SOUTH BEND — All right, time to get serious.
After weeks of buildup, one of the biggest non-conference college football games of the season is ready to be played as the No. 7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2-0) make their first trip to Athens, Ga., to play the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs (3-0) on Saturday (8 p.m., CBS).
“The competition that we’re playing this weekend will certainly require us to play our very best,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “(Georgia head coach) Kirby Smart and the Georgia program are synonymous with winning and being successful, and we’re quite aware of that. We played them a couple of years ago in a hard-fought game which we came up short.”
That game Kelly is referencing is from 2017, when Georgia won a 20-19 contest over the Irish in South Bend. While that loss still stings for the current Notre Dame players that were on that team, it isn’t motivating them any more or less for the Bulldogs.
“I think we want to beat them in their place at the maximum level of how much you want to beat them, regardless of what happened (in 2017),” senior wide receiver Chris Finke said.
“It’s just like any other nameless, faceless opponent. We’re just preparing like any other game,” senior linebacker Asmar Bilal added. “Our goal is to win a national championship, so that’s our businesses — winning. We’re planning to go out and win.”
Jake Fromm was the Georgia quarterback in 2017, and he will be again this weekend in Athens. Kelly had nothing but praise for the junior, saying he’s the reason Georgia has become one of the elite programs in the country.
“He’s efficient. He’s unflappable. You can pressure him, and he doesn’t panic,” Kelly said. “He makes great decisions. He’s sound with the ball. When you get down to the really great teams, you’re going to get (guys like Clemson quarterback) Trevor Lawrence. You’re going to get the great quarterbacks that are the reason why they start to separate. Fromm is one of those guys that gets you to start to separate.”
One area Georgia will try to exploit is the run defense of the Irish. Notre Dame ranks 120th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 230.5 yards per game in their first two games. Meanwhile, Georgia ranks eighth in rushing offense, averaging 286 yards across their first three games.
Both touchdowns the Irish defense allowed against New Mexico were long runs, going for 47 and 37 yards, respectively. Both touchdowns Notre Dame gave up in Week 1 against Louisville were also on the ground.
“We can’t give up big-play runs. Obviously, we have to be better there,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame will have a key piece back on offense in Cole Kmet. The junior tight end broke his collarbone during the first week of fall camp in August and hasn’t played since. Kmet had been practicing with the team last week but was not cleared to play against New Mexico.
Kmet entered fall camp as the starting tight end, so having his presence back on the field should be a huge boost for the Irish.
“(Kmet) is a guy that can control the point of attack with his physicality,” Kelly said. “He can go down the field. He can catch the football. He balances it out now with two other tight ends (Brock Wright and Tommy Tremble) that give us versatility within our formations where you could have two players on the field or three at times. … It gives you a lot of flexibility relative to your personnel matchups.”
Having a lot of weapons on offense is crucial against a Georgia defense that has allowed just 23 points in three games. Four offensive players had their first career touchdowns in last week’s 66-14 win over New Mexico: Avery Davis, Javon McKinley, C’Bo Flemister and Braden Lenzy. Kelly said last week’s performance has helped the confidence of those players heading into a big-time game Saturday.
“All those guys just needed the opportunity to go up there and make a catch,” Kelly said. “Lenzy needed to go up there, make a catch, take the ball away and run through a tackle. So there is no doubt the competition will be greater, but you need to make some plays to build that inner confidence that you can do it all the time.”
It’s going to be a big stage for Notre Dame on Saturday night as it tries to knock off its first top-5 opponent since Sept. 10, 2005. The Irish also enter as a 14.5-point underdog, nearly three points more than they were getting against Clemson in the College Football Playoff Semifinal last year.
“Honestly, we don’t care at all what anyone says,” redshirt senior quarterback Ian Book said. “We’re supposed to lose by double digits. It’s kind of a chip on our shoulder. We’ll use that as motivation.
“I think it’s great. The pressure is not on us. We’re going down there to do what we do. We believe in ourselves, everyone in this building. It’s one family. We know what we can do, and we know our potential. So we’re not worried.”