AUSTIN - Two of the winningest college football programs in history will play at Darrel K Royal Stadium on Sunday as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish look to build on a 10-3 season and the Texas Longhorns look to establish consistency and pull what could be the biggest upset of the weekend.
For Notre Dame, a loss to Texas wouldn’t be a season killer, but for Texas, a win on national television against a top 10 team could serve notice to the Big 12 and the nation that the Longhorns are back on the national college football scene.
Needless to say, it’s arguably Texas’ biggest home game since the Ohio State Buckeyes came to town in 2006. In fact, it will be Texas’ third non-conference home game against an AP top 20 team since 1996 (2006 – number 1 Ohio State beat Texas; 1996 - number 9 Notre Dame beat sixth-ranked Texas in Austin.)
It’s also the first opening game against a top 10 ranked opponent since the Longhorns played at Auburn to start the 1987 season. Auburn was ranked fifth at the time of the 1987 game. The last time Texas opened at home against a top 10 team was in 1980 when Texas beat then sixth-ranked Arkansas.
A win against Notre Dame on Sunday would also be the school’s first against the Fighting Irish since the 1970 Cotton Bowl. It would also go a long way toward quieting the critics of Texas head coach Charlie Strong who has been rebuilding the Longhorns’ football program.
Strong has been on the hot seat after back-to-back losing seasons, but has built up his roster with lots of young talent. The Texas head coach brought in the number seven rated recruiting class in 2016, per 247sports.com; and the 10th ranked recruiting class in 2015.
Needless to say the roster is loaded with young talent. The catch is can the young talent translate all the talent into production against the Fighting Irish.
Much of the focus in the week leading up to Texas’ biggest home game in a decade will be on the quarterback position. What started out as a three man race between Tyrone Swoopes, Shane Buechele and Jerrod Heard turned into a two man battle when Heard switched positions and became a wide receiver.
Swoopes would have the upper hand when it comes to experience, but he has struggled as a passing quarterback while at Texas. In 2014, he completed just 58.3 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In 2015, he completed just five of 13 passes with no touchdowns or interceptions in spot duty.
However, Swoopes did contribute 12 touchdowns on the ground, primarily in short-yardage situations, for the Texas offense.
Buechele is the highly-touted true freshman who enrolled early and played well in spring practice for the Longhorns. Buechele is more of the prototypical spread quarterback and more of a passer, but performing well in practice/spring game and playing in front of 100,000 fans plus a national primetime audience is quite a step up in pressure.
Texas head coach Charlie Strong has said both quarterbacks will play against Notre Dame.
But Texas isn’t alone in the quarterback mystery department. Notre Dame has a quarterback question on who will start against Texas.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said that both junior DeShone Kizer and senior Malik Zaire will play against the Longhorns on Sunday. Zaire was the starter until the second game of last season when he suffered a season ending ankle injury.
Kizer came in and led the Irish the rest of the way. He completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 2,880 yards, 21 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions while also running the ball 134 times for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns.
While Kelly has played his cards close to the vest about his quarterback play, Texas is ready to unleash arguably the best linebacker in the nation in Malik Jefferson against whoever is under center. Jefferson was second on the team in tackles last season as a true freshman with 61 adding 7 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Did we say he was a true freshman?
Jefferson and the defense will be called on to slow down the Fighting Irish’s attack. Notre Dame averaged 34.2 points per game while piling up 207.9 rushing yards and 258.5 passing yards per contest. Combined, Notre Dame ranked 27th in the nation in total offense in 2015, according to CFBStats.com.
Still, Notre Dame’s three losses in 2015 all came outside the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame would have lost a fourth-game on the road against Virginia if not for a last-second touchdown pass by Kizer.
It’s all set up for Texas to pull out one of the biggest non-Oklahoma wins in recent program history. If you can’t get a ticket for the game, you can only see it one place, live Sunday on KVUE.