Who: No. 16 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Time: 7:30 ET (NBC)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 6
Place: Notre Dame Stadium--South Bend, Ind.
For the last time in a long time, Michigan will head down to St. Joseph County, where the winged helmets will meet helmets of gold. Michigan has gotten the better of ND of late, winning six of the last eight meetings, including a trio of thrillers from 2009-2011.
For a long time, many have looked at this game as a sort of litmus test for both teams: How will the season go this year? Well, just look to the Notre Dame game. In 1997, Michigan's defense held and held and held against the visiting Fighting irish -- they would continue to do so all year en route to an undefeated season. In 2008 and 2012, Michigan turned the ball over far too many times; the 2008 team had rain and inexperience as an excuse, at least, but the 2012 performance was a sign of trouble.
On the other hand, I don't know if the Notre Dame game really ever means anything at all in the context of a season. It's a game of chance, a hand at the blackjack table; capricious, rude and, most of all, senseless. The rivalry is the kind of thing that can break you if you look for too much sense within it.
When the lights turn on and the helmets glow, just know that their movements are random and their outcomes even moreso.
When Michigan has the ball
Of course, a lot depends on the status of the five suspended Notre Dame players, namely defensive stars in corner KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams (as of writing this on Wednesday night, there was no update on their status). The popular inclination in these situations is to believe that they'll play, because The Other Team is always nefarious and ill-intentioned. Will they play? At one point it sounded serious enough that they would be booted from the school entirely -- either way, nothing would surprise me.
Keep in mind that the Rice game was indeed a blowout, and the Irish held Owls starting quarterback Driphus Jackson to 163 yards passing (completing just 13 of 24 passes). However, they weren't completely invulnerable. For example, Rice got on the board with this touchdown score:
Notre Dame rushes three and adds a QB spy. Safety Max Redfield offers up a weak jam before letting slot receiver Zac Wright (No. 9) romp up the seam. It's hard to tell who is at "fault" in these sorts of plays when you can't see the full field, but either Redfield needs to offer up a better punch or fellow safety Elijah Shumate was just way out of position -- he's the guy seen looking dejected near Wright as he dives into the end zone.
Against the Owls, Notre Dame recorded two sacks, one from the 6'5'', 315-pound Jarron Jones and the other from 6'4'', 260-pound Romeo Okwara. Rice ran 40 times and passed only 26; so, an imbalanced offense favoring the run isn't exactly a great time to rack up sacks. Still, Michigan's young offensive linemen will face a big test; Notre Dame blue chippers is a fairly huge step up from unranked Sun Belt guys.
Overall, sophomore inside linebacker Jaylon Smith (formerly the No. 3 high school player in the nation) is the guy to watch, especially if Russell and Williams are out.
With new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (most recently the linebackers coach for the New York Jets but previously the defensive coordinator at Auburn), the defense shifts from Bob Diaco's 3-4 front to a 4-3. Michigan will have to adjust to this after seeing Appalachian State's 3-4 (not that it really would have mattered what front the Mountaineers ran).
When the U-M defense is on the field
Again, DaVaris Daniels would be a key missing perimeter piece for Notre Dame. On the flip side, no Desmond Morgan hurts Michigan's defensive stability.
Last week was pretty much the Everett Golson Show. After a year away from the field, Golson reminded people that he can make some big time plays with his feet while also boasting quite the arm. Although not quite as explosive as Braxton Miller, like the Ohio State quarterback Golson will make things happen on the ground, whether by carrying the ball himself or extending plays to find wide open receivers downfield, like he did here:
That is something for which you can't always account. Guys need to contain, and missed tackles could mean death by deep ball. It seems as if Michigan is at the point defensively where they've got enough depth and skill to be able to hold its own against a top notch mobile quarterbacking threat, but we'll have to wait and see come Saturday.
As for the skill positions, if Daniels is out, William Fuller, Amir Carlisle, Chris Brown and Corey Robinson will fill in; Fuller, a sophomore, nearly matched his 2013 production in the Rice game, which included a 75-yard reception for a score. Jarrod Wilson has quietly been very dependable for the Wolverines since taking over a starting role; he'll be challenged to keep Fuller at al from running behind him when Golson does scramble.
From the tight end spot, Ben Koyack appears to be the next guy emerging from the ND tight end factory. Against Rice, he managed three receptions for 51 yards.
Lastly, when Golson isn't carrying the ball himself, the trio of Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel will get carries from the tailback spot. They'll be running behind an experienced, quality offensive line, which did lose longtime starters in Zack Martin and Chris Watt on the left side. Still, three seniors, a junior and a sophomore Steve Elmer (of Midland, Mich.).
Junior Ronnie Stanley started at right tackle last season but is now playing on the left side, with Elmer glued to the right side. Golson did take a second quarter sack against Rice, but, other than that he was able to scramble his way out of danger -- will he be able to do that once again? Michigan hopes not, and Greg Mattison is sure to throw a variety of blitzes at Golson and Co. to make the star quarterback uncomfortable.
Weird things happen in South Bend.
It almost always seems as if things go in the exact opposite direction of reason or expectation when these two teams meet, but especially when they meet at Notre Dame Stadium. In 2006, for example; I don't think anyone saw that coming (not to that scale, at least).
As far as overall quality goes, this might be the best matchup between these two foes since that 2006 game. I don't predict a blowout in either direction, which leaves this game partially to the whims of Fortune.
If Russell and Williams are out for Notre Dame, I think Michigan could have some pretty regular success through the air, not only with Devin Funchess but also guys like Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh.
As for the Michigan defense, I wouldn't count too much on the front four getting to Golson -- if the Michigan secondary (particularly the corners) is as good as people think it is (and it looks it might be), this is a good time to flex.
This is going to be a frustrating game. Golson will probably extend drives with his feet a number of times, and a deep completion or two will likely happen at some point. On the other hand, barring another turnover from Devin Garden similar to his interception in last year's game, Michigan's offense should be just fine.
But, really, who knows. So, I'll close my eyes and throw a dart at the prediction board and say: Michigan 24, Notre Dame 20.