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Opponent Preview: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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Revenge is a dish best served... well, not at all in this case.

Notre Dame v Michigan State Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Notre Dame At-a-Glance

Location: South Bend, Indiana

2018 Overall Record: 12-1 (12-0 Regular Season)

2018 Conference Record: Error. Not found.

Coach: Brian Kelly (9th Season, 81-35 at Notre Dame, .698)

Home Stadium: Self-Titled (Capacity: 80,795)

Notable Alumni: I could give you a long list of governors and ambassadors and members of Congress and Nobel Prize Winners, but I think we all know that any Notre Dame alumni list only has one logical end-point:

Regis Philbin
When I was like 16 (I guess?), I met Regis. Nice man. Fantastic teeth.
Photo by John Zich/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Last Season: Despite a murderer’s row of a schedule (which featured such behemoths as a barely bowl-eligible Virginia Tech, the worst FSU team in 42 years, a historically weak USC squad, and Michigan and Stanford teams that proved to be significantly overrated as the season went on), Notre Dame went 12-0. And when you go 12-0, you get to go to the CFB Playoffs (unless you’re UCF... enjoy your parade, chuckleheads). The Irish ended their season with what I can only describe as an entirely predictable drubbing at the hands of the eventual National Champions, Clemson.

Last Time They Played the Dawgs: In 2017, Dawgnation descended on South Bend to find that these were almost entirely lovely and hospitable people (Author’s Note: I don’t imagine I have to tell any Dawg Sports readers this, but (at the bare minimum) the expectation should be that we show them the same. If you see someone being a jackleg, tell them to knock it off. If you’re wondering whether you should try to double fist a couple more cocktails on your way to the stadium, maybe don’t). The Dawgs emerged the victors of a very close game (20-19) and that victory really set Georgia on the course to their eventual playoff run and the National Championship game. A repeat performance would be nice.


Offense

On offense, the Fighting Irish return 7 starters from 2018. This includes, perhaps most importantly, QB Ian Book and 4 of 5 offensive linemen. Book had a massive season in 2018, after taking over for Brandon Wimbush early on. Book ended the season with 2,658 yds (8.4 ypa), 19 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. If you look at his stats game to game during the 2018 regular season, they are remarkably consistent. And that will be big for the Irish if they want to make another run to the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how Book performs in his second season at the helm, now that he’s “the guy” and every team has the opportunity to dive into tape and prep for his skillset. It’s also worth noting, (without saying we’re Clemson) that Clemson is the closest analog to Georgia that Book played in 2018... and it did not go well (17 of 34, 160 yds, O TD, 1 INT... took 6 sacks). So take that for what you will. Should things go poorly for Book, Notre Dame will have to look to untested sophomore, Phil Jurkovec. The previously mentioned Wimbush having transferred to the previously mentioned UCF (lol), Jurkovec would be the next man up and he has 100% of the talent needed to do the job... just not the experience.

Notre Dame should stay strong along the front line, returning both guards (Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks) and both tackles (Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg). They will have to replace departing center, San Mustipher. The man for the job looks to be sophomore Jarrett Patterson. Realistically, any kinks between Book and his new center will be worked out before visiting Georgia, so this should be a non-issue.

What is far less likely to be a non-issue is the departure of the Irish’s top running back, wide receiver, and tight end. RB Dexter Williams, WR Miles Boykin, and TE Alize Mack are all gone, and with them their 2200+ yards of offensive production. But that isn’t to say there aren’t very capable players waiting to step up. Jafar Armstrong looks poised to take over in the backfield (72 for 383, 5.3 ypc, 7 TD in 2018), Chase Claypool looks to take over the #1 WR spot (50 for 639, 12.8 avg, 4 TD in 2018), and Cole Kmet is the most likely TE replacement (15 for 162, 10.8 avg in 2018). One small wrinkle here is that Kmet broke his collarbone last week and will miss the rest of fall practice and almost certainly the first week or two of the season. He should be able to return by the Georgia game, but he’ll need to develop chemistry with Ian Book quickly to have an impact.

Defense

While the offense seems to avoid some of the pitfalls of roster turnover, the defense is going to have a much more difficult time. In 2018, Notre Dame was the 13th ranked defense in the country in points given up per game (just over 18). However, graduations and NFL departures may hit the Irish hard, at least early in the season. The Notre Dame defense has talent to be sure, sporting members of 2017’s and 2018’s Top 10 recruiting classes. The question becomes will the younger, less experienced group be able to gel quickly... and by quickly, I mean by the time they play Georgia. Nowhere is this more true than in the linebacking corps which will be comprised entirely of new starters or former starters in new roles.

In the middle of the defense, Drue Tranquill and Te’Von Coney combined for over 200 tackles... but that was then. In their absence, it seems likely a committee of linebackers will have to make up for their production. We know Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will be the Rover. We know Asmar Bilal (Sucks to your Asmar! — I apologize. My son has been reading Lord of the Flies) will be playing one of the other LB spots, but we don’t know which one. And the other (whichever one it is) seems completely up in the air, as a pretty substantial rotation of guys have been taking reps and spending time on film work. I’m not saying it won’t come together, I’m just saying it’s a big question mark... especially when we’ll have to wait until the end of September to see how they react when D’Andre Swift hits the second level.

The defensive line is also undergoing some changes, but not nearly to the same extent. The outside line is locked down, with strong rushers in both Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem returning. The interior line will have to rely on continued improvement as the year goes along since both starters from last season, Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner, are now gone. Both Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (who was injured most of last season) and Kurt Hinish will try to fill their shoes.

The secondary will be the most experienced part of the Irish defense and its greatest strength. Returning corner Troy Pride and safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, will try to anchor the defense downfield. I don’t think there is any replacing Julian Love (who was drafted in the 4th round by the New York Giants and is now in the same room as former Georgia cornerback, Deandre Baker), but a number of players including Donte Vaughn (Sr.) and Houston Griffith (So.) are competing for the right to try.

Notre Dame has a talented defense. That is as true now as it was last season (and the season before, for that matter). The question is can the Irish reload and effectively fill the shoes of 6 departed starters, 4 of whom were among last year’s top 10 tacklers. That seems like a pretty tall order to fill... by Week 4, no less.

Special Teams

It’s essentially impossible to think Notre Dame won’t take a step back in the kicking game in 2019. Justin Yoon, who was the placekicker for the last 4 years and is Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer, is gone. As is starting punter, Tyler Newsome.

It’s going to take a lot of luck (must resist urge to make joke) to successfully replace the production of both. At kicker, the immediate candidate is Jonathan Doerer. While Brian Kelly is giving the dreaded vote of confidence to Doerer, he is not without his virtues and drawbacks. Doerer did successfully make the 1 field goal he has attempted thus far and he sports an 83% extra point conversion rate (having made 5 out of 6). He has struggled with accuracy and distance on kickoffs, with a low rate of touchbacks and has several times watched his kicks sail out-of-bounds. Doerer may yet grow into a fine kicker, or he may not even be the kicker by the time the Fighting Irish face Georgia, but you have to imagine Notre Dame fans would feel a lot more comfortable if Yoon was still around. Newsome will be replaced at punter by freshman Jay Bramblett, who, as his class indicates is brand new and an unknown quantity. It appears the return game will be the one element of special teams that will remain largely unchanged in 2019.


Outlook:

Ultimately, a lot is going to change between now and the time the Dawgs and the Fighting Irish tee it up between the hedges. Lesser known players will rise to the occasion. Previously reliable players may falter. The injury bug may rear its ugly head. So everything about this game (which for now appears to be between two fairly evenly matched foes) is subject to change. And both teams have a ton riding on this game. If the Dawgs lose, they could potentially still find a path to the playoffs through the SECCG. But for Notre Dame, a loss here means that there would probably have to be a substantial number of 2-loss conference champions for them to secure a spot.

I expect this to be a game every bit as close as the last time Georgia and Notre Dame met. When it comes down to it, I think Jake Fromm is a better QB than Ian Book in just about every metric (if only slightly in some). He also has way more high pressure, big game experience, and he has performed better in those situations. Both squads have young talent stepping up to fill the shoes of departed stars. I think Georgia’s young talent is better than Notre Dame’s young talent, given the metrics available to us. So... I think Georgia is a better team than Notre Dame (even though at this level of play the margins are razor thin) and the Dawgs are playing at home. Jake Fromm is a master of big games and this, most certainly, is one. I could easily see this one being tied to start the 4th quarter before Fromm leads a long drive late in the game, setting up a Hot Rod field goal for the win... and I believe that is the most likely outcome.

Prediction: Dawgs 31 - Fighting Irish 28