College football’s must-see matchup for Week 4 takes place in Athens on Saturday night, as Notre Dame meets Georgia in a clash of top-10 teams and playoff contenders. This is the second meeting between these two programs in recent years. En route to an appearance in the national championship game, the Bulldogs won a thrilling 20-19 matchup in South Bend in 2017.
Georgia has cruised to a 3-0 start behind a punishing ground game, steady quarterback Jake Fromm and a defense that has allowed only 23 points over three contests. The Bulldogs dominated Vanderbilt 30-6 in the opener, beat Murray State 63-17 in Week 2 and pitched a 55-0 shutout of Arkansas State last week. Coach Kirby Smart’s team appears to have all of the pieces in place to win the national championship this year, but the tests will get tougher starting this week. New play-caller James Coley has guided the offense to an average of 8.7 yards a snap, while the defense is holding teams to just 3.84 yards a play.
Notre Dame opened its season with a sluggish 35-17 victory over Louisville in Week 1. The Fighting Irish had an off date in Week 2 but looked sharp in the Sept. 14 blowout of New Mexico (66-14). Coach Brian Kelly’s squad has its sights set on another trip to the CFB Playoff. But that won’t be easy with road trips to Georgia and Michigan this season. Kelly can lean on quarterback Ian Book on offense, while a retooled defensive front will be under the spotlight on Saturday night.
Georgia holds a 2-0 series edge over Notre Dame. In addition to the victory in 2017, the Bulldogs knocked off the Fighting Irish in 1980.
Notre Dame at Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia -14.5
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
For Notre Dame to win on Saturday night, quarterback Ian Book has to have a huge performance. The junior connected on 14 of 23 throws for 193 yards and a score in the opener against Louisville but was better in the victory against New Mexico. Book raised his yards per attempt from 8.4 in Week 1 to 15.0 in Week 3. Additionally, he torched the Lobos for 360 yards and five scores after only throwing for 193 yards in the opener. Book’s mobility will be a huge asset for this offense. Georgia’s defensive front is easily the best Notre Dame has played this season and has speed and athleticism all over the front seven. The junior has rushed for 127 yards and two scores so far and will need to utilize his scrambling ability early and often on Saturday.
Book’s supporting cast has been a bit of a revolving door so far in 2019. The offense opened the year looking to replace running back Dexter Williams, and the backfield took a hit with an injury to projected starter (and breakout candidate) Jafar Armstrong. With Armstrong sidelined, Kelly and coordinator Chip Long can turn to Tony Jones (127 yards), freshman Kyren Williams and Avery Davis on Saturday night. Jones showed promise by rushing for 110 yards in the opener versus Louisville but only posted 17 yards last Saturday. If healthy, Jahmir Smith is another option in the backfield.
The revolving door also continues to the options at receiver. Projected starter Michael Young is out due to a collarbone injury suffered in fall practice, and tight end Cole Kmet has yet to play due to a similar ailment. However, Kmet is on track to return for Saturday’s game, providing Book with another weapon to use over the middle of the field. Chase Claypool (nine catches for 190 yards) is Book’s favorite target, with Javon McKinley on the rise after catching two touchdown tosses versus New Mexico. Chris Finke, Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys will also factor into the mix at receiver.
Georgia’s defense held teams to 19.2 points a game last season, but coach Kirby Smart wanted more out of this group in 2019. Specifically, the Bulldogs needed to create more havoc – sacks, turnovers, tackles for loss or pass breakups – this year. So far, Georgia ranks second in the SEC in sacks (12), is tied for first in red zone defense but has only generated four takeaways. Each level of the defense is loaded with talent. Standouts Tyler Clark and Jordan Davis anchor the trenches, as the Bulldogs are holding teams to just 60.7 rush yards a game. Additionally, linebackers Jermaine Johnson (2.0 TFL), Azeez Ojulari and Nolan Smith will create havoc off the edge against Notre Dame’s offensive line. The secondary is led by standout senior safety J.R. Reed, with Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell (questionable due to injury) set at cornerback.
On paper, it’s tough to find an edge for Notre Dame’s offense versus Georgia’s defense. That’s why Book has to deliver a big-time performance through the air and on the ground for Kelly’s team to leave Athens with a victory.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Georgia’s offense doesn’t feature too many question marks, and new play-caller James Coley has guided this group to an average of 49.3 points a game through the first three contests. While the defenses will get tougher as the season progresses, it’s hard to argue with the results so far. The Bulldogs average a whopping 8.7 yards a play and 7.6 yards a carry, rank second in the SEC with five plays of 40 or more yards and enter Week 4 third in the conference in red zone offense.
Entering his third year as the starter, it’s no secret quarterback Jake Fromm is the leader of Georgia’s offense. The junior is one of the nation’s top signal-callers and should push for All-SEC honors once again this fall. Fromm has connected on 66 percent of throws in his career and has only 13 interceptions over 653 attempts.
A revamped receiving corps was the biggest concern on offense for Smart this season. However, this unit gets better every week, especially with the continued development of freshmen George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock. Demetris Robertson and Tyler Simmons are dealing with injuries but appear to be on track to play Saturday night.
Georgia’s ground game is likely to be the focal point of its offensive gameplan on Saturday night. The Bulldogs enter Week 4 averaging 286.7 rushing yards a game, with D’Andre Swift (290 yards), Zamir White (141), Brian Herrien (121) and James Cook (103) all likely to see snaps. Swift is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, while Herrien and White give the offense two physical options. Cook has nearly as many touches through receptions (six) as carries (eight) this fall. This stable of running backs should have no trouble finding room on Saturday night behind an offensive line that ranks as the best in college football. Georgia’s line has allowed just one sack through three games and has paved the way for rushers to post five runs of 30 yards or more in 2019.
Notre Dame’s defense held teams to just 3.84 yards a rush last season but have struggled to stop the run this fall. That’s largely due to a revamped front, as tackle Jerry Tillery and linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney departed after the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson. The Fighting Irish enter Saturday’s matchup giving up 230.5 yards a game and 4.96 yards a carry.
With the Notre Dame defensive numbers in mind, Georgia is likely to come out and test this front early and often. Coordinator Clark Lea needs to get the Bulldogs into third-and-long situations, which will allow ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara to put pressure on Fromm and force a revamped receiving corps to make plays downfield.
If Georgia dominates up front and Notre Dame is consistently giving up large chunks on the ground, the path to victory is very small for Kelly’s squad. But if the Fighting Irish can match the Bulldogs’ physicality and get Fromm into obvious passing downs, that's a key part of the winning formula for Kelly's team on Saturday night.
Everything about this matchup is a win for college football fans. Georgia and Notre Dame are two of the best programs in the nation, and this game takes place on campus in an outstanding environment. While the atmosphere in Athens should be electric, the on-field matchup might not match. The Bulldogs’ deep and talented backfield running behind the nation’s best offensive line should be able to find plenty of room against Notre Dame’s defense. Getting Kmet back in the mix should help the Fighting Irish, especially since Book and the passing game will have to carry the offense. Notre Dame will land a few punches, but Georgia simply has too much firepower and its defense makes a couple of stops in the second half to seal the victory.