Motivated Irish Will Keep It Closer Than Expected Before Dawgs Prevail

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Motivated Irish Will Keep It Closer Than Expected Before Dawgs Prevail

From the Press Box Georgia vs. Notre Dame edit by Bob Miller

I see Kirby Smart closed Georgia’s practices both Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

That tells me there must be a pretty significant football game this weekend at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium. Either the Bulldogs’ coach doesn’t want the media and other onlookers to see what personnel the team will have on the field in certain situations or Smart and his staff are installing some completely new plays and alignments for the game.

Of course, the main event between the hedges Saturday night is the mammoth Georgia-Notre Dame early-season showdown. You’ve got the 3-0, No. 3-ranked Bulldogs in one corner and you’ve got the 2-0, No. 7-ranked Fighting Irish in the other.

In one of the most anticipated non-conference matchups in recent memory, the winner will take a huge step toward the College Football Playoff and remain on track toward the elusive national championship for 2019. The loser of Saturday night’s battle, well, it won’t fall out of the national title race but will have very little margin for error the rest of this season.

Georgia has been installed as a 14-point favorite over the Irish and I’ve even been hearing talk this week from some of the “so-called” experts that the Bulldogs will run Notre Dame out of Athens with a lop-sided whipping of the Irish.

And certainly, there’s no question that Georgia boasts a significant talent advantage over the Fighting Irish. That’s because Smart’s last three recruiting classes have all finished in the nation’s top three final rankings while Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame recruiting hauls during that period haven’t crashed the Top 10 national ranking.

And just the way the two teams have performed in their early-season outings — admittedly against much inferior opposition — Georgia has been much more impressive when you break down the statistical accomplishments of the Bulldogs and Irish. Especially in the all-important category of running the football and stopping the run, Georgia has looked far superior to Notre Dame thus far. In their two games against Louisville and New Mexico, the Irish have averaged 193.5 rushing yards per game. In the Bulldogs’ three wins over Vanderbilt, Murray State, and Arkansas State, they have run for an SEC-leading average of 286.7 yards. And in the big differential between the two teams, the Notre Dame defense has been pummeled for 230.5 rushing yards per contest while the Bulldogs have surrendered a measly 60.7 yards per game — again, a figure that leads the SEC — to their three opponents. Georgia’s gang-tackling defense has given up only a lone touchdown to date.

Dooley Field sign at Sanford Stadium
Dooley Field sign at Sanford Stadium

So as Georgia and Notre Dame enter Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff, which should be played before a record crowd of 93,000-plus at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium (what with extra seats being brought in), the Irish’s weaknesses at the moment are certainly the Bulldogs’ strengths.

Now, all that said, I’m a bit concerned about the mindset Notre Dame is going to bring between the hedges Saturday evening for this CBS-nationally televised game. All week long, they’ve heard the predictions of both the print and electronic media concerning what Georgia is going to do to the Fighting Irish in this matchup, many of those forecasts having the Bulldogs blowing Notre Dame out of the stadium … much like eventual national champion Clemson did in the Tigers’ 30-3 College Football Playoff romp over the Irish in last season’s Cotton Bowl.

Due to their team speed over the Fighting Irish, I too think the Bulldogs are capable of winning this game handily but, then, Notre Dame also has good football players in the likes of quarterback Ian Book, NFL prospect and offensive guard Tommy Kraemer, wide receiver Chase Claypool, defensive edge rusher Julian Okwara and secondary performers Alohi Gilman, Tony Pride and the talented freshman safety, Kyle Hamilton, the Marist High of Atlanta product who escaped Smart’s huge recruiting net.

So I’m sure, come Saturday night, the Irish will be coming to town with a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders, highly motivated by all the talk this is going to be a one-sided game in favor of the Bulldogs and brimming with confidence they have the talent to upend the University of Georgia and pull off the upset on this national stage.

Georgia, with its potent running game, Jake Fromm’s pinpoint passing, and a stingy defensive crew that slows down Book and the Notre Dame attack, should defeat the Fighting Irish, stay undefeated and then turn its thoughts to the seven-game SEC slate ahead.

But I don’t anticipate any blowout here; in fact, I’m looking for Notre Dame to beat the 14-point odds Georgia is favored by and keep the contest relatively tight throughout.

In the end, the Bulldogs will prevail by about 31-21.

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Murray Poole is a 1965 graduate of the University of Georgia Journalism School. He served as sports editor of The Brunswick News for 40 years and has written for Bulldawg Illustrated the past 16 years. He has covered the Georgia Bulldogs for 53 years.