Georgia football: Huge opportunity awaits Bulldogs against Notre Dame
For No. 3 Georgia, the opportunity to host a top 10 opponent at Sanford Stadium doesn’t come around often.
That all changes Saturday night as No. 7 Notre Dame comes into town, a return game following Georgia’s successful visit to South Bend in 2017.
The weight of this game is evident. For starters, it’s set to be a record attendance at Sanford as 500 more seats will be added to account for the 8,000 Notre Dame fans expected to be there, meaning instead of 92,746, there will be 93,246. (Looking to be one of those in the stadium but haven’t purchased a ticket yet? As of this writing, the cheapest ticket on TicketIQ was $360 for an upper-level seat behind the visitor’s sideline.) A national audience will be watching on CBS. To further illustrate the game’s importance, a local grocery store has even gone as far as to remove Irish Spring soap from its shelves.
ESPN’s College GameDay will be in town that morning to add to the big game feel. Athens isn’t a frequent stop for the GameDay crew: It was here in 1998 before No. 7 Georgia fell to No. 5 Tennessee 22-3, again in 2008 when No. 8 Alabama topped the No. 3 Bulldogs 41-30, and for a third time in 2013 before the 9th-ranked Dawgs played to an emotional 44-41 win over 6th-ranked LSU, the most recent game between 2 top 10 teams at Sanford.
Of course, as big as this is, it’s far from the biggest game of some Georgia players’ careers. Jake Fromm, Andrew Thomas and D’Andre Swift were all freshmen who played for the national championship. (They would probably rather not be reminded of how that one turned out.)
For current freshmen like George Pickens, Dominick Blaylock, Nolan Smith, and Tyrique Stevenson, though, this is their first big chance to prove themselves under the microscope of the national stage.
“They have a lot of offense,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said of Notre Dame in his weekly press conference. “You start looking at all the things they do, it’s hard to prepare for all of it in a week, in a week’s time. Then you throw in the fact they have the quarterback (Ian Book) that he can make you right every play.”
Both teams will be looking to shake off disappointing endings to last year. Entering the 2018 season ranked at No. 12, Brian Kelly’s group did its part and ran the table, beating 4 ranked opponents on its way to a 12-0 record and a No. 3 seed in the College Football Playoff. Win No. 13 never came as the Irish were throttled in the semifinal by No. 2 seed and eventual champion Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Georgia, No. 3 in the preseason rankings in 2018, lost to No. 13 LSU and then fell (again) to Alabama in the SEC Championship. That cost the Dawgs a shot at the Playoff, and they closed by losing to Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
With high expectations for both teams once more in 2019, there’s plenty to prove.
“Depth, talent at every position, experience,” Kelly said of Georgia in his weekly press conference. “And I think more than anything else … probably the deepest defense that we have seen in the sense that they can keep bringing players at you. We have seen some really great defenses over the last three years but haven’t had the kind of depth that they have.”
And it might be that depth and experience that plays the biggest role in a potential win for Georgia on Saturday. While the College Football Playoff committee won’t release its rankings until November, it could give the Dawgs some leeway if it’s a close loss and if they end up having no further trouble in the coming weeks. But that margin won’t be there if the Fighting Irish get going and end up leaving Sanford with a multiple-touchdown win.
While that big crowd will be a factor, Smart would rather address the importance of on-the-field execution.
“We’re really playing the opponent that lines up across from us, and we even talk about playing ourselves more than anything,” he said. “So I know our guys will be excited to play. I know it will be an awesome atmosphere. Our fans never fail when it comes to support and being there.”
Hopefully, for the Bulldogs, those fans will be rewarded with a win Saturday night.