Georgia vs. Notre Dame will test both teams' might and the Bulldogs' scheduling philosophy

ATHENS, Ga. -- Kirby Smart insists nothing has been held back in preparation for No. 7 Notre Dame.

But it can be argued with some certainty that three easy Georgia wins over Vanderbilt, Murray State and Arkansas State by a combined 125 points have been more about Fighting Irish preparation than anything else.

We have proof from inside the cocoon that is No. 3 Georgia this week.

"We ain't used that much [of the playbook] this year," defensive end David Marshall said. "We ain't trying to [use] all plays before we play Notre Dame. So we use basic plays."

That declaration will not go over well with Georgia's coach, who declared the opposite this week of weeks with Notre Dame coming to town.

"It's not like we're sitting back there hiding things," Smart said. "We do what we think is going to work against that team. We don't go into a game saying, 'Let's not do this, this and this because we're going to be able to beat them. If you do that in this day and age, you never know what's going to happen in a game. We don't get into hiding secrets."

Let's just say looking ahead may be an issue everywhere but the Georgia locker room. Along with LSU-Texas, this is biggest nonconference game of the season. A local real estate firm has invested in at least one "Beat Notre Dame" billboard for weeks. An Athens grocery store reportedly removed Irish Spring soap from its shelves.

"We don't get out much," Georgia tight end Eli Wolf said, "but there is definitely a buzz. By Saturday, it will be pretty electric around here."

The buzz should turn into a din as the week goes on. There hasn't been a nonconference contest featuring two top 10 teams at Sanford Stadium since 1966.

Georgia historian Loran Smith called this week's game the Dawgs' biggest home intersectional contest since Yale came to town to dedicate Sanford in 1929.

Leave it up to Smart to diffuse the situation.

"I don't think that [whatever] team that loses … is going anywhere," he said.

That's really the central angle. Is the loser out of College Football Playoff contention? Does the winner have unbeaten juice? As it currently stands, neither will play an opponent this highly ranked the rest of the regular season.

For the moment, both programs are playoff contenders. Georgia won the SEC and played for the national title two seasons ago. The BCS (2011 LSU-Alabama) and College Football Playoff (2017 Georgia-Alabama) has already proven there is enough room for two SEC teams to play for a championship.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has directed the Irish to title shots twice in the last seven years (2012 BCS, 2018 CFP).

Based on their histories, tradition, schedule strength and brand recognition, it's hard to rule out either team with a loss.

"This is their Super Bowl," Georgia offensive lineman Cade Mays said.

It's something close to it for Georgia, too.

Fans are being advised to arrive early for the 8 p.m. ET start. There are expected to be at least as many folks showing up without tickets as there are in the stadium -- 90,000.

"Having a strong schedule is a huge selling point," Smart said. "But, in the SEC, we all have that. When I was an assistant here as a coach and as a player, there has been a lot of big games. [But] you don't have a ton of top-10 matchups like this one."

The 2017 game in South Bend, Indiana, was a launching point of sorts for both schools. Smart was in his second season. Georgia squeezed out a 20-19 win that was significant because SEC schools seldom challenge themselves with such true road nonconference games outside the Deep South.

"I most definitely remember the fans," Georgia defensive back J.R. Reed said. "Being in that stadium and seeing that sea of red made me think it was a home game. I knew the Georgia fan base was for real."

There were an estimated 30,000 Dawgs at Notre Dame Stadium that night.

"That helped the trajectory of things," Smart said. "Been a lot of games since then, too."

As bitter as that defeat was for the Irish, they have gone 21-3 since and once again become a top 10 power.

Pressure? What pressure?

"These kids are 24/7 on their phone," Smart said. "What they're thinking one minute changes the next minute and next minute. It's not like they're consumed."

What we don't know for sure is just how good Georgia and Notre Dame really are this season.

The Dawgs' three-game boat race to start 2019 didn't foreshadow much for Saturday's game. Jake Fromm threw 11 times against Murray State. His 56 passes are second-to-last among SEC starters. The lack of depth of wide receiver is obvious. UGA's top three receivers had not caught a pass at Georgia coming into the season.

"Jake was nervous," Smart of the previous Notre Dame meeting. "I don't think that the nerves get to him now. He handled that game with class and composure. But shoot that was tough."

In his second career game, Fromm threw for 141 yards and a touchdown. The teams traded the lead three times in the last 19 minutes.

"Jake's exactly what you want out of a quarterback," said Wolf, one of those top-three pass catchers. "He's a CEO, runs the offense, is smart. I don't see any nerves. I think nervous is a sign of being underprepared, and Jake is never underprepared."

Speaking of a mystery, Notre Dame has enjoyed a bye week between a beating of outmanned Louisville and New Mexico.

"[Quarterback] Ian Book definitely reminds me of Johnny Manziel," Reed said. "He likes to extend the plays. He likes to do a lot with his legs."

Johnny Football? Cue the hype machine. It's only been about a calendar year since Book won the quarterback job permanently from Brandon Wimbush.

Notre Dame wasn't exposed in an unbeaten 2018 regular season … until the playoff. It was in a 30-3 Clemson win that the Tigers' team speed took over. For Notre Dame to take the next step, Kelly has to find better, more elite athletes to compete with the absolute best.

"As far as Georgia's defense, we're finding our identity," Reed said. "I think we're going to get toward an identity of a defense that's going to play hard, play fast and be physical. Not only be physical but be violent."

Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity was glowing in his office earlier this month. He's fired up about a new $80 million facility that is going up.

The fact that this game is being played highlights the rarity of such matchups. The idea for the home-and-home was hatched six years ago.

Something called the Sports Management Institute is an athletic think tank of six schools -- Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, North Carolina, USC and Texas. In 2013, Georgia deputy AD Josh Brooks began speaking with then-Notre Dame football operations guy Chad Klunder about a home-and-home. The way the contract is written, not a dime in guaranteed money will be exchanged. It's an even match right down to the price charged to fans of the visiting school -- about $165 per ticket.

On the field in your local, legal sportsbook, Georgia is favored by a couple of touchdowns.

"For us to have them here, nobody knew the enormity of it," McGarity said. "You thought, 'Aw hell, I may not around in six years. There will come a day when we say, 'I'm glad we did that.'"

Smart already has a long-term strategy to play this caliber of opponent. If we've learned anything in these first five years of the CFP, it's that schedule strength matters. Smart himself said it: Whoever loses Saturday isn't out of it.

"Thank God he's wired that way," McGarity said. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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