Notre Dame is such a marquee draw in the world of college football that coach Brian Kelly views his team playing in spotlight games sort of like cast members of The Lion King or Hamilton.
“It’s a lot of reasons why they want to come to Notre Dame, it’s like being on Broadway,” Kelly said. “It’s a Broadway show. You’re on stage.”
Notre Dame played not far from Broadway in Yankee Stadium last year against Syracuse. It tangled with Boston College four years ago in Fenway Park. It’s opening next season with a return trip to Ireland to play Navy.
The No. 7 Fighting Irish (2-0) face what looks like its toughest true road challenge in five years on Saturday at No. 3 Georgia (3-0). The Bulldogs are favored by 14, according to VegasInsider.com.
“I’ve got friends that root for Notre Dame and I’d like to think they’re rooting for me over here,” said Bulldogs graduate transfer tight end Eli Wolf, who moved from Indianapolis to Ohio when he was in grade school.
It’s Notre Dame’s first road game against a top five opponent since a fifth-ranked Irish team lost at No. 2 Florida State 31-27 on Oct. 18, 2014. An illegal pick play erased what would have been the winning Irish score.
Notre Dame will play before its largest crowd since the 2016 season opener when the 10th ranked Irish lost in double overtime at No. 10 Texas 50-47 before a crowd of 102,315.
If Sanford Stadium could accommodate that many, there is certainly more than enough demand for this one.
The school is adding 500 temporary seats under the scoreboard on the west end zone plaza to bump the total to 93,246, the largest crowd in the venue’s history.
“We don’t really get into the exterior forces,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “What’s going on outside, you can think it’s going to affect our guys but it’s not really supposed to. We’re really playing the opponent that lines up across from us and we even talk about playing ourselves more than anything. I know our guys will be excited to play. I know it will be an awesome atmosphere. Our fans never fail when it comes to support and being there.”
Notre Dame is only three years removed from a 4-8 season, but went 10-3 in 2017 and finished the regular season last year unbeaten at 12-0 before Clemson rolled to a 30-3 national semifinal win in the Cotton Bowl.
Now they play a team that is in contention itself for the national title.
“Generally, look, when you get down to the really great teams, you’re going to get Trevor Lawrence, you’re going to get you know, you’re going to get the great quarterbacks that are the reason why they start to separate,” Kelly said.
He used the word “unflappable” when talking about Georgia junior quarterback Jake Fromm.
“You can pressure him, and he doesn’t panic,” Kelly said. “He makes great decisions. He’s sound with the ball.”
Georgia is 5-3 against top 10 teams under Smart but just one of those games came in Athens, a 13-7 upset of No. 7 Auburn in 2016.
As a player, Smart went up against a No. 3 Florida in 1995 in Sanford Stadium and Tennessee teams ranked No. 7 in 1996 and No. 5 in 1998, all lopsided losses.
“There’s been a lot of big games and that’s what I think is great for the kids,” Smart said. “You don’t have a ton of top 10 matchups maybe the caliber of this one but there’s been a lot of top 25 matchups played in that stadium. It’s a great opportunity for our program to be on a national stage.”
Notre Dame hasn’t beaten a top-five opponent in a road game since a 17-10 win at Michigan in 2005 in Charlie Weis’s first season.
“It’s going to be a hostile environment,” Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book said. “We just have to go in there and play our game and focus on us and the small details. That’s what it takes to win on the road. We talk about having a road warrior mindset and that’s what it’s going to take for us.”
The Irish’s last top 10 road matchup came at Miami in 2017 when the No. 3 Irish were routed by the No. 7 Hurricanes 41-8. Miami’s leader in receiving yards that game was Lawrence Cager with 45 on two catches.
“It’s always good to play a top team in the country, a storied program in college football,” said Cager, now a grad transfer at Georgia. “They’ve got a great team over there. We’ve got a great team so it’s going to be a great match under the lights and I’m ready to do it.”
Notre Dame is fifth all-time in wins on the FBS level and has 11 consensus national championships, but Georgia offensive lineman Cade Mays, who grew up in Tennessee, didn’t really watch the Irish growing up, he said.
“I watched the 30 for 30 on Catholics vs. Convicts,” he said of the film on the 1988 Notre Dame-Miami game. “I kind of learned their tradition through that and the movie Rudy.”
Notre Dame is the highest ranked nonconference opponent Georgia has faced at home since No. 2 Georgia Tech in 1990. The Yellow Jackets won 40-23 in a year it shared the national title with Colorado.
“Pretty electric,” is how Wolf described the atmosphere in College Station for a 45-38 win for No. 8 Texas A&M over No. 9 Tennessee in 2016 when he played for the Volunteers.
“This one I think it’s about to top all that,” Wolf said.
Kelly on Monday made it sound like the oddsmakers in Las Vegas should have favored Georgia by more than they did.
“We have seen some really great defenses over the last three years but haven’t had the kind of depth that they have,” Kelly said. “So we’ll try to muster together 22 guys, get them on a plane, go down to Athens and see what we can do.”