ATHENS – Georgia’s game had just ended last Saturday night, and quarterback Jake Fromm’s career had begun, when senior safety Dominick Sanders pulled him aside. The veteran had a message: This game is over, the first game of the season is now Notre Dame. Block out everything else and concentrate on that.
A few days later, after relaying that story, Sanders made clear the confidence he has in the precocious Fromm.
“That guy’s a baller,” said Sanders of Fromm, who will be the fifth starting quarterback for Georgia since Sanders started as a freshman in 2014.
The Fromm storyline has taken over what was supposed to be all about a monumental nonconference game for Georgia. This will be the football program’s first game above the Mason-Dixon line since 1965. That was at Michigan, and Georgia won, 15-7, in Vince Dooley’s second year as coach. (Bo Schembechler was still three years from becoming Michigan’s coach.)
The pageantry of the event is one thing. But there’s a matter of a football game, one full of subplots and keys:
Notre Dame’s quarterback, sophomore Brandon Wimbush, will be starting his second game. His first game, like Fromm’s, was an impressive performance, albeit against a non-Power 5 team in Temple. In Georgia’s opener, it largely held in check another dual-threat quarterback, Taylor Lamb of Appalachian State. But Wimbush might be a level above.
“He’s a bigger dude, and he can also sling it,” Sanders said.
Fromm, meanwhile, has to prove he can be as accurate against a higher-level defense. For all the hype about his performance against Appalachian State, the most important thing Fromm did in that game, and can do on Saturday, is manage the offense and not commit errors, allowing star tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to do their thing.
The one thing Fromm’s teammates aren’t scared of, however, is whether he can handle this moment.
“He wasn’t scared. None of that. He came in ready to play,” sophomore defensive tackle Tyler Clark said. “A freshman quarterback has butterflies. He didn’t have butterflies.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is the winningest active coach at the FBS level, with 23o career victories. But he’s coming off a 4-8 season, and he needs this game to show he’s got things back in the right direction.
Kelly turned over much of his staff in the offseason, so this game also will lead to early speculation on whether it’s working.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart is only in his second year, and people are trying to figure him out. Will he be a successful Nick Saban protégé, like Jimbo Fisher, or one of the several who have struggled once given a head job?
Bulldogs offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, under fire from critics after the struggles of 2017, also will be watched closely to see whether the improvement on display last Saturday was a mirage.
The battle of the lines
This is a strength matchup when Notre Dame has the ball. Its offensive line is big, talented and experienced, while Georgia’s front seven, led by Trent Thompson, could be one of the best in the country.
When Georgia has the ball, it’s a matchup of perhaps each team’s weak links from last season. Georgia’s offensive line looked improved in the opener, as did Notre Dame’s run defense, but the opponents have to be taken into account.
Each team has good skill position players. Which team has the better blocking should determine which skill players decide the game.
And Georgia’s quarterback situation, with the strong-armed Jacob Eason replaced by the inexperienced Fromm, likely will mean Notre Dame stacks the box often.
“Every game we go into they’re going to try to stop the run,” Michel said. “I think that’s every team’s main focus. To stop the run. That’s our focus on our defense — to stop the run. But at the same time we’ve got a quarterback who’s been practicing. He can throw the ball. That’s why he plays quarterback. And I think he’s going to do fine at that position, and we’re going to do what we do.”