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Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Texas Longhorns Preview and Prediction

Charlie Strong

Charlie Strong

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One of the greatest opening weekends in college football history is thankfully not limited to the traditional Saturday action this year. In a bid to give us all a little more football — and importantly pay proper respect to two of the sport’s most famous blue bloods — the powers that be moved Notre Dame’s first trip to Austin in two decades to Sunday for some fascinating primetime action against Texas in front of a sellout crowd.

The Irish, ranked in the top 10 in both polls, begin the season firmly in the mix to make it to the College Football Playoff but will be searching for some early answers after a rough offseason left the team down two potential starters in the secondary. That’s not the only thing head coach Brian Kelly has to worry about either, with a quarterback battle still on-going and a host of fresh faces with little experience out at receiver.

There’s plenty to worry about for Kelly’s counterpart too. Charlie Strong enters year three in Austin firmly on the hot seat and scrambling like mad to get a young team to play up to the level Longhorns fans are accustomed to. The team is unveiling a brand-new offensive identity in the opener and will be looking to play two quarterbacks who everybody in burnt orange hope can do the exact opposite of what the signal-callers did in South Bend last year. A young defense probably doesn’t help the stress level all that much either.

Notre Dame has won nine of the 11 meetings between the college football giants and is an impressive 4-0 in Austin. Texas hasn’t captured a win in the series since the 1970 Cotton Bowl, but does have a 15-game winning streak going in home openers.

Notre Dame at Texas

Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Notre Dame -3.5

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Three Things to Watch

1. Quarterback times four

Both Texas and Notre Dame fans may find themselves on opposite sides of the old adage that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t really have a quarterback. The Irish would argue that they’re the exception to the rule, with DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire both showing they can lead the team to victories and operate Kelly’s spread system efficiently. Both will play in the opener and for the foreseeable future but it will be fascinating to see how the rotation plays out. The Longhorns also will play two behind center, with the uneven senior Tyrone Swoopes likely to bide time before true freshman Shane Buechele is firmly ready to take over the offense. Maybe the two-QB system will surprise but it’s completely within the realm of possibilities that neither is ready to operate against a blitz-heavy defense on Sunday. Either way, quarterbacks get all of the attention, most of the blame, and the lion’s share of fame depending on the outcome and you can bet all will apply when the final whistle is blown on Sunday.

2. New Texas offense

It’s not just the quarterback who will be new for Texas fans to get used to, the whole offense is changing. Gone is the more traditional attack from Strong’s first season and the mashup spread look the Longhorns tried in year two. After a much publicized search, UT finally landed a new offensive coordinator in Sterlin Gilbert and he’s been tasked with installing the same offense that has powered Baylor to two Big 12 titles in three years. You can expect a focus on the power run game with tailbacks D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren and plenty of wide splits from a receivers group that has several young speedsters. How it will all operate in reality instead of theory however is anybody’s guess. Based on the past few seasons, there’s nowhere to go but up though.

3. Fresh faces on Irish defense

Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day and top pass rusher Romeo Okwara are not walking through that door for the Irish but that doesn’t mean coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense will see a huge regression from a season ago. Linebacker James Onwualu and defensive end Isaac Rochell will be counted on to provide veteran leadership and make plenty plays but it will be the emergence of players who weren’t there a year ago that will determine just how good this unit will be in 2016. The addition of Jarron Jones along the defensive line is a welcome one after he missed all of last season and five-star recruit Daelin Hayes could be a breakout player in the rotation. The secondary is a different story however, as safety Max Redfield was kicked off the team and only senior corner Cole Luke has any significant experience in the back four. Texas may not be the team that can take advantage of a thin pass defense but Notre Dame fans have to hope the group grows up quickly for more strenuous tests later on.

Final Analysis

Six months ago, Notre Dame fans — and perhaps the players and coaching staff too — had to be fairly confident in the Irish’s ability to head to Austin and come out with a nice win. Pollsters would have likely agreed given where the team is ranked in the preseason but there’s certainly been a sense as kickoff has approached that this game might be tighter than first thought. Recent suspensions have left Brian Kelly’s squad thin on defense and it appears not everybody is thrilled with his decision to go with a two-quarterback system on offense. At the end of the day however, the Irish are the far superior team and capable of winning this one in a runaway. Texas should be improved from last season and is capable of threatening for a half or so. Still, Notre Dame is just too talented and too accustomed to playing in big moments to drop this kind of game. It’s certainly a matchup that seems like it could be a fairly interesting season opener but expect the Irish to eventually pull away toward the end and show flashes of a double-digit win team.

Notre Dame Logo

Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Texas 17

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.