By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Two years ago, this was the game that signaled Georgia’s return to national prominence.
Now, it’s a chance to solidify the Bulldogs’ standing as a perennial championship contender.
Third-ranked Georgia will host No. 7 Notre Dame on Saturday night to wrap up a home-and-home series that was announced to great fanfare five summers ago. It’s only the third meeting between the powerhouse programs — and the first time the Fighting Irish have played between the famed hedges at Sanford Stadium.
“It’s going to be a wild one,” Georgia tight end Eli Wolf said. “There’s going to be a lot of hype around this game, but don’t get caught up in it. We’re here to do one thing.”
In 2017, it was Notre Dame hosting the Bulldogs for the first time.
Cheered by thousands of red-clad fans who descended on South Bend, Georgia emerged with a 20-19 victory that propelled the team all the way to the national championship game in Kirby Smart’s second season as coach.
“We just started to buy in to the type of program Coach Smart wanted,” senior defensive end David Marshall recalled. “Once we did that, we started becoming a great team.”
For the return game against the Fighting Irish, Georgia has installed 500 extra bleacher seats at one end of the stadium, ensuring a record crowd of more than 93,000.
They probably could’ve sold another 100,000 seats, given the booming demand that drove prices into the thousands on the secondary ticket markets.
“I know our guys will be excited to play. I know it will be an awesome atmosphere,” Smart said. “Our fans never fail when it comes to support and being there. It’ll be a record crowd with the additional seats. But after that, it’s going to come down to football, and that’s what it always boils down to — who can block and tackle.”
Georgia (3-0) will be facing its first serious test after blowing out Vanderbilt, Murray State and Arkansas State by a combined score of 148-23.
Despite its top 10 ranking, Notre Dame (2-0) is a two-touchdown underdog to the Dawgs.
“I try to stay away from the noise,” said Notre Dame linebacker Asmar Bilal. “It’s like any other faceless, nameless opponent. We’re preparing like it’s any other game at this point. Our goal is to win a national championship. That’s our business. So we’re planning to go down there and win.”
Some other things to watch for when the Fighting Irish take on the Dawgs:
Georgia relies on a power running game that comes at a defense in waves.
D’Andre Swift is a stellar back who should be well-rested after getting limited carries in the last two games. Behind him, there are senior Brian Herrien, redshirt freshman Zamir White and freshman Kenny McIntosh — all of whom would be potential starters at most schools. Georgia also can turn to speedy sophomore James Cook to provide a change-of-pace threat on the outside.
Both teams are blessed with veteran quarterbacks who shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the moment.
Georgia’s Jake Fromm is a three-year starter who has completed 75 percent of his passes for 601 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s got a real grasp of the offense, knows how to read defenses and rarely makes a big mistake.
Notre Dame’s Ian Book took over the starting job early last season and led his team to a perfect mark during the regular season. He’s more of a dual threat than Fromm, having rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns in addition to leading all Power Five quarterbacks with an average of 19.07 yards per completion.
STRENGTH VS STRENGTH
Georgia’s offensive line is anchored by preseason All-American Andrew Thomas at left tackle. The Bulldogs also are hoping for the return of right tackle Isaiah Wilson, a 340-pound sophomore who missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
Notre Dame counters with a plethora of edge rushers led by Julian Okwara, a second-team preseason All-American. He has 17 tackles behind the line and 10.5 sacks during his college career. Khalid Kareem, Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji also are adept at creating havoc in the backfield.
The battle in the trenches will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this game.
Georgia came into the season with scant experience at the receiving positions, but any fears of a letdown have been alleviated by a talented group of newcomers.
At the top of the list is freshman George Pickens, who has made spectacular grabs each of the last two games and already is drawing comparisons to former Bulldog great A.J. Green. Also keep an eye on freshman Dominick Blaylock, who is averaging 22.9 yards per catch with a couple of TDs.
BIG GAME BLUES
Notre Dame has struggled mightily in some of its biggest games, which probably accounts for Georgia being a heavy favorite.
Under coach Brian Kelly, the Fighting Irish are 18-18 against ranked opponents and just 3-7 facing Top 10 teams. There have been some notable defeats, including a 42-14 blowout by Alabama in the 2013 BCS championship game, not to mention a 30-3 drubbing by eventual national champion Clemson in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinals.
This is another chance for Notre Dame to prove it’s finally ready to seriously compete with the nation’s elite programs.