ATHENS, Ga. — It's rare that the same game can serve as a launching point for both teams, but Georgia's 20-19 victory over Notre Dame in South Bend two years ago seems to have done just that.
"It impacted our program a lot," Bulldogs senior defensive end David Marshall said this week. "It gave us the confidence knowing that we won a big game. We got together and were like, 'We've got this,' and we started practicing that much harder and pushed each other to become a better team."
The two storied programs will vie again Saturday night inside Sanford Stadium.
Georgia entered the 2017 season with a veteran team coming off two shaky years that sandwiched the coaching transition from Mark Richt to Kirby Smart. The last of Richt's 15 seasons with the Bulldogs included humiliating losses to Alabama and Florida by the combined count of 65-13, and Smart's debut in 2016 contained home losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech and a season-ending trip to the Liberty Bowl.
Since the Bulldogs' win at Notre Dame, in which freshman quarterback Jake Fromm led a late drive that culminated with a 30-yard Rodrigo Blankenship field goal, they are 26-5 with trips to the Rose Bowl and the national championship game during the 2017 season and to the Sugar Bowl last season.
"I think that helped the trajectory of things," Smart said. "It was a big win for us, and it was big for Jake to be able to go on the road and play in a place like that. To play well enough to win certainly helped things, and we've won a lot of games since then, too."
Said Bulldogs senior safety J.R. Reed: "It showed that everyone had started buying into the program, and we saw what we could do if we bought in and all worked together for a common goal. It showed that it was a new era and that it was Kirby Smart's era."
Yet Notre Dame, which did hold a fourth-quarter lead against a Bulldogs team that eventually won 13 games that season, appears to have benefited from that showdown every bit as much.
The Irish entered the 2017 season on the heels of a dreadful 4-8 record the year before. Six of Notre Dame's losses in 2016 were to unranked teams — Duke, Navy, North Carolina State, Stanford, Texas and Virginia Tech — but the 2017 Irish rebounded from the Georgia loss by winning their next six games. Notre Dame capped its 10-3 season in 2017 by downing LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and the Irish won their first 12 games a year ago before losing to Clemson in a Cotton Bowl national semifinal.
"We certainly felt that we had done the things necessary to get our program back to where it needed to be," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Looking to where it's taken us is where, had we taken a moment to think about it, that's where we would want it to be. At that moment, though, we were just thinking about that week and that game."
Notre Dame had a rapid rise under Kelly, reaching the BCS championship game at the end of his third season in 2012 before getting routed by Alabama. The Irish then disappeared from the nation's elite with a 17-9 mark the next two seasons.
The 23-3 surge since losing to Georgia has been Kelly's most consistent stretch.
"Continuity with the staff is important, and in the recruiting process that's something we've absolutely been able to rely on," said Kelly, who is in his 10th season. "For me, more than anything else, it's being consistent on a day-to-day basis with what our mission is, which is to graduate players and to play for the national championship.
"Our guys know exactly what they're doing on a day-to-day basis, and I think that's led to the consistency of the program over the last three or four years."
Georgia and Notre Dame were ranked 15th and 24th, respectively, two years ago. Both teams are nestled in the top 10 this time around, with the Bulldogs ranked third and the Irish seventh.
Each program harbors hopes of a second playoff trip since the last meeting, which somehow birthed a pair of impressive runs.
"We didn't play perfect and they didn't play perfect," Smart said. "It was a hard-fought game, and both teams got better by playing that game. We've both got good football programs. We recruit at a high level.
"We've both got really good academics, and I think that both programs are here to stay."
Odds and ends
Smart said after Tuesday's practice that the Bulldogs did a good job of pushing through 97-degree temperatures. ... Redshirt sophomore right tackle Isaiah Wilson (ankle) has practiced this week. ... Smart on his outside linebackers: "They've been technically sound. They play with a great motor. That room has changed so much in the last six or seven months."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.