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Hoonhout: Georgia matchup holds key for entire 2017 season

| Friday, September 8, 2017

As the saying goes, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The Irish were able to overcome all of their offseason question marks last weekend in convincing fashion, as Notre Dame dominated Temple on both sides of the ball in a performance reminiscent of the home games of 2015. The run game was unstoppable, the defense didn’t have any major hiccups and Brandon Wimbush looked like the real deal.

Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush drops back to pass during Notre Dame’s 49-16 win over Temple on Saturday.Monica Villagomez Mendez | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush drops back to pass during Notre Dame’s 49-16 win over Temple on Saturday.

But before anyone jumps to ordain the Irish as a bonafide, dark horse playoff contender, Team 129 has a major hurdle to clear: Georgia comes to town this weekend as the representative of the big, bad SEC (remember Alabama in 2012?), and it presents a huge test.

Georgia is the make-or-break gauge for Notre Dame’s season.

Win, and the ghosts from Brian Kelly’s haunted season last year are finally gone. But lose, and the Irish are right back to where they started.

If you look at the numbers last season, you could make the argument that the Irish were very unlucky: Notre Dame was 1-7 in one-score games, and if some things had gone differently, maybe that record could’ve been reversed.

But the reality is, Notre Dame lost a number of key contributors from the 2015 Fiesta Bowl team, particularly on defense. The season started on a sour note with the arrests of Max Redfield and co.,  and the Irish failed to make Notre Dame Stadium the bastion it was in 2015. The Irish only went 2-4 on their home turf last season, after going undefeated in the same capacity the year before.

For Brian Kelly’s teams, the key to a successful season is protecting home field. In the three seasons Notre Dame has finished ranked under Brian Kelly — 2012, 2013 and 2015 — Notre Dame’s combined record at home is 17-1. That’s right — 17 wins, one loss. And while a home win against Temple is a great start to the season, the Irish, to be frank, have bigger fish to fry.

Games against teams like Georgia are the ones where Notre Dame has the opportunity to prove it has the ability to make a run at the playoff. And placed in the context of a home game, Notre Dame needs to win. History has shown it to be a co-requisite for success under Brian Kelly, and this early in the season, a loss would sweep any momentum the Irish have right out the door.

A quick glance reveals another interesting point. Assuming the Irish beat Georgia, four games stand between the Irish and USC. Four games that, on paper, Notre Dame can win. While undoubtedly difficult, it’s feasible that the Irish could finish a run of away at Boston College, away to Michigan State, home to Miami (OH) and away to North Carolina a perfect 4-0. Combined with two wins against Temple and Georgia, and the Irish are suddenly 6-0, welcoming USC to town in a potential top-10 matchup.

That’s why this game is so important. Win, and Notre Dame can circle the USC game on the calendar. The mentality for the four games can shift from one of having to go to war every week to one of taking care of business.

Sure, the Irish would be foolish to take any game lightly. But to be among the best, Notre Dame needs to be in a position where there aren’t question marks about games that the Irish can and should win. Look at Ohio State-Indiana last week. For all the huffing and puffing the Hoosiers did, the Buckeyes stood firm, stayed cool, calm and collected, and eventually dispatched their opponent with a ruthlessness only the great programs can show.

Georgia is the prequel to USC. Notre Dame needs to prove that last season was a fluke, and that to predict an Irish win takes more than just a coin flip. Brian Kelly and his team need consistency, and there’s no greater measure of consistency than being able to beat good teams at home. A win against the Bulldogs would go a long way to fill that need, and it can perhaps vault the Irish into a season few will forget.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias