AN OPPOSING VIEW
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — I met Eric Hansen back in April when I came up here to get my first look at the University of Notre Dame and the football team it fields called The Fighting Irish. The way I met him was by asking some folks in Notre Dame athletics who does the best job of covering the team. Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune, I was told.
Since then I’ve found Hansen to be a great resource when it comes to things to know about the Fighting Irish, and I hope you do, too. You can read all of his coverage, and that of several others, at NDinsider.com.
Some real quick background on Hansen: He’s a 1983 graduate of The Ohio State University, and yes, he uses “The” in front of it. “I have the tendency to use the word ‘the’ unnecessarily, but I at least usually spell it correctly,” Hansen quipped. That might explain Hansen’s reasoning for picking the Buckeyes No. 1 with his AP vote this week.
Hansen began covering Notre Dame football shortly after Lou Holtz left, “so most of the program’s ‘rich’ tradition predates me,” he says. He’s a grandfather of three boys, which he said keeps him smiling.
So with that, let’s see what Hansen call tell us about the 2017 edition of the Fighting Irish and the matchup with Georgia on Saturday night (7:30 p.m., NBC)
1. Notre Dame hosts these “monumental matchups” pretty much every year. Based on what you’ve seen from the number of Georgia fans coming this way and the magnitude of the game, how would you say this one with the Bulldogs rates compared to some of those other big ones of the past? And are Irish fans as fired up as UGA’s?
Hansen: Had the two teams not combined to go 12-13 last season, I think this one would have rivaled any of the others. Even so, these are two teams that are both capable of distancing themselves from their 2016 seasons, but just how much? I think some Irish fans are a little gun-shy about making an emotional investment in this team yet because of 2016, and they have flashbacks to the Alabama national title game at the end of the 2012 season as well. So I think there’s a lot of wait-and-see mixed in with the excitement over a matchup with one of college football’s blue bloods.
2. One of the more intriguing matchups in this game to me is Georgia’s defensive front versus the Notre Dame offensive line. How do you see that playing out, and what can you tell us about Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson?
Hansen: Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are both expected to be first-round NFL draft choices next spring, but both took very different paths to get there. Nelson is ND’s only offensive player who was a former 5-star prospect in recruiting. McGlinchey, a first cousin of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, wasn’t a top-250 prospect nationally and was regarded as the fourth best of the five linemen in his own Irish recruiting class. As far as the matchup, ND’s offensive line has more to prove. Georgia’s front seven is established. The Irish O-line underachieved last season. Experience and a makeover of ND’s strength-and-conditioning program has ND believing this could be the strength of their team. I consider this particular matchup a draw.
3. Could you please explain to Bulldogs fans exactly how Brandon Wimbush came to be the undisputed starter? What was the deal with Malik Zaire bolting for Florida, and do you think Zaire will help the Gators?
Hansen: The Irish originally got a commitment from former Alabama QB Blake Barnett (now at Arizona State) before he dropped out of the recruiting class. They then went after Wimbush, who had originally committed to Penn State. Wimbush, who redshirted as a sophomore last year, was elevated to No. 1 when DeShone Kizer became the first ND player ever to leave two years of eligibility on the table and head to the NFL, and Zaire expressed his desire to transfer. Had Zaire stayed, I don’t think he could have held off Wimbush. I think Zaire left ND because he didn’t trust coach Brian Kelly to anoint him the starter. I think he can help Florida in spurts, but I don’t think he’s a consistent enough passer to coax the Gators to, say, an SEC East title.
4. What’s the temperature of Brian Kelly’s seat heading into this season?
Hansen: He’s used his Mulligan, but the Notre Dame administration really committed to 2017 being a building block and not a litmus test. They let Kelly hire new coordinators and gave them three-year contracts. They assured recruits in the last cycle and this one that they were committed to Kelly long term. Now all that could be undone by another losing record, but the administration doesn’t see that happening.
5. How do you see Notre Dame’s defense matching up with Georgia’s O and how are the Irish special teams?
Hansen: This Irish defense is so much more fundamentally sound than those under ousted defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, but there are still areas that can’t be covered up by scheme — specifically safety play and interior D-line depth. I think it’s as fascinating as the ND offense vs. the Georgia defense, but for different reasons — in this case, who can cover up their flaws more. Special teams was an area that also got a major offseason makeover, with the return of Brian Polian to ND. I’d say they are solid to good, but not yet dynamic. Last year, they were a disaster.
I think the underrated thread in the matchup is Notre Dame’s passing game. Wimbush has a stronger arm than Kizer, and in time will be the better college quarterback. Turnovers can scramble the script, but I have Notre Dame prevailing over Georgia, 28-25.