers were the concerns thanks to a ton of attrition. But guys like George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock were highly-recruited players who are already showing they’re for real.

But as far as whether Georgia can win it all, I do think the defense overall has to show it can contain an elite offense. I would look at Oklahoma, Alabama, Clemson and maybe even Ohio State and (surprisingly) LSU as teams that could score a lot of points on this defense and put some pressure on Fromm and the offense. But can Book and Notre Dame do that?

If UGA covers the spread (UGA -14), how do you think the game plays out? If ND pulls off the upset, what do you think would have gone wrong for UGA?

Emerson: Georgia wins convincingly if the matchup between its running game and Notre Dame’s run defense plays out as expected. And/or Fromm is a game manager in the best sense, not committing turnovers and making some big plays, and Georgia’s defense contains the edges, not letting Book extend plays.

Notre Dame pulls off the upset if Book carries the offense. Georgia’s offense makes mistakes and Georgia as a team takes Notre Dame too lightly. Kirby Smart mentioned a couple things that have impressed him about Notre Dame: Its turnover margin and lack of penalties. Georgia committed a few too many penalties in its opener at Vanderbilt.

As for the possibility of taking the Irish too lightly, I doubt that happens. But I also know that when Notre Dame was getting run off the field by Clemson, more than a few Georgia players were tweeting their displeasure at being left out of the playoff in favor of Notre Dame (and Oklahoma). So if too many players consider Notre Dame the team that got beat badly by Clemson, and the team they already beat two years ago, then who knows.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm passes against Arkansas State on Sept. 14.