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I’m headed to Dublin to watch Notre Dame vs. Navy. Here’s what I’m expecting.

An inside look at an Irish fan’s pre-Dublin hopes and concerns.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 22 Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m hopping on an Aer Lingus flight today. It’s direct from Chicago to Dublin, and I’m wondering what the over/under on people wearing Notre Dame gear will be. My guess is over half as the Fighting Irish open their season — and the 2023 college football season — on Saturday as they take on Navy in Dublin at Aviva Stadium. How could I miss this?

I’m a Class of 2021 Notre Dame graduate, and a lifelong fan and season ticket holder thanks to my Dad, Class of 1984. I went to my first game when I was three months old, I started going to every home game when I was nine years old, and when I was visiting colleges we picked the places we’d visit based on where Notre Dame was playing their away games. But this will be my first international Notre Dame experience — and what would a nice vacation full of friends and family be without the suffocating stress of the unknown of the upcoming season?

Notre Dame opened against Ohio State last year, and we had no idea what to expect. Brian Kelly had shocked the nation by leaving for LSU, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman had been promoted to head coach, and we had a brand-new quarterback in Tyler Buchner (now competing for the job at Alabama, by the way). The Irish put up a solid fight against OSU on the road, giving fans some optimism for the season — only to be completely crushed by a home loss to Marshall the following week.

Of course things turned around. ND grabbed some big wins over Clemson, Syracuse, and South Carolina. But now the pressure is on for Freeman and the Irish, big-time. He’s in his second year as head coach, his offensive coordinator in my fellow alum Tommy Rees was poached by Alabama, and he grabbed a top quarterback out of the transfer portal. Can he make it all work?

I’m a Freeman believer. I was a huge fan of the hire and I think he can do some great things for this program. But there is a part of me — not small — that thinks the Irish are not going to be able to cover the 20.5 point spread against Navy. Yes, the Middies went 4-8 last year and have a new coach and might be a total mess. But one of ND’s biggest issues to me is their inability to come out of the offseason with the necessary momentum to win big early. That was a huge issue last year, and I have a feeling they’ll still be working out some kinks on the field as they go.

It’s a good game to be working things out — certainly better than last year’s Ohio State opener. But look back — in 2020, they were up just four points on Duke heading into the fourth quarter of a home opener. In 2021, a bad Florida State team took them to overtime. And, of course, there was the 2022 disaster. Can they fix this slow start? That will be my biggest concern as we head to Dublin.

I have some hope for certain parts of the game. Running back Audric Estime, if he stays healthy, will be a star on offense. Cornerback Benjamin Morrison is a firecracker in the secondary and is all over the ball. The offensive line returns some top veterans this season, and Sam Hartman is likely the best QB this team has seen in years. But can it all come together under a first-time offensive coordinator that was a somewhat confusing hire? The Irish chose to promote tight ends coach Gerad Parker to the position. Notre Dame’s strength coach and offensive line coach also both stepped down in the offseason, making for even more uncertainty.

Well if things go left, at least I’ll be surrounded by 30,000 of my closest friends. The Dublin Instagram stories have already begun — it’s going to feel like South Bend in the fall all over again.