Eric Gay, File
September 03, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) A season opener between college football heavyweights Texas and No. 10 Notre Dame should be a preview for the national title chase.

Instead, it's a referendum on Longhorns coach Charlie Strong.

He's coming off two losing seasons at a program that likely won't tolerate a third. Strong is still searching for a dependable quarterback and has put his future in the hands of hotshot offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, who wouldn't leave Tulsa until he was pried away with a personal visit from the Texas president and athletic director and a three-year guaranteed contract worth $850,000 annually.

And now here come the Irish, who expect to be in the College Football Playoff hunt in December. Beat Notre Dame and the pressure - for now - eases off Strong. Lose again and it only gets worse . No Texas coach has had three consecutive losing seasons since the 1930s.

''It's big,'' said Strong, whose 11-14 record includes a 38-3 loss to the Irish last season. ''We're at home ... We need it within our program to play well. I expect us to go play well.''

Win or lose, all praise or blame will fall on Strong, who charged Gilbert with lighting up defenses like everyone else in the Big 12 does. Gilbert's biggest challenge has been finding a starting quarterback in either senior Tyrone Swoopes or freshman Shane Buechele, who had a tantalizing spring.

Strong won't reveal his starter until the game. Gilbert seems confident in whoever it will be.

''We'll just call it and they'll ball it,'' Gilbert said.

A few things to watch when Notre Dame and Texas play Sunday night:

IRISH QUARTERBACKS: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has been just as coy about his quarterbacks , refusing to say if he'll start Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer. Unlike Strong, Kelly's dilemma is choosing between two proven playmakers. His bigger problem is the potential for hurt feelings and disrupted team chemistry whichever way he goes.

''We'd both rather ourselves be the only guy playing. But this is how it is,'' Kizer said. ''We want to win games. That's one thing we can agree on.''

18-WHEELER: Even if he doesn't start, look for Swoopes to get on the field. At 6-foot-4, 250-pounds, he was effectively brutish runner in the ''18-Wheeler'' package in upset wins over Oklahoma and Baylor. The set calls for Swoopes to take the snap, dive off tackle and drag defenders with him.

THIRD DOWN: The Texas defense was notoriously bad on third down last season, ranking among the worst in the country. If Notre Dame can keep moving the chains, Gilbert's offense may never get a chance to get on the field. As for Notre Dame, expect a steady rush of blitzes to disrupt Swoopes or Buechele in passing situations. Swoopes has shown he can be rattled and no one knows yet how Buechele will handle pressure.

DEFENDING THE DEEP BALL: Texas will throw deep. The offense typically accounts for a deep target, and with speedy receivers John Burt, Devin Duvernay and converted quarterback Jerrod Heard, the pressure's on the Notre Dame secondary - notably freshman Devin Studstill - to prevent the long touchdown.

NOTRE DAME DISCIPLINE: Kelly has said he intends to make four of the five players arrested by state police on marijuana possession during training camp available to play. Wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and linebacker Te'von Coney were listed on the depth chart this week. Kelly has said he expects running back Dexter Williams and cornerback Ashton White to contribute this season. Kelly dismissed safety Max Redfield, who also was charged in the same Aug. 19 incident with a misdemeanor charge of carrying a handgun without a license.

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