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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…)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Temple

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There are exactly two weeks remaining until a Monday arrives with a Notre Dame game awaiting on the other end of the work week. For the second time in five years, the Irish will open against Temple. In 2013, the Owls were entering their first season under a first-time head coach after their previous leader left for a Power Five school beginning with the letter ‘B.’

Admittedly, specifying that Boston College and Baylor open with the same letter of the alphabet may be a reach, but in doing so, everything about that 2013 sentence will hold true for Temple again in 2017.

2016 REVIEW
The Owls went 10-4 last season, including losses to both Memphis and Wake Forest. The season’s highlight came when Temple beat then-No. 20 Navy 34-10 in the American Athletic Conference title game.

Those losses to Memphis and Wake Forest warrant extra notice for Irish fans this season—Memphis’ offensive coordinator Chip Long now holds that role at Notre Dame and the same can be said for Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

Long and the Tigers stretched the Owls’ defense further than it did throughout the rest of the season, though Temple still held Memphis to much less than its usual output. Against the Owls, the Tigers managed 34 points, though 14 of those came off a defensive score and a special teams touchdown, lowering the actual offensive production to only 20 points. Temple allowed 17.2 points per game in its 13 other contests, while Memphis averaged 39.25 points per game otherwise.

The Tigers rushed for 149 yards, less than their average across the rest of the year of 160.2 rushing yards, but also more than the Owls’ usual allowance of 129.9 yards. Memphis threw for 174 yards, far short of its usual 315.3, yet more than Temple’s 150.5 average. The Tigers gained an average of 5.6 yards per play, closer to its usual 6.3 yards than the Owls’ standard of 4.6 yards allowed per play.

Against Wake Forest, a quick look at the stats becomes quickly skewed. Temple trailed 31-7 in the second quarter, thus taking to the air, and doing so somewhat successfully, finally succumbing to a final score of 34-26. The Deacons held the Owls to -20 rushing yards on 23 attempts while giving up 396 passing yards and 5.2 yards per play. If removing the bowl game from Temple’s season, the Owls averaged 32.8 points, 191.2 rushing yards, 225.2 passing yards and 6.0 yards per play. Wake Forest allowed an average of 21.8 points, 155.9 rushing yards, 214.2 passing yards and 5.3 yards per play.

WHAT TEMPLE LOST
To start with, Temple lost Rhule. Back-to-back 10-4 seasons put him in position to move on to a bigger gig, and considering the amount of talent leaving the program at the same time, it would appear Rhule made the smart move.

The NFL drafted three Owls, including defensive end Hasson Reddick as the No. 13 overall pick to the Arizona Cardinals and left tackle Dion Dawkins with the No. 63 overall pick courtesy of the Buffalo Bills. Perhaps more notably at the collegiate level, quarterback Phillip Walker was one of six undrafted free agents to sign with NFL teams.

A four-year starter, Walker set the career passing mark at Temple with 10,669 yards. He was only 121 yards away from setting the record in only three seasons before adding 3295 yards in 2016. Joining him among those undrafted free agents, running back Jahad Thomas ran for 953 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.

The Owls also lost what seems to be their entire linebacker corps, returning only one of their top-six tacklers.

WHAT TEMPLE GAINED
This category is meant to be about recruiting. So as not to reduce the following “HEAD COACH” section as entirely unnecessary, the incoming coach will be mentioned there. Among recruits, Temple signed a total of 16 players in the class of 2017, including three prospects rated as three-stars by rivals.com. Of those three, linebacker Malik Burns and quarterback Todd Centeio could conceivably see notable playing time this season.

HEAD COACH
Geoff Collins takes over the program fresh from spending six seasons as a defensive coordinator in the SEC, the two most-recent at Florida. There may not be much else to know about Collins until he leads a program. He has spent his entire career on the defensive side of the ball, including four years playing linebacker at Western Carolina.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY

Temple junior running back Ryquell Armstead Getty Images)

Collins tapped a former Fordham colleague to lead the Owls offense, pulling Dave Patenaude from the offensive coordinator role at Coastal Carolina, a Football Championship Series program. While with the Chanticleers, it is hard to underscore how dynamic Patenaude’s offense was, including a 2015 season in which it averaged 37.3 points per game while churning through six different quarterbacks.

At Temple, Patenaude will obviously need to adjust to an inexperienced quarterback. A starter has yet to be named, and it appears there is a non-zero chance Centeio earns the nod. Whoever takes the first snap will have the luxury of turning to a tested running back in junior Ryquell Armstead. Though he was not the starter, Armstead still took 156 carries for 919 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.

For that matter, the quarterback will have Walker’s top-four receivers available to target, led by senior Keith Kirkwood and junior Ventell Bryant.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Formerly the defensive backs coach at Purdue, defensive coordinator Taver Johnson is expected to keep Temple’s 4-3 defense intact. Doing so should allow him to rely on a strong secondary, perhaps the Owls’ most-reliable defensive asset. Senior free safety Sean Chandler, 6-foot and 190 pounds, and junior strong safety Delvon Randall, 5-foot-11 and 208 pounds, lead the way along the back-line.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Rhule left for one of the most-challenging job openings in recent years. He did so in part because his profile would never be higher than it was following Temple’s 2016 season. This year certainly does not have the makings of another 10-4 campaign. The over/under on Owl wins this year is a middling 6.5, and Notre Dame currently stands as a 15-point favorite for the Sept. 2 season opener.

In 19 days, Irish fans should take particular notice of what Temple players wear Nos. 6, 7 and 8. The Owls have a relatively-young tradition of bestowing single-digit numbers upon players deemed “Temple Tuff” by their teammates. Of the names mentioned above, Kirkwood, Bryant, Chandler and Randall all wear single digits and will be expected to contribute heavily. Nos. 6-8 are unclaimed at the moment.

Tomorrow: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week (Nice how that works out, isn’t it? Almost like it was planned.)
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: One last breath before the season truly begins.

Notre Dame & Wisconsin schedule an (un)mysterious announcement

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The official Notre Dame football Twitter account’s post does not leave much room for wonder.

About the only questions remaining after seeing that graphic would be: How many games will Notre Dame and Wisconsin play and when and where will they be played?

The email sent to media alerting of a Monday press conference (12:30 p.m. ET) indicates answers to two of those questions.

“Members of the media are invited to the Under Armour Brand House in downtown Chicago for a major football scheduling announcement by the University of Notre Dame, University of Wisconsin, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.”

It does not take much extrapolation to believe the Irish and Badgers have put together a two-game neutral-site series featuring Lambeau Field and Soldier Field.

As to when, the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein reports the series will head to Green Bay in 2020 and Chicago in 2021.

This scribe, for one, has already made it pretty clear how he feels about the first half of that rip, in particular — Friday at 4: If and when in Lambeau … (July 28)

Notre Dame reveals new locker room; awards Webster a scholarship

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It will not be only the fans who need to adjust to the expanded, renovated and updated Notre Dame Stadium. The $400 million Campus Crossroads Project and its bells-and-whistles will demand some renewed focus from the team itself. That was part of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s reasoning in holding Saturday’s practice in the Stadium.

Largely an intrasquad scrimmage, the practice utilized the video board above the south end zone.

“You start to run your offense down to that scoreboard and big screen, it is imposing in that it can distract you if you’re not really locked in,” Kelly said. “… That’s a different dynamic in that stadium. I thought that was great to be in there today. We gave them a chance to scrimmage with those things that can tend to distract players at times.”

With that in mind, Notre Dame will hold an open scrimmage Aug. 20, cleverly-coined the “New & Gold Game,” featuring a performance by the band, cheerleaders on the sidelines and other aspects of a game day experience. The practice will not only serve to introduce fans to the Stadium’s new amenities, but also to condition the Irish to the less-obvious game day items that have changed, including where they dress.

“We’re going to treat it as a game,” Kelly said. “We’re going in the locker room. We’re going to make it as much like a game situation and create that so it’s not the first time we do it in all respects. I want to get that out of the way before we play Temple.”

Notre Dame unveiled some of those aspects in the last few days.

It seems the players may have approved of some of the locker room updates just a little bit.

At the end of that player tour of the locker room, Kelly awarded a scholarship to (now-former) walk-on receiver Austin Webster. Webster was named a captain back in December, the first walk-on to hold that honor in Irish history. Whether he still holds that distinction is a matter of semantics for another time.

Webster’s scholarship brings Notre Dame to the NCAA maximum allowed of 85. Kelly entered preseason practice knowing he had one scholarship available to recognize a player with, but said he did not expect that player to be Webster, captainship notwithstanding.

“When we came into camp, he was not on the list to get one. He earned it,” Kelly said. “… He wasn’t guaranteed one. He had to go earn it and he earned it.”

Webster will undoubtedly chip in on special teams, seeing action on two units, according to Kelly, but his contributions have extended well beyond the field.

“He was a great representative of all [the 20-plus walk-ons] and even touched scholarship players with the right traits that I was looking for, that I wanted to model,” Kelly said. “So not only did we have a guy that was sacrificing for Notre Dame in all those areas, he also possessed the traits that I wanted to mirror right out of the gates.”