SOUTH BEND – As hard as it is to believe, we've reached Senior Day 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish will recognize members of the 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes this afternoon, groups that came in following the disastrous 2016 campaign and played central roles in helping turn the program back around. In the last four years, those classes have led Notre Dame to four 10-win seasons, two College Football Playoff appearances, a win over then-No. 1 Clemson last season and a victory over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl in 2020.
And those upperclassmen still have some potential milestones in front of them. If the Irish win today or next week against Stanford, they will have won 10 games five years in a row, a feat never accomplished in program history; the class of 2017 will be able to say it was in South Bend for all five of those campaigns. If the Irish win both of their remaining regular-season games, they'll finish 11-1 and put themselves in position for a spot in the College Football Playoff for the third time in four years. The way I see it, the following events need to transpire for Notre Dame to reach the Playoff, which seemed like a near-impossibility following the Irish loss to Cincinnati earlier this season:
- Notre Dame wins out (obviously)
- Cincinnati wins out OR lose two games
- Ohio State beats Michigan State and Michigan
- Georgia beats Alabama in the SEC Championship
- Oklahoma and Oklahoma State split their two matchups (in the regular season and again in the Big 12 Championship)
- Oregon loses another game
- Wake Forest loses another game (maybe not necessary, but would help the cause)
None of those scenarios are unlikely by themselves, but it's obvious Notre Dame needs significant help in the final weeks of the season. Even if the Irish fall short of the Playoff, however, the team's upperclassmen will still get a chance at a different accomplishment: ending Notre Dame's losing streak in big-time bowls. Since the Irish beat Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl (following the 1993 season), Notre Dame has lost nine straight "major" bowl games. It's a streak that has encompassed multiple eras and teams that have little to do with each other, making it more of a curiosity than anything else, but it would be a nice final feather in the cap for these upperclassmen if they could snap that skid (whether in the Playoff or another New Year's Six bowl) on the way out the door.
But, again, for any of that to happen, the Irish have to win today. Georgia Tech comes in (no, Rudy will not be playing this afternoon) on a four-game losing streak after a 3-3 start. The No. 1 fact to know about the Yellow Jackets is they are no longer a triple-option team. After years running the service-academy offense under former Navy coach Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets have returned to a more traditional offense under new coach Geoff Collins, who is now in this third season at the helm. GT still has a plenty of quarterback run in its arsenal with dual-threat Jeff Sims under center: Sims has nearly 1,500 passing yards and 375 rushing yards under his belt this season and has accounted for 16 touchdowns. He missed last week's game against Boston College with a foot injury, however, and was in a boot on the sideline. It's unclear if Sims will be able to return this week, but if he cannot, the Yellow Jackets will once again turn to backup Jordan Yates, whom the Irish have also been preparing for this week. Yates is not the same type of runner as Sims, but he is certainly capable of making plays on the perimeter and he's thrown six touchdowns against one interception this season. Brian Kelly said the key will be keeping Yates contained in the pocket, because he's at his most dangerous making throws on the run. Notre Dame's secondary will once again have to be disciplined as All-American Kyle Hamilton will miss his third straight game with a knee injury.
The Irish defense will have its hands most full with Georgia Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs, whom Kelly called maybe the Player of the Year in the ACC. Gibbs is an outstanding runner (5.3 yards per carry) and is also a threat catching the ball out of the backfield (34 catches for 469 yards). It's likely the Yellow Jackets will move the ball at least somewhat on Notre Dame's defense no matter who plays quarterback this afternoon.
The good news for the Irish: Georgia Tech's defense really can't stop anybody. The Yellow Jackets are giving up 449 yards per game and have surrendered at least 40 points three times this season. Georgia Tech's D ranks 104th in the country in sacks with just 16, so Irish quarterback Jack Coan should have some time to stand in the pocket and pick the secondary apart, as he did against Virginia a week ago. If the Irish get up by a sizable margin by the third quarter, I wouldn't be surprised to see freshman Tyler Buchner get a significant amount of playing time; the Irish are slowly taking his training wheels off and Buchner has shown an ability to move the offense in his own right, even if his passing performances are still something of a roller-coaster.