Coaching at Notre Dame comes with enough pressure.
The fact that it’s Marcus Freeman’s first time as a head coach only multiplies it. Then toss in this added bonus: His first game in this position will come Saturday night at Ohio State, the Big Ten powerhouse for which he once played.
It doesn’t get any tougher, though the 36-year-old Freeman is excited to take on this tall task.
“Any competitor, you want an opportunity to go and play against the best,” Freeman told reporters this week in the lead-up to the blockbuster showdown on opening weekend. “There’s no better way to see where we’re at as a football team.”
It, indeed, is a good measuring stick for Notre Dame, which lost a lot from last year’s 11-win team, most notably running back Kyren Williams, safety Kyle Hamilton, receiver Kevin Austin Jr. and quarterback Jack Coan.
Ohio State enters the season ranked No. 2 in the country, believed to be the biggest threat to heavy national-championship favorite Alabama after failing to win the Big Ten East for the first time in five years last fall.
Sophomore quarterback C.J. Stroud, the first player in Big Ten history to be named its Offensive Player, Quarterback and Freshman of the Year, is a Heisman Trophy contender and is joined by dynamic game-breakers at running back (TreVeyon Henderson) and wide receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba). The defense, the Buckeyes’ Achilles’ heel in their two losses last year, is still their major question mark, although new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has inherited a lot of talent after coming to Columbus from Oklahoma State.
This is only the start of what could be a challenging season for the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish. They will visit ACC contender North Carolina, play No. 25 BYU in Las Vegas, host fourth-ranked Clemson and Stanford, and close out the year at No. 14 USC.
First up, though, is a trip to Ohio Stadium for as challenging a game as anyone will play this season. In the long run, it could be beneficial for the Irish, especially if Freeman’s team plays well. A win would be a major statement. Then again, it could just easily go the other way against an opponent so stacked, particularly one that is a 17.5-point favorite.
“We’ll use that in the team meeting today — it’s good to know,” Freeman said. “I haven’t paid much attention to the spread. But I remember the one time we were on ‘College GameDay,’ I said just keep making it go up and up.”
Here is a look at the other big games of the season’s first full weekend:
No. 3. Georgia vs. No. 11 Oregon in Atlanta
Like Freeman at Notre Dame, Oregon’s Dan Lanning’s first game as a head coach is quite a challenge: A cross-country flight to take on his former school, which remains loaded despite several defections to the professional ranks. The Georgia defense, anchored by stud lineman Jalen Carter and linebacker Nolan Smith, will still be formidable, and the Bulldogs return quarterback Stetson Bennett IV and Brock Bowers, arguably the best tight end in the country.
No. 23 Cincinnati at No. 19 Arkansas
Both programs were surprises last year, Cincinnati becoming the first Group of Five school to reach the playoff and Arkansas winning its most games (nine) in a decade. Now comes the hard part for each team: Building off of that success after losing key players to the NFL.
No. 7 Utah at Florida
For the balanced and experienced Utes to be a playoff contender, a win in Gainesville is a must to build early momentum. For that to happen, they will need to contain Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, an electric dual threat who showed glimpses of his immense potential in limited action as a freshman.
Florida State vs. LSU in New Orleans (Sunday)
The one game that we highlighted that doesn’t include a ranked team is nevertheless fascinating. Brian Kelly’s debut at LSU will come against Florida State, which is coming off four consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the 1970’s. Coach Mike Norvell needs to improve upon his 8-13 record this year, and an upset of the Tigers would be a good place to start.
No. 4 Clemson vs. Georgia Tech in Atlanta (Monday)
Year two as the starter for DJ Uiagalelei gets a soft landing here in the ACC punching bag known as Georgia Tech. Anything less than a blowout victory and a strong opener for Uiagalelei should be a concern for Clemson.
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