Pregame Six Pack: The final battle

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On Friday afternoon, Notre Dame will board a plane for Los Angeles. By the time they leave, they’ll know if they’ve punched their ticket to Miami, awaiting a challenger in the national championship game. After three months of twists and turns, the No. 1 Fighting Irish take on Southern Cal in the country’s greatest intersectional rivalry.

We’ve spent three months leading up to this game, with no amount of hyperbole overselling the importance of this Saturday night to the Irish. Win and the Irish will be 12-0 for the first time since 1988 and just the second time in school history. They’ll also spend the next six weeks preparing for a title game many thought was out of the school’s reach.

It’s a season finale unlike just about any other. With all of college football’s eyes on them, Notre Dame will have a chance to walk out of the Coliseum with not just the Jeweled Shillelagh, but a chance to play for the crystal football.

Before No. 1 Notre Dame takes on USC, let’s run through six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings in the pregame six pack.

***

The Irish have traveled to Los Angeles undefeated in five previous season finales. They’ve come out alive three times.

Notre Dame is 3-2 against USC when the team is undefeated and playing in the season finale. In 1938, they lost 13-0 to a No. 8 ranked USC team and won in 1947 after beating the No. 3 Trojans 38-7. In 1964, the Irish had their undefeated dreams dashed when the Trojans roared back from down 17 to score 20 points in the second half and beat the Irish 20-17. In 1966, the Irish took care of business, demolishing the Trojans 51-0.

It’s been 24 years since an undefeated Notre Dame team went into the Coliseum with the No. 1 ranking on the line. That year, the Trojans were No. 2 in the country at 10-0 with Rodney Peete captaining the high powered offense. Making things more difficult for Notre Dame, Lou Holtz sent home Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks after the duo was late for the team dinner the night before the game.

“There’s no excuse for anybody being late now, because everyone’s got a Cotton Bowl watch,” Holtz quipped.

The Irish jumped all over the Trojans, taking advantage of four first half turnovers as they ran away with a 27-10 victory. After beating the Trojans, they went on to finish the dream season with a 34-21 victory over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

***

The Trojans have fallen off a cliff in the past month.

Starting the season atop the AP rankings, it’s been a four-loss disaster for the Trojans. With the odds-on Heisman Trophy favorite, two All-American caliber wide receivers, and nearly an identical defense to an upstart 2011 unit, Lane Kiffin’s team has been in free fall.

“It hasn’t turned out so far how we’d have liked or how we anticipated. We were probably over-hyped at the beginning of the season to be perfectly honest,” USC athletic director Pat Haden earlier this week.

Earlier in the week, Kiffin talked about the swing the season has taken in just the last month, going as far as to identify the play where things turned south.

“It’s been a disappointing season as we all know, but as I look at it and break it down, it’s been a disappointing month, we’ve had a bad month, a disaster month,” Kiffin said. “One month ago we’re sitting at 6-1 and we’re up 15 points in Arizona. We run a double-move and we’re getting ready to go up by 22 and put the game away. From that play on, not a lot of good has happened.”

“Not a lot of good,” might be an understatement. Dropping three of four games, the Trojans defense has fallen off a cliff, giving up 156 points and 1,974 yards to Arizona, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA. Offensively, they’ve killed themselves with turnovers, coughing up the ball 16 times, including nine interceptions.

Putting that into context, the Trojans have given up 45 more points in that four games stretch than Notre Dame has all season. They’ve also turned the ball over more this year than the Irish did last year, shocking when you consider Matt Barkley was expected to be the No. 1 quarterback taken in the draft.

Add it all up, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

***

For the Irish to win on Saturday, they’ll need to follow a familiar script on offense.

Make no mistake, helping the Irish’s rock solid defense will be a consistent offense. More to the point, a running game that can eat of the clock and move the ball efficiently, something the Irish have done well this season, averaging 200 yards a game this season.

While the Trojan run defense ranks a semi-respectable 49th in the country, they’ve only faced three run games that ranked statistically better than Notre Dame’s. Here’s how they fared:

Arizona: (39-36 loss)
Rushing Rank: 15th
Team Totals: 44 carries, 222 yards, 2 TDs

Oregon: (62-51 loss)
Rushing Rank: 5th
Team Totals: 60 carries, 468 yards, 5 TDs

UCLA: (38-28 loss)
Rushing Rank: 28th
Team Totals: 50 carries, 240 yards, 4 TDs

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, one thing that’s really plagued the Trojans is a mobile quarterback. Before Matt Scott left the game for Arizona, he had run for 100 yards on 15 carries. In Oregon’s juggernaut rushing performance, Marcus Mariota ran 15 times for 96 yards. While Brett Hundley isn’t part of the UCLA game plan as a runner and was sacked five times, his mobility caused problems for USC’s defense before Jonathan Franklin wore out the Trojans on the ground.

In Everett Golson, the Irish have the perfect running weapon to go along with Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, both of whom should have nice days. And as Arizona and Oregon showed, running a spread offense with tempo beats USC. The Irish might not be able to move quite as quickly as the two Pac-12 teams, but they’ve got a defense that can pull its own weight.

***

With irrelevance long forgotten, Pat Haden talks about Notre Dame’s role in college football.

As a one-time NBC broadcaster that saw Notre Dame for a lot of years, Pat Haden understands the Irish’s role in the college football world. While the former USC quarterback has gone back to his alma mater to run the Trojan athletic department, he hasn’t lost any respect for a football program that in many ways is an aspirational model for USC, a school trying to leave behind the scandal that costs Reggie Bush his Heisman Trophy and USC thirty scholarships.

Haden went on with everybody’s favorite ESPN pundit Collin Cowherd this week and discussed all things Notre Dame, complimenting Brian Kelly for the work that he’s done as he’s become the toast of the college football world.

“I’m a little surprised, I thought they had a very daunting schedule when I looked at it,” Haden said to Cowherd. “They’ve navigated their way through that schedule very well. Brian Kelly has done a great job. Their quarterback has played very well and come on particularly the last few weeks. Last year, Notre Dame got in trouble turning the ball over and they’re not doing that this year. Their defense has played spectacularly.”

Perhaps more impressive than anything Haden said about the work Notre Dame has done on the field was what he said about the Irish’s role in the college football world, crystallizing why Jack Swarbrick continues to keep the Irish independent as conference commissioners like Jim Delany keep trying to swallow up universities in a real estate and cable TV power-plays.

“There’s only one brand name in college football, and that’s Notre Dame,” Haden said. “And I think it’s good for all of us when Notre Dame is playing very well and people are following them. I’ve always had great respect for Notre Dame. They’re a great model for us. They do things so well. Academically, athletically. We have great respect for their institution, their athletic program, and the rivalry.

***

While USC is saying all the right things about Max Wittek, the reality of a first time starter could be sobering for Trojan fans.

Max Wittek could very well be the next great USC quarterback. But anybody thinking the Trojans will have a strategic advantage because Notre Dame hasn’t seen much of the young quarterback is kidding themselves.

The loss of Matt Barkley is huge. Last season, Barkley and Kiffin engineered a near perfect game plan, using Notre Dame’s defensive strengths against them throughout the game. Every single pass had a playaction element to it, helping to freeze the Irish’s over-aggressive linebackers as Barkley picked Notre Dame apart. That playaction throws also helped the Trojans running game, as the USC offensive line and some solid cut-back running took advantage of an injury-ravaged defensive front and ran the Irish out of commission.

But that was with one of college football’s best triggermen at the helm. Not a redshirt freshman starting his first game. Want a look at every snap Wittek’s taken for the Trojans? Here. You. Go. It’s about what you’d expect from a quarterback playing in mop-up time, with not much to gather from the handful of throws Wittek made against three defenses ranked no better than 70th in the country.

Yet Kiffin and the Trojans are doing their best to talk Wittek up, whether its truth, strategy, or to boost the young quarterback’s confidence.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Kiffin said earlier in the week. “Had a great command of the huddle out there. He’s been working really well with the skill guys. Does not seem like a freshman.”

At his best, Wittek brings a strong arm to the table and the ability to try and stretch the Irish defense vertically. With decent mobility for his size, expect Kiffin to continue to use playaction, often rolling Wittek to a half field look, where he’ll have an easier read before he needs to get rid of the football.

There’s a version of Saturday night that ends with Wittek triumphant, carving out the first chapter of a legendary career in South Los Angeles. But the more likely scenario ends in disappointment for USC, with a team already prone to turnovers facing the toughest defense it’s seen all season.

***

Forget about superstition. Notre Dame will win on Saturday by following the script.

Enough stories will be written about destiny, stars aligning or magical third season. Enough worry will be wasted on SI cover jinxes or mystical superstitions. Throw it all in the garbage. Notre Dame will win on Saturday by following the blueprint that got them this far.

On defense, the Irish will face their most dangerous test yet. Even with Max Wittek at quarterback, Notre Dame hasn’t faced talent like Marqise Lee, college football’s best receiver, Robert Woods, and Nelson Agholor, who broke the Irish staff’s heart when he picked Southern Cal last signing day. The Trojans also have a powerful running attack, with Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal running for almost 1,400 yards this season.

Yet Manti Te’o and company will win if they do what got them there. Suffocate offenses with an elite front seven. Shut down the run. Keep the football in front of the secondary and tackle like crazy. Up front, the Irish should give the Trojans’ suspect offensive line all it can handle. And Te’o should have more than a few opportunities to take the ball away from Wittek. And after eleven weeks of playing assignment correct football in the secondary, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott need to drum up one more game plan that keeps the opposition away from the big play.

On offense, everything runs through Everett Golson. After playing his best football the past month, Golson will make one more primetime road start, and if he’s as sharp Saturday night as he has been in the past, Notre Dame will be just fine.

Get Cierre Wood established. Let Theo Riddick run hard and make plays out of the backfield. Move the chains with Tyler Eifert while taking some shots down the field as well. Most importantly? Hold onto the football. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a way the Irish lose this football game if Notre Dame doesn’t lose the turnover battle.

A week after having to channel emotion into enthusiasm, Brian Kelly’s team will be tasked with channeling nervous energy into synchronicity. In the season’s defining moment, it’ll be fun to see if the Irish can summons the play of a champion, or if they’ll let the moment define them. These are the seasons you remember for decades. These are the games that build coaches statues.

But not for the Irish. It’s just sixty more minutes of following the plan.

 

 

 

 

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Michigan State

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It was a disappointing 2016 season for Notre Dame followed by a long offseason spent thinking about said disappointment. Compared to Michigan State, though, the going has been smooth. Not only did the Spartans finish a game worse than the Irish last year, even with the victory in their head-to-head matchup, but this offseason has been a tumultuous one for the Michigan State program. Four players have been dismissed from the team amid sexual assault allegations.

2016 REVIEW
The Spartans started last year ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll and No. 12 in the AP’s. A year earlier, they had won the Big Ten and made it into the first College Football Playoff. Expectations were high for the 2016 season, higher than a No. 11/12 preseason ranking would belie.

A cruise-control win over Furman followed by a game of two halves victory over Notre Dame lifted Michigan State to No. 8 in both polls, starting to fit more in line with those best-laid plans. Then it all came tumbling down.

The first indications of that collapse came in the final 17 minutes of the 36-28 win over the Irish. Leading 36-7, the Spartans gave up three touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. With all the momentum on the Notre Dame sideline, Michigan State finally managed a defensive stop with 3:30 remaining in the game, draining the clock from there.

A week later, the Spartans could not manage to find the end zone in a 30-6 loss vs. Wisconsin, starting a spiral of nine losses in 10 games, the only bright spot being a victory over Rutgers.

Unlike the Irish, Michigan State did not let opportunity after opportunity slip past. Instead, the Spartans were on the wrong end of one-possession games only three times.

WHAT MICHIGAN STATE LOST

Former Michigan State defensive end Malik McDowell (Getty Images)

For a program coming off a 3-9 season, the length of this list illustrates just how much of a letdown 2016 was in East Lansing. Defensive end Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson both heard their names in the NFL Draft, in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. That is just a start, though.

With sophomore receiver Donnie Corley (33 catches for 453 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman) among those dismissed this offseason, the Spartans said farewell to their top four receivers. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor graduated, as well, though his 58.8 completion percentage and 16-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio hardly pushed the offense forward.

Including McDowell and Nicholson, Michigan State also lost five of its top eight tacklers. McDowell managed 5.5 tackles for loss while linebacker and No. 3 tackler Riley Bullough added 6.5 more. Cornerbacks Demetrious Cox and Darian Hicks both make that top-eight cutoff, but more notably contributed a combined 13 pass breakups, too.

WHAT MICHIGAN STATE GAINED
The Spartans signed 24 recruits to finish with the country’s No. 33 class, per rivals.com. That class included 4 four-star prospects, most notably receiver Hunter Rison. Given the exodus of receivers, Rison may be called upon for contributions early in his career, perhaps by his third game in a primetime matchup against a longtime rival.

HEAD COACH
Mark Dantonio enters his 11th season in East Lansing, and a 3-9 season did nothing to the temperature of his figurative seat, especially not a season after coming within one game of appearing in the national championship.

Discounting last season, Dantonio amassed 87 wins in the previous nine years. Rough math obviously indicates that is nearly 10 wins annually. Suffice it to say he had established a high-level program with the Spartans and will look to trend back toward that par this season.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Without a returning receiver who recorded more than a dozen catches last season, and without a quarterback who competed in more than two games, it makes sense to think Michigan State will turn to its running game in 2017. That makes even more sense when considering the Spartans return sophomore left guard Tyler Higby (six starts in 10 games before an ankle injury) and junior left tackle Cole Chewins (three starts in 12 games) to pave the way for running back LJ Scott. The junior gained steam as last season progressed, finishing with 994 yards on 184 rushes, good for an average carry of 5.4 yards.

Running back LJ Scott (Getty Images)

Once Scott establishes the Spartan running game and a theoretical play-action threat, the eyes will turn to sophomore Brian Lewerke. Earlier it was said 2016 starter Tyler O’Connor left room for improvement. That was recognized five games into last season, when Lewerke was given the chance to start despite being only a freshman. A week later, he broke his leg, ending his season and seemingly cementing Michigan State’s struggles. In that brief action, Lewerke did not exactly dazzle, completing 31-of-57 passes (54.4 percent) for 381 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

But he earned enough coaching faith to be given the chance. He will have it again this year.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This seems hard to fathom for a Dantonio-coached team, but the defense might be a Spartan weakness for the second consecutive year. For context, Michigan State allowed 27.75 points and 395 yards per game last season. Now Dantonio looks to replace most of a secondary, possibly relying on a true freshman to start at cornerback in Josiah Scott.

If the Spartan defense does buckle down, it will be on the backs of its defensive line’s interior and its veteran linebacker core. Sophomore tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk saw action early in their debut campaigns, combining for 42 tackles with Williams also chipping in two sacks of the defense’s 11 total sacks. Yes, Michigan State managed three fewer sacks than Notre Dame’s paltry pass rush a season ago.

A level behind them, senior Chris Frey led the team with 96 tackles last year and is flanked by junior Andrew Dowell (fourth with 67) and sophomore Joe Bachle.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Michigan State faces a tough schedule this season, certainly one more difficult than a program looking to rebound would prefer. The Spartans will have to travel to Michigan, to Minnesota and to Ohio State, as well as host Penn State, not to mention Notre Dame.

To top a win total over/under of 6.5, they may need to convert two chances for wins at the end of the season, vs. Maryland and at Rutgers. Naturally, slipping past that season-long metric would set up Michigan State to return to a bowl game. It may not be a return to the College Football Playoff, but capitalizing on extra practice time and then entering an offseason with a win — and much better vibes than was the case this past year — would be the first step to the Spartans returning to Dantonio’s standard.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Yesterday: Boston College
Tomorrow: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Six days until Notre Dame kicks off. You can make it that far, right?

Notre Dame’s opponents: Boston College

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Notre Dame fans likely remember the last time the Irish visited Boston College’s campus. John Goodman caught a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to put Notre Dame up three possessions early in the third quarter, setting up the Irish to move past Alabama in the polls thanks to the Tide’s loss earlier that evening.

A week-three matchup will not provide such an opportunity for dramatics this season, but a loss would certainly diminish the trajectory of Notre Dame’s season.

2016 REVIEW
Boston College finished 7-6 last season and 2-6 in the ACC. That overall record was greatly aided by a three-game winning streak to close the season, including a 30-0 drubbing of Bob Diaco-led Connecticut, arguably sealing Diaco’s ouster at the end of the season. The Eagles also topped Wake Forest 17-14 before beating Maryland 36-30 in the Quick Lane Bowl, the program’s first bowl game victory since 2007.

Before that closing burst, Boston College not only lost games, it lost them by egregious margins. The Eagles faced three ranked foes last year, losing to Clemson, Louisville and Florida State by a combined score of 153-24, yet that does not even include their ugliest loss of the season, falling 49-0 at Virignia Tech in the season’s third week.

As was the case with Temple, taking a look at how Boston College’s offense fared against Wake Forest seems applicable, considering then-Deacons defensive coordinator Mike Elko now leads the Irish defense. None of the Eagles’ offensive numbers last season came close to stellar, but the overall performance against Wake Forest marks something of a nadir.

Ten of Boston College’s 17 points came on two drives totaling 32 yards, the short fields provided by an interception and a recovered fumble. Nonetheless, the 17 points fell short of the Eagles’ otherwise average of 20.7 points per game. Boston College rushed for 93 yards (on 39 attempts) and threw for 74 more (on 23 attempts), both drastically below the averages against all other opponents of 153.8 rushing yards and 149.6 passing yards. The Eagles typically managed 4.55 yards per play. Against Wake Forest, that figure fell to 2.69 yards.

All those single-game figures are significantly lower than what the Deacons usually allowed, with an emphasis on significantly.

WHAT BOSTON COLLEGE LOST

Former Boston College safety John Johnson rises for an interception. (Getty Images)

The Eagles lost notable pieces on all three levels of their defense, perhaps none more vital than safety John Johnson (a third-round NFL Draft pick). Johnson finished second on the team last year with 77 tackles and notched nine pass breakups, all while manning the role of defensive playcaller.

Matt Milano (a fifth-round NFL Draft pick) led the way for Boston College’s linebackers, finishing fourth on the team with 58 tackles while making 6.5 sacks. Rising junior Sharrieff Grice was expected to step in for Milano until he unexpectedly retired earlier this month citing medical concerns.

Furthermore, the Eagles lost two dominant defensive linemen in end Kevin Kavalec and tackle Truman Gutapfel, combining for 99 tackles, six sacks and 15 tackles for loss.

On the offensive side of the ball, one would usually note when a team loses its starting quarterback as Boston College did with Patrick Towles, a graduate transfer from Kentucky. Then again, in his one season in Chestnut Hill, Towles managed a 50.5 percent completion rate and threw 12 touchdowns against seven interceptions. His departure should not much further limit the offense.

WHAT BOSTON COLLEGE GAINED
Signing 21 recruits to the No. 66 class, per rivals.com, the Eagles may need a number of those to be immediate contributors. Two running backs stand at the head of the line in four-star AJ Dillon and three-star Travis Levy. While Boston College returns its top two rushers from 2016, it did lose Myles Willis, who finished with 301 yards on 49 carries. It seems rather likely either Dillon or Levy picks up that slack.

HEAD COACH
Steve Addazio enters his fifth season with the Eagles. Not much else needs to be said here, aside from the coach has long favored a physical style of play, focusing on a rushing attack as often as not.

Addazio was a Notre Dame assistant coach from 1999 to 2001.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
In a twist, Boston College may consider its offense its strength this season. That would seem to imply a leap from its averages of 20.4 points and 293 yards per game last season, but it is also a bit of an indictment of how the aforementioned losses could affect the upcoming “Defensive Summary.”

Jon Hillman led Eagle rushers last season with 542 yards and six touchdowns on 194 carries. (Getty Images)

The offensive line returns four starters, adding West Virginia graduate transfer Marcell Lazard to round off the unit. With two experienced running backs carrying the ball behind that line, the Eagles may be able to ease in whomever starts at quarterback. Senior Darius Wade and sophomore Anthony Brown continue to compete for that gig. A year ago, Towles’ transfer likely saved a year of Brown’s eligibility, while Wade finished the season 9-of-19 for 100 yards and one interception.

To be repetitive, though, either quarterback option will not need to clear a high bar to exceed Towles’ contributions. Add in a receiving corps returning its top-six options and perhaps Addazio will be tempted to stray from his power running game trademark.

That may not be the worst idea for Addazio. The offense has sputtered for two seasons now, averaging 17.2 points and 276 yards per game in 2015.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Setting aside the team awaiting Addazio upon his arrival at Boston College in 2013, last year’s defense allowed the most points of his tenure, 25.0 per game. Frankly, that is a rather low total to include the descriptor of most in front of it, and that is a credit to Addazio as much as anyone else.

Continuing that trend will be only more difficult this season after losing Johnson, Milano, Grice, Kavalec and Gutapfel.

Somewhere it should be noted how strong of a pass rush Addazio has had in each of his seasons with the Eagles. Beginning in 2013, they have totaled 36, 33 and 34 sacks before topping out last season at 47.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Boston College will struggle to reach the win total over/under of 4. In order to get that to even a push, the Eagles may need to win their season finale at Syracuse. If they do cruise past that figure, it will likely trace to the defensive not losing a step AND the quarterback starter exceeding expectations.

Even if Boston College goes 4-8 this season, Addazio has a contract through 2020 and last year’s bowl game victory likely earned him a bit of a cushion.

Monday: Temple
Yesterday: Georgia
Tomorrow: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Six days until Notre Dame kicks off. You can make it that far, right?

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia

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Notre Dame’s season will get an early litmus test when the Irish host Georgia. Undoubtedly, plenty of commenters here will rush to say Notre Dame does not stand a chance against the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, and while that ground game does warrant a heap of respect, implying Georgia will cruise through South Bend on Sept. 9 is too simple of a summary.

2016 REVIEW
The Bulldogs went 8-5 last year, including 4-4 in the SEC. In nearly every respect, it was a disappointing debut season for head coach Kirby Smart given the expectations for what was supposedly a team ready to break through. Even that .500 conference record paints a prettier picture than the reality, as Georgia was outscored by 25 points in conference play.

The Bulldogs started 3-0, but that record was built on a house of cards. They needed to come from behind in the second half to win each of those games, including squeezing by Football Championship Subdivision-team Nicholls State 26-24.

Ole Miss handed Georgia its first loss in the form of a 45-14 walloping, leading 31-0 at halftime. There would be no second-half rally, to say the least. The defeat started a five-game stretch in which the Bulldogs fell four times, including a 17-16 loss at home against Vanderbilt. No matter how well Derek Mason may be doing with a slow Commodores rebuild, that was a bad look for Smart.

Few teams could have two prospective NFL starting running backs and a highly-touted quarterback, yet manage only 24.5 points per game.

WHAT GEORGIA LOST

Former Georgia receiver Isaiah McKenzie (Getty Images)

Remember discussing Temple and its three NFL Draft picks? That was three times as many as Georgia managed last season, that lone honoree being receiver Isaiah McKenzie in the fifth round. He totaled 633 yards and seven touchdowns last year, as well as a punt return for a touchdown.

More notably, the Bulldogs saw 60 percent of their offensive line graduate, and the remaining 40 percent does not make up one side of the line to create a reliable half of the field. (Think of Notre Dame’s offensive line and its trust in its left side with fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson.)

Rather, Georgia is looking to replace both its offensive tackles as well as its center.

WHAT GEORGIA GAINED
Speaking of replacing offensive linemen, Georgia’s top 2017 recruit could fit the bill. Isaiah Wilson, all 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds of him, has reportedly seen some first-team action in preseason practice. He was the centerpiece of the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, per rivals.com. That rating was boosted by sheer numbers: Of the Bulldogs’ 26 signees, two were five-stars and 14 ranked as four-stars. Yes, that 26 figure exceeds the NCAA maximum, but that mandate kicks in only upon enrollment.

Receiver Mark Webb was among those four-stars and could quickly find himself playing time amid a deep but unproven receiver corps. (Sound familiar, Irish fans?)

HEAD COACH
Kirby Smart enters his second season away from Nick Saban’s watchful eye with one primary goal: Meet Saban in December. The former Alabama defensive coordinator will need to get past Florida to reach the SEC Championship game.

The encounter against Notre Dame could serve a genuine role in that task: Aside from last year’s loss in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Sept. 9 contest will be the truest test yet of Smart’s head-coaching tenure, partly due to it being on the road as it is. Suffice it to say, Georgia rarely travels north, let alone within range of the Great Lakes’ winds. Obviously, the weather should not matter in early September, but it is not absurd to think the time in flight could alter some routines.

As will be discussed below in the “Season Outlook,” the Bulldogs will need to win on the road this season if they have hopes of reclaiming some SEC glory. Notching an away victory in the season’s second week could lay a foundation for that pursuit.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY

Georgia running back Sony Michel (Getty Images)

The entire week leading into Georgia facing the Irish, expect to hear repeated mentions of senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (pronounced like Michelle). It is hard to overstate how good each is. To have both defies typical collegiate comprehension.

Yet, the Bulldogs attack will go beyond the rushing game. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason has arm strength to rival Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s, and Eason will have a number of receivers to target, ones he is certainly more familiar with than he was as a freshman.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Georgia returns its top-five tacklers. Eh, maybe that is not as impressive as it first seems.

Georgia returns 14 of its top-15 tacklers, losing only No. 6 in that count, cornerback Maurice Smith and his 50 takedowns.

With 10 returning starters, including its entire front-seven, having now spent an additional year learning Smart’s 3-4 system, this should be a dominant defense led by linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorezno Carter. The duo combined for 10 sacks and 30 quarterback hurries last year. No matter how generously that latter statistic is tracked, Bellamy’s 17 hurries is a number to notice.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Vegas pegs Georgia’s win total over/under at 8.5. Despite the heralded running duo and threatening defense, that number is quite well-placed. Given their struggles a year ago, putting too much faith in the Bulldogs may be a reach. In order to best that win total, they would need to not slip up in any game likely favored in (such as at Vanderbilt), as well as win at least two of five games away from home at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, at a neutral site vs. Florida, at Auburn and at Georgia Tech.

The SEC East will presumably come down to Georgia and Florida again. Speaking of the Gators, do not be surprised to see semi-frequent Florida updates in this space this fall. The Malik Zaire experiment’s intrigue increases with each update from Gainesville.

Yesterday: Temple
Tomorrow: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Enjoy the sun once more before the season commences in earnest.

Tirico replaces Hicks in Notre Dame booth

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Let the changes keep coming. In an offseason filled with three new coordinators and the conclusion of a $400-million construction project including a video board towering over the south end zone, Notre Dame fans will need to adjust to another departure from the Irish norm, though this one is far-from consequential when it comes to how the team plays.

Mike Tirico will replace Dan Hicks as the play-by-play man for Notre Dame games in 2017, NBC Sports announced Monday morning. Tirico joined NBC just more than a year ago and called three Irish games in 2016 while Hicks tended to golf broadcast duties.

“Mike has been an elite play-by-play voice in both professional and collegiate football for more than a decade,” said Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production at NBC Sports. “He is the latest in a line of distinguished broadcasters to call Notre Dame Football on NBC. … We look forward to hearing Mike call the first-ever game at the newly-renovated Notre Dame Stadium.” (more…)