Georgia, Notre Dame carry playoff frustration into showdown

No. 3 Georgia and No. 7 Notre Dame are both steeped in rich tradition, but they don’t have much real history together, not as far as actual on-field meetings go. Yet their matchup Saturday feels like one filled with the bad blood, pettiness and season-changing implications that go hand-in-hand with rivalry games.

We can start in 1981, when Georgia beat Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship. We can thank Dec. 29, 2018, for dredging up the antagonism.

As Clemson and Notre Dame played in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Georgia players tuned in from New Orleans, where they prepared to play Texas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Bulldogs felt they deserved a spot in the Top 4, despite two losses, and so did a vocal contingent that lobbied hard on their behalf.

Undefeated Notre Dame, despite playing as an independent with no conference championship game, made it in at No. 3 but drew the bulk of the Bulldogs’ ire after Clemson raced out to a 20-point halftime lead. Multiple players took to social media to voice their displeasure, with tweets ranging from receiver Mecole Hardman’s “They say the ‘4 best teams’ huh?” to Monty Rice chiming in, “The best 4 should get in #exposed.”

A few days later, Georgia lost to Texas, and in the eyes of some, that settled the argument. But their point was made. In the never-ending playoff discussion centering around the most fundamental of questions — should the four most deserving teams or the four best teams make it in? — Georgia vs. Notre Dame provided the most heated debate yet.

Much of that has to do with Notre Dame and its unique place in the college football landscape. Throw in the all-powerful SEC, with loyalists who firmly believe it is the toughest conference and will not entertain any argument on the matter, and you get a situation that remains unresolved to this very day. Is it best or most deserving?

Because there are still those who wonder whether the committee got it right last year, and whether Notre Dame’s poor showing should forever close the door on its playoff aspirations so long as it keeps playing as an independent. With that as the backdrop, the Irish travel to Georgia on Saturday in perhaps the most anticipated nonconference game of the season.

Though last year is over, this is the type of playoff play-in game that would have drawn us all in. Still, the postseason implications remain very real.

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In all likelihood, Georgia can withstand a nonconference loss and keep its playoff hopes alive. That may not be the case for the Irish, who probably need to go undefeated for another legitimate shot. Borrowing the neuralizer the “Men in Black” use to erase memories might help, too.

Because right now, all anyone can remember about the Irish and their postseason efforts are their 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2013 BCS national title game and their 30-3 semifinal loss to Clemson. Notre Dame is 5-13 in bowls since 1993 and has lost every major bowl game in which it has played. Not exactly the type of results that inspire confidence in their ability to compete for a championship.

“We always have something to prove,” Notre Dame defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji said. “We’re focused on the Notre Dame 2019 team, and we’re not worried about anything outside the locker room. We’re Notre Dame. We’re at the highest level. That’s just how it is, and all the teams are looking out for us so we’ve got to step it up each and every game.”

Georgia feels the exact same way. So much so, coach Kirby Smart made the Bulldogs’ preseason motto, “Do More.” Rather than ignoring the large Alabama elephant in the room, he wanted his players to embrace their shortcomings in their last three championship games against the Tide, and use them as motivation to literally do more.

“We put the pedal to the metal,” Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis said. “We had to grind. We had to work for what we got.”

That meant doing more after their scheduled workouts. More watching film. More asking questions. More focus on the weight room, eating right, getting treatment. More running after practice. More catching passes after practice. More reps. More time in the facility on off days.

“We’ve come up short,” quarterback Jake Fromm said. “Obviously, we’ve got to do something, so we think doing more is a little bit better.”

This game is the first real test of that mantra, the team’s first against a top-10 opponent this season. You could make the argument the mantra also fits Notre Dame. After all, the goal for both teams will always be the same: winning another national championship.

Brian Kelly and Notre Dame got into last year’s playoff but lost to Clemson. Many Georgia players thought the Bulldogs belonged there instead. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

Both programs rank among the most important and powerful blue bloods, yet they last won national titles in the 1980s. As the years pass and their championship seasons recede further from view, every season feels like one that is missing something. And the desperation grows.

Perhaps that is why finishing No. 5 last season struck such a nerve with the Georgia players, coaches and fans. We are approaching 40 years since the 1980 national championship season, a drought nobody could have ever expected when Herschel Walker led them to victory.

Perhaps that is why getting blown out (again) with a national championship in reach is so difficult to accept for Notre Dame. Each team that lines up will always and forever be judged on whether it finally brings another trophy home to South Bend, Ind.

In these ways, the programs are more similar than not. Their game Saturday is just the third in their long histories, and their last meeting in 2017 went down to the wire. Georgia rallied to win 20-19 in what was a coming-of-age moment for Fromm, who made his first career start while filling in for the injured Jacob Eason and has started every game since then.

But there was some chippiness and trash talk coming from the Bulldogs in the week leading up to that game. Most notably, safety Dominick Sanders said the goal was to “punish them from the start.”

Smart was not pleased with those comments, and it is a safe bet he was not thrilled his players took to social media to chirp about getting left out of the playoff last year. But if anything, both Notre Dame and Georgia can look to last year and the way both their seasons ended in massive disappointment and use it.

Especially with playoff hopes riding on what happens Saturday.

“We’ve got to rush harder, we’ve got to stop the rush better, we’ve got to pass the ball better, we’ve got to stop the pass, we’ve got to do all the football things right,” Georgia running back Brian Herrien said.

“The football gods are watching.”

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