Two of the biggest heavyweights in college football history square off in week one when Texas visits South Bend, Ind., to meet Notre Dame. Both programs are coming off disappointing seasons by their high standards. In their first season under head coach Charlie Strong, Texas had a 6-7 record. After a 6-0 start, the Irish stumbled to the finish line. They wound up 8-5 but defeated LSU in the Music City Bowl.
Notre Dame enters 2015 with loads of optimism. Sports Illustrated put the team on the cover of its college football preview and selected them as a participant in this year’s College Football Playoff. For Texas, hope comes from the promise of a young group of talented athletes and the belief that Strong’s system will soon pay dividends.
The Longhorns and the Irish have met on 10 previous occasions and Notre Dame has won eight of those contests.
Texas at Notre Dame
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Notre Dame -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback Play
Both teams have great unknowns at quarterback. Strong has named junior Tyrone Swoopes as his starter but stated that Jerrod Heard would also see action. Swoopes started 12 games as a sophomore after David Ash’s career was halted by concussion problems. The Longhorns offense sputtered for most of the year and Swoopes had to beat out the redshirt freshman in fall camp to reclaim his job. For Notre Dame, Everett Golson’s late-season struggles gave Malik Zaire an opportunity and the lefty was named MVP of the Music City Bowl. With Golson now at Florida State, the job is Zaire’s. All three players can make plays with their feet but the quarterback that is most accurate throwing the ball will give his team the best chance to win.
2. Texas Freshmen
Middle linebacker Malik Jefferson was the talk of spring practice in Austin. The early enrollee wowed everyone with his impressive talents and his knowledge of the game. But Jefferson will not be the only freshman starting for Texas this weekend. Two of the guys charged with protecting Swoopes were in high school a year ago. Patrick Vahe will start at right guard and Connor Williams will man the all-important left tackle position. True freshman John Burt will start at wide receiver and two redshirt freshmen will join Jefferson on the defense. In total, there are 23 freshmen (true or redshirt) on the Texas depth chart.
3. Notre Dame Defense Against Texas' Up-Tempo Offense
It has been well documented how Notre Dame struggled to contain teams that played at a fast pace in 2014. Texas did not go at breakneck speed last season, but Strong has said that the Longhorns will speed things up in 2015 in an effort to energize a stagnant offense. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder was aware of the problem at the end of last year and has had all offseason to right the wrong. It may work out well for ND as the Irish get an up-tempo team right off, though it’s one that is still learning the nuances of the system. With an extremely experienced, deep crew on defense, the Irish should be able implement the changes needed to slow down Texas.
There are some similarities between Notre Dame and Texas. They are both traditional programs with a lot of talent that have quarterbacks with something to prove. The big difference between the two teams resides in the experience factor. Notre Dame returns 10 starters on defense, has several backups that have seen considerable playing time, and also welcomes back KeiVarae Russell to the secondary, replacing the only defensive starter lost to graduation. Texas loses 11 starters from last year and a bunch of guys will be making their collegiate debuts at Notre Dame Stadium. Both teams will struggle offensively early on. Texas is deepest along the defensive line, but eventually the big Notre Dame offensive line will create lanes for running back Tarean Folston and co. Zaire may not be extremely accurate all the time, but he will connect down field with Will Fuller, Chris Brown, or other Irish receivers a couple times off play-action. Texas will have some success at times with Jonathan Gray in the running game, but the Irish will force Swoopes into a couple of mistakes and Notre Dame will march onward to victory.
Prediction: Notre Dame 24, Texas 13
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.