This is a statement game for ND coach Brian Kelly.
Notre Dame and Michigan will face off on Saturday, September 22, in what promises to be another memorable duel of storied rivals.
The nationally televised prime-time matchup will be the most competitive in recent history. Michigan comes in ranked No. 18 while the Fighting Irish have jumped all the way to No. 11 in the AP Rankings.
Although it would be tough to top last year's drama in the Big House, the 2012 matchup will be at least as exciting for the following reasons...
Denard Robinson's Senior Season
Denard Robinson is an explosive offensive player who is renowned for taking advantage of mediocre defenses. His stat lines against opponents the first five weeks of the season are usually a bit of an exaggeration of his capabilities. Robinson's passing ability has yet to stand up against an above-average defense.
For the past two years, Notre Dame hasn't been able to slow Michigan's quarterback.
Let's look at Denard's statistics from last year's "Under the Lights" showdown against Notre Dame. The speedy QB connected on just 11 passes out of 24 attempts, but threw for four scores and well over 300 yards. He also added a fifth score with his legs while rushing for over 100 yards.
Most noticeably, the Fighting Irish have consecutively fallen victim to Denard's instantaneous scoring heroics late in the second half. With the clock ticking down in 2011, he orchestrated an 80-yard drive with under 40 seconds. The quick strike culminated with a miracle lob to WR Roy Roundtree for the game-winning touchdown.
Denard's junior season culminated with a Sugar Bowl victory, but he is back with more to prove.
This season, the Wolverines will once again go how Denard Robinson goes. Judging by his standout performances against Notre Dame in the past, Robinson will step up his effort in his final crack at this rivalry.
Notre Dame Defense
Sure, Denard Robinson has completely manipulated the Fighting Irish defense for the past two years. Despite single-handedly rescuing the Wolverines in both 2010 and 2011, 2012 in South Bend is the most indicative game this rivalry has presented thus far.
This time around, the Fighting Irish seek to prove their first three wins of the season are legitimate. In my opinion, they have to do a little more convincing.
Just coming off a stifling 20-3 victory over Big Ten-best Michigan State, Notre Dame has a lot to prove in front of South Bend's faithful. Improving to 4-0 by beating two of the Big Ten's best would be a nice statement for Brian Kelly's men.
Defense will once again be the focal point.
The Fighting Irish will need to be tougher than last year about owning the edge when Denard is on the field. His throwing accuracy isn't great, so if the defensive ends and linebackers can keep him from getting space on the outside, he will be forced to beat them through the air.
Michigan's offensive line has looked shaky at times during its 2-1 start. If Notre Dame can get consistent pressure in the backfield, it will relieve pressure from the inexperienced secondary.
Safety Matthias Farley will start his first game at his new position after his emergency conversion from wide receiver. The Fighting Irish will miss usual starter Jamoris Slaughter in coverage and against deep throws from Robinson.
Additionally, linebacker Manti Te'o will bring emotion to the Notre Dame defense. Te'o is now just over a week removed from the deaths of both his grandmother and girlfriend—in consecutive days. His toughness will surely inspire the Fighting Irish unit, and Te'o needs to have a big hand in corralling Denard.
Litmus Test Effect
The annual game between two classic adversaries is important for more than just tradition. Always early in the season, the matchup provides good feedback for both programs about how good their teams really are.
Under coach Brian Kelly, this game has been a nightmare for the Fighting Irish. He can re-cement his top-tier coaching status by getting over the hump against Michigan this year.
Alternatively, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke used last year's victory as a springboard for the rest of the season. Michigan's consistency over the course of 2011 was a surprise that resulted in a BCS win.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, its loss to Michigan took the wind out of its sails. However, the 2012 showdown holds more promise for the Irish should they get the victory.
Who will win the 2012 matchup between Notre Dame and Michigan?
Although this game cannot adversely affect Michigan's Rose Bowl chances, Coach Hoke will still have the Wolverines geared up for their best performance of the year. Because Notre Dame can remain undefeated and have two marquis wins, this game holds a lot more meaning.
Both teams will be playing inspired football, and the game will have a playoff feel to it. South Bend will be in for some fireworks on Saturday night. Afterward, we'll have a much better feel for how good both of these teams are.