Notre Dame vs. Michigan: Teams' Biggest Question Marks Heading into Top-25 Clash

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured Columnist IVFebruary 26, 2017

Aug 31, 2013; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Tommy Rees (11) celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass in the first quarter against the Temple Owls at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

While the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Michigan Wolverines were both in action during college football's opening weekend, it's hard to say we learned all that much about either side heading into their Week 2 clash at The Big House. 

With both teams recording wins over relative cupcakes, in fact, it may be fair to say we learned nothing at all. 

The Irish got their season off to a breezy start, dominating Temple, 28-6. They showed little to no sign of missing suspended quarterback Everett Golson, compiling 543 total yards of offense and overcoming nine penalties to play the fourth quarter with an array of backups. The defense, which no longer includes Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o among others, looked like it didn't miss a beat. 

Michigan's opening win was a little more emphatic—albeit against a lesser opponent. The Wolverines survived a bit of a slow start to defeat Central Michigan, 59-9, in their highest-scoring opener in more than a century. Their running game produced six touchdowns, including a stretch of 28 unanswered points in the second and third quarters. They also held the Chippewas to only 210 yards of total offense.

The win was undoubtedly a relief for Brady Hoke's squad, which is coming off a disappointing 2012 campaign. A Sugar Bowl champion in his first season with the Wolverines, Hoke wasn't even able to capture an Outback Bowl 12 months later—arguably with a more talented team.

Included in that disappointing 8-5 campaign was a 13-6 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend. Michigan will undoubtedly be looking to get some semblance of revenge while it still can. The historic Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry will go on hiatus after the 2014 season, with the Irish's move to a hybrid-scheduling agreement with the ACC causing them to opt out. 

But with both teams having yet to play real, live college football this season, Saturday should be interesting. Here is a look at a couple questions left lingering for the Irish and Wolverines, ones that may get answered at The Big House. 


Notre Dame: So...Is Tommy Rees Good Now?

When the Golson scandal broke in May, it was awfully easy to press the "you're screwed" button on the Irish. They were already losing a majority of their top defensive players, and Golson's expected leap from his freshman to sophomore campaign was one of the few things Kelly was relying on to atone for those departures.

More saliently, folks had also watched Tommy Rees play quarterback before. It was Rees whose underage drinking got him suspended for Week 1 last season, a move that handed Golson a job he never relinquished. Rees was under center for two starts and made strange appearances in something resembling a closer's role, but completing a career-low percentage of his passes in 2012 didn't exactly instill much confidence.

As camp continued and it became clear Rees was the unquestioned starter, though, the narrative began to change. Kelly went out of his way to praise the senior signal-caller's experience and knowledge of the system heading into Week 1. He had to. Neither Andrew Hendrix nor Malik Zaire are reliable enough to lead this offense; Kelly was hoping against hope that it would all work out. 

To put it mildly, Rees responded in kind. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns against Temple, good for a near-perfect 94.9 QBR. He looked poised in the pocket and had a keen eye for the big play, connecting on four passes of 30 or more yards. T.J. Jones was the recipient of one of those bombs on his way to a six-catch, 138-yard day.

What's unclear is where Rees' improvement began and where Temple's putrid defense stopped. Temple is projected as one of the worst teams in the new American Athletic Conference. The Owls are 2-76 lifetime versus Top 25 opponents.

This wasn't exactly going to be a close game, regardless of who lined up under center. Rees had multiple open passing lanes and saw his receivers break out after the catch with regularity. Despite a game plan with the sophistication of "Hungry Hungry Hippos" from Kelly, the offense looked in midseason form, as it should have.

Things (obviously) won't be as breezy for the Irish this week. One of the Wolverines' biggest strengths lies in their secondary, where they are filled to the brim with young, elite talent. Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor could both have NFL futures if their current trajectory continues, and senior Thomas Gordon provides some needed leadership. 

Rees has been stellar each of his past two appearances against Michigan, but playing at The Big House is a whole different animal. It'll just have to be a wait-and-see game for which version of Tommy Rees shows up.


Michigan: Can the Offensive Line Hold Up?

Much like Notre Dame, Michigan heads into Week 2 with arguably its biggest concern very much unanswered. 

The Wolverines were gifted a godsend when Taylor Lewan returned for his senior season. Michael Schofield helps Lewan to form one of the nation's better tackle duos. But the interior of this line may take the entire season to ripen. 

Graham GlasgowJack Miller and Kyle Kalis each received their first starting nod Saturday. The result, obviously, was pretty solid. The starting offensive line failed to allow a sack, with Shane Morris' drop behind the line of scrimmage coming well after the top hosses were sipping Mai Tais on the sidelines. They also pushed around the Central Michigan defensive line on the ground to the tune of 5.1 yards per carry.

These are all good things. Suffice it to say, however, that the Wolverines won't be playing similar competition a week later.

Stephon Tuitt may be the best defensive end in college football not named Jadeveon Clowney. He had 11 sacks last season as a 3-4 defensive end and returned to South Bend an All-American. Oh, and he's joined by Louis Nix, who may be the best defensive lineman in college football not named Jadeveon Clowney.

"Irish Chocolate" is a first-round pick waiting to happen; a behemoth in the middle who has allowed Notre Dame linebackers to excel (*cough* Te'o *cough*) in spots where perhaps they otherwise wouldn't.

Sheldon Day doesn't quite get the level of recognition as the other two, but he's young and talented. This may be the hardest test of the entire season for Michigan's offensive line, and how the youngsters do—particularly against the run—holds an inordinate level of weight. 

It's a minuscule sample, but through one week, the rush to hoist Devin Gardner into the "best of the Big Ten" conversation may have been a little hasty. Gardner opened the contest with two interceptions in the first 20 minutes, making throws that were Denard Robinsonian with their lack of going anywhere in particular. 

He settled down as the game went along, but there's a difference between two picks versus Central Michigan and two versus Notre Dame. One is the difference between a 50-point win and a 60-point win. The other is the difference between a win and a loss. 

Where Robinson could suddenly turn on the jets and go for 80 yards on the ground to atone for his passing mistakes, Gardner is more above-average than transcendent on the ground. So Hoke's offensive line is going to have to work early and often to get Fitzgerald Toussaint and Derrick Green going early. The duo looked just fine last week, but again, we're talking different levels of competition. 

Are GlasgowMiller and Kalis ready to control the interior?

If not, it could hoist far too much pressure on a quarterback whose readiness for the moment is questionable.


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