In the second installment of a 12-part series previewing Notre Dame's 2013 opponents, I'll dissect the Irish's first road trip of the year, which will be to Ann Arbor, Mich., to meet the Michigan Wolverines.
No matter if you have a vested interest in either Notre Dame or Michigan, you ought to still have a thorough appreciation for the gem of a college football classic the two programs provided the last time they met at Michigan Stadium.
Notre Dame, in its second season of the Brian Kelly era, entered the fourth quarter holding a 24-7 lead, and appeared poised to steal one from the Wolverines on their home turf.
However, former Michigan starting quarterback Denard Robinson—the Deerfield Beach, Fla., native was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 135th overall pick in April's NFL Draft—led his Wolverines to four fourth quarter touchdowns to capture a stunning 35-31 victory in the first-ever night game in Michigan Stadium history.
While avenging that loss this season in Notre Dame's first trip back to Michigan Stadium since that disastrous evening won't be played up by the Irish coaching staff or players, this season's matchup will be the final opportunity for them to earn a victory on the Wolverines' turf in the Kelly era, as the two schools' final meeting is scheduled for Sept. 2014 at Notre Dame Stadium.
As in the 2011 thriller, this season's contest will, once again, be played under the lights in prime time.
What should Notre Dame fans expect to see of the 2013 Michigan Wolverines on Sept. 7?
Game Day Information
Who: Notre Dame at Michigan
When: Sept. 7, 8:00 p.m. EDT
Where: Michigan Stadium (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Michigan Team Information
Head Coach: Brady Hoke (3rd season, 19-7 record at Michigan)
Conference: Big Ten
Returning Starters: Offense (5), Defense (6)
2012 Record: 8-5 (Lost 33-28 to South Carolina in Outback Bowl)
For the past three seasons, Michigan's offense began and ended with Robinson's explosiveness at quarterback. Aside from current Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Robinson was arguably the most electric dual-threat quarterback in college football history.
Sadly enough, Robinson's days at Michigan came to a close last season, though he battled a nerve injury in his throwing arm suffered against Nebraska, which opened the door for his backup and this season's starter, Devin Gardner.
The Detroit native finished the 2012 season having completed 75 of 126 passing attempts for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns to only five interceptions.
Gardner also amassed 101 rushing yards on 47 carries, while reaching the end zone on seven occasions.
A more polished passer than Robinson, Gardner provides offensive coordinator Al Borges with the type of pocket-passing quarterback he has desired during his tenure at Michigan, and will allow the Wolverines to fully employ the pro-style attack favored by Hoke and Borges.
Gardner will have the services of redshirt senior Jeremy Gallon, though replacing Roy Roundtree is an issue needing to be addressed during fall camp. However, the Wolverines will enjoy the return of running back Fitz Toussaint, whose production will be determined by a number of new faces along the offensive line.
It can be argued that the strength of the Wolverines' 2013 defense will be its secondary, despite the loss of both Jordan Kovacs and J.T. Floyd.
Safety Thomas Gordon, along with cornerbacks Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor, return to anchor a unit that finished 50th nationally in passing efficiency defense last season.
However, the focus of this year's Wolverine defense will be solidifying a front seven that ranked 51st nationally in rushing defense last season. The unit allowed 100 or more rushing yards in nine of 12 games last season, including two contests—a 41-14 loss to Alabama and a 31-25 victory against Air Force—in which it yielded at least 200 rushing yards.
The arrivals of freshmen defensive linemen Taco Charlton and Henry Poggi, each regarded as a 4-star prospect per 247sports.com, are intriguing additions to the Wolverine front seven, though the breadth of their contributions remain to be seen.
Should the duo combine to vault the Michigan rushing defense into the stratosphere defensive coordinator Greg Mattison desires, the Wolverines would be viable candidates to represent the Big Ten Conference in the Rose Bowl.
Before any musings on the outcome of this contest, it must be remembered that Michigan has yet to lose a home game in the Hoke era.
I'm not usually one for intangibles or unmeasurable figures, but playing in front of 109,501 fans seems to be the final ingredient of the Wolverines' winning formula.
And considering that the previous four meetings between these two teams (three Michigan victories to Notre Dame's one) have been decided by 19 total points, any competitive advantage, no matter how small, is monumental in this series.
Will Notre Dame beat Michigan?
If Notre Dame's defense plays its now signature stellar defense, the Irish should be the presumed favorites leading up to this game.
However, if the Irish defense experiences a similar meltdown as it did in the fourth quarter of the epic 2011 matchup, another Michigan victory would be in store.
The statistic to watch in this game will be turnovers and average starting field position, as each could cost either team the game.
While I am optimistic about the fortunes of this season's Michigan squad—I believe they'll represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game—Notre Dame's defense will simply be too stout to rack up a feasible amount of scores for a victory.
Another close game will be written in the record books, with Notre Dame earning a second consecutive victory in the rivalry.
Predicted Score: Notre Dame 27, Michigan 21