SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly sensed his No. 7 Notre Dame team had a little extra bounce in its step Sunday morning and it wasn't because of its 66-14 victory over New Mexico 16 hours before.
Playing a nationally televised game this Saturday night at No. 3 Georgia will do that for you.
"Oh, they're excited," Kelly said Sunday of his 2-0 Fighting Irish, who now want to see if their act plays well enough on the road against the third-ranked Bulldogs, who are coming off a 55-0 victory over Arkansas State.
"They know they had to take care of business with New Mexico and that they had to play better than they did at Louisville (a 35-17 victory)," Kelly said. "They understand the caliber of play that will be needed. They are excited about the challenge in front of them. They come to Notre Dame wanting to play in these kinds of games. It's like being in a Broadway show."
With Notre Dame on their schedule, Kirby Smart and his Bulldogs probably feel the same way about only the third meeting between the two teams.
The first came at the end of the 1980 season when freshman sensation Herschel Walker led Georgia to a 17-10 victory in the 1980 Sugar Bowl that earned a national championship for coach Vince Dooley.
The second came Sept. 9, 2017. Kelly had rebuilt his staff following a 4-8 campaign, and the Irish and Bulldogs battled under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium before the Bulldogs prevailed in a memorable 20-19 victory.
"We were certainly feeling as we had done the things necessary to get the program back to where it needed to be," Kelly said.
The triumph helped to catapult Georgia to the College Football Playoff championship game that the Bulldogs lost in overtime, 26-23, to SEC rival Alabama.
Since that loss, the Irish are 23-3, including a 12-0 regular-season run in 2018 that got the Irish into the CFP playoffs instead of the Bulldogs, whose 11-2 regular-season was deemed not good enough.
The memory of their 30-3 CFP semifinal loss to eventual national champion Clemson and a 2019 schedule which included visits to Louisville, Michigan (Oct. 26) and Stanford (Nov. 30) in addition to Saturday's showdown in Sanford Stadium are feeding Notre Dame's mindset.
"We talk about having a road-warrior mindset and that's what it's going to take for us," said quarterback Ian Book, who threw for 360 yards and a career-high five touchdowns against the Lobos. "We just have to go in there and play our game and focus on us and the small details."
That's easier said than done. But then the Bulldogs did just that in 2017 as true freshman Jake Fromm completed 16 of 29 passes for 141 yards in his first collegiate start and the Georgia defense limited Notre Dame to 55 rushing yards on 37 carries.
"(Fromm) played with great poise and was extremely efficient," Kelly recalled. "They were extremely athletic two years ago and they are a little bigger up front this year. They are just an outstanding football team in all areas."
Notre Dame, which recruits nationwide, has recruited Georgia hard and the series, announced in 2014, may have helped the Irish to secure 6-foot-4 freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, who attended the Marist School north of Atlanta. His 34-yard interception return for a touchdown got the Irish started against New Mexico.
The Irish likely will have two more offensive pieces back in tight end Cole Kmet, who broke a collarbone in preseason, and running back Jahmir Smith, who sat out last week's game after scoring a pair of touchdowns against Louisville.
Bring on the Irish: A historic game between the hedges
ATHENS, Ga. — The Georgia players know it's a big game. They can read the polls. They can hear all the chatter around campus.
That doesn't mean they're well-versed on Notre Dame's storied past.
"Uhh, no," tight end Eli Wolf conceded Monday.
The Four Horsemen?
"That rings a little bit more of a bell," Wolf said, dropping his head and chuckling a bit but offering no further details.
"Yeah, I've seen 'Rudy,'" he shot back quickly, clearly proud of himself for knowing at least the Hollywood version of a revered chapter in Fighting Irish history. "Some people say they cry at the end. I was never one to get too emotional, but it's a good movie."
Of course, it won't be a history class they're taking Saturday night.
It's a football game that could have reverberations all the way to the College Football Playoff.
No. 3 Georgia (3-0) will host No. 7 Notre Dame (2-0) for the first time between the hedges (a.k.a. Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium), a showdown that has been eagerly anticipated in these parts pretty much since the series was announced five summers ago.
"It's going to be electrifying in that stadium, that's for sure," said former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, whose name was officially added to the massive facility less than two weeks ago.
It will be only the third meeting between these famed programs.
The first came at the 1981 Sugar Bowl, when a Georgia team coached by Dooley and starring Herschel Walker sealed what remains the school's only consensus national championship with a 17-10 victory over the Fighting Irish.
For Dooley, who grew up attending Catholic schools in Mobile, Alabama, and listening to Fighting Irish games on the radio, all while dreaming of playing in South Bend, the significance of beating the school of Knute Rockne and the Gipper only added to the celebration nearly four decades ago.
"The main thing was playing for the national championship," the 87-year-old Dooley recalled Monday. "We would have been happy playing anybody. But especially Notre Dame."
Two years ago, the teams met for the first time in South Bend. Under the gaze of Touchdown Jesus, the red-clad Georgia fans stormed into town by the thousands to cheer the Bulldogs to a 20-19 victory that signaled the beginning of their return to national prominence under coach Kirby Smart.
Georgia went on to capture the Southeastern Conference title and make it all the way to the national championship game, where the Bulldogs lost to Alabama in overtime.
Smart refused to discuss Notre Dame through the first three weeks of the season, which proved to be little more than a run of glorified scrimmages. The Bulldogs romped past Vanderbilt, Murray State and Arkansas State by a cumulative score of 148-23.
Now, finally, he's ready to talk about the Fighting Irish.
"It's a great game to have, a nonconference game you play at home and a school with such a tradition as Notre Dame," the fourth-year coach said. "I know a lot of Georgia fans have had this one marked on the schedule for a long time. So have a lot of Notre Dame fans."
Georgia is even bringing in some extra seats, adding temporary aluminum bleachers accommodating 500 people in the west end zone plaza that will ensure a record crowd of more than 93,000.
They probably could've sold another 100,000 tickets for this one, judging by the demand on the secondary market. As of Monday, the asking price on StubHub for the priciest set of lower-level tickets was $4,750; even the worst of the nosebleed seats, way up in the third level, were going for nearly $300 apiece.
Notre Dame is used to being the biggest game every place it goes.
Coach Brian Kelly said it won't be an issue to get ready for the frenzied setting in Athens.
"We'll work on it during the week," he said. "We have an indoor facility ... we can make that as loud as we want it to be. It will be hot here, too. The weather will be warm. There won't be any excuses relative to acclimatizing to the weather conditions. We'll prepare them for all of those."
While Smart knows the Georgia fans are especially pumped for this game, he's trying to pass on the same sense of urgent normalcy he has every week.
"As far as the stage, the biggest thing you can do is let your players relax and play," he said. "The team that over-analyzes it and hypes it up and makes it bigger than it is, larger than life, sometimes that gets you in trouble. We've played in a lot of big games. We've got a lot of people in our team room and in that building that have played in big football games. So they're not going to be intimidated by that."
Notre Dame hasn't won a national title since 1988. In recent years, the Irish have been blown out in some of their biggest contests, such as a 42-14 drubbing by Alabama in the 2013 BCS championship game and a 30-3 loss to Clemson in the semifinals of last season's College Football Playoff.
But Notre Dame continues to hold a special place in college football.
That hasn't changed at bit.
"Well, people either love them or hate them," Dooley said. "They've always got interest, regardless of what it is."
-- By Paul Newberry, AP