When the 14th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish walk into The Big House for Saturday evening's clash with the 17th-ranked Michigan Wolverines, they could be doing so for the final time.
As covered ad nauseam in the lead-up to Week 2's prime-time showcase, Notre Dame opted out of the two schools' series, which will conclude next season in South Bend. The Irish needed to clear out games for their impending pseudo team-up with the ACC, where they will play five "conference" games yearly while keeping technical independence.
Michigan, amid controversy, was thrown on the chopping block.
But with at least one more game coming in this historic rivalry, that gives fans about a 12-month reprieve on the never-ending nostalgia. Instead, they can concentrate on what lies before them Saturday night—a possible tone-setting win for the entire season.
The Irish used their 13-6 win over Michigan a year ago as a springboard to a national championship appearance. Although they got throttled by Alabama, Notre Dame's return to the "national power" big boy's table wasn't possible without that win.
Both sides can work on keeping their seats with a win Saturday. Michigan is coming off a 59-9 drubbing of Central Michigan, while Notre Dame made slight work of Temple in a 28-6 win. While neither is expected to be in the national championship conversation, there's a good chance the victor gets some top-10 buzz heading into Week 3.
With that in mind, here is a quick breakdown of the game's top story and a prediction for what will happen in college football's game of the week.
When: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Betting Line: Michigan -4
Notre Dame (via USA Today)
Tony Springmann, DL, Out for Season (Knee)
Nicky Baratti, S, Out for Season (Shoulder)
Doug Randolph, LB, Out for Season (Shoulder)
Malik Zaire, QB, Questionable (Throat)
Will Mahone, RB, Questionable (Ankle)
Michigan (via USA Today)
Drake Johnson, RB, Out for Season (Knee)
Russell Bellomy, QB, Out for Season (Knee)
Will Hagerup, P, Out for Season (Suspension)
Amara Darboh, WR, Out for Season (Foot)
Jake Ryan, LB, Out (Leg)
Courtney Avery, CB, Probable (Knee)
Joe Reynolds, WR, Probable (Leg)
Which Quarterback Will Step Up?
Both Michigan and Notre Dame head into Saturday night playing a precarious game. They're playing a high-stakes game of "trust fall" under center, and no one—the fans or coaches—is sure whether Tommy Rees or Devin Gardner will be there to catch their teammates.
Rees' story at Notre Dame should be secondhand for most folks. A mid-tier recruit with only relative hype, Rees was thrust into the starting lineup as a freshman three years ago when supposed superstar in the making Dayne Crist went down with an injury.
The rest would be an exercise in brilliant flashes and equally frustrating ones. Rees wound up starting an overwhelming majority of the 2011 campaign, completing 65.5 percent of his passes and throwing 20 touchdowns but always having a penchant for making big mistakes.
Gardner's rise to being the Wolverines' best player is equally circumstance-related. The coaching staff had him practicing with receivers well into last season before an arm injury to Denard Robinson left them desperate. Russell Bellomy's incompetence only expedited the process further.
It's likely if you took a poll of Irish and Wolverine fans, you'd get a higher approval rating for Gardner than Rees. Gardner was good, not great down the stretch, and it seemed logical that he'd be better with a full offseason of preparing as a quarterback. Rees served mostly a reminder of darker times in South Bend.
Through 60 minutes of football this season, however, those poll results might be shifting a bit.
Rees was nothing short of extraordinary last week against Temple. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns, compiling a stellar 94.9 QBR. The Owls aren't exactly scaring anyone—not even their American Athletic Conference foes—so you can obviously take that result however you please. But Rees looked comfortable in his skin, firing a bevy of on-target darts that led to big gains after the catch.
Gardner, on the other hand, had a bit of trouble despite the 50-point blowout. He tossed two picks in the game's first 20 minutes before settling down and finishing 10-of-15 for 162 yards and a touchdown. He was also a little more nimble on his feet than most expected, adding two scores and 52 yards.
Those numbers matter not in a vacuum considering the whole 59-9 scoreboard argument. The concern comes when you try going long term to see whether his mistakes—and they were two pretty decent-sized ones—will carry over going forward.
And that's where the uncertainty comes in. The reality of the situation is that Gardner hasn't reached double-digit starts yet in his collegiate career, and Michigan's offensive attack is relying on him being the best quarterback not named Braxton Miller in the Big Ten. Fans saw last week just how much the offense has changed from a year ago; seeing Gardner look less than steady against a cupcake doesn't exactly ease concerns.
Not that Rees is going to have a street named after him in South Bend. Looking good against Temple is fine and dandy until you reread the sentence and it says "against Temple." Michigan's secondary is one of its most talented units. We'll get a good chance to see whether Rees is actually stepping up now or if Week 1 was just an anomaly.
Either way, whichever one of these two signal-caller steps up will hold the key to Saturday night.
There are a multitude of factors that could swing this game. Quarterback play is just the most notable, where both players fit a certain uncertainty narrative. Michigan's offensive line has to protect and run block. Notre Dame has to figure out which running back is most consistent.
These teams are among the nation's best, but each has glaring inherent flaws. Played on a neutral field, this contest would probably be a pick 'em.
Hence, the mitigating factor I keep coming back to is the crowd. The Big House is hosting its last Notre Dame-Michigan contest for probably a decade or so. They're throwing this game on the biggest of stages, at night, on ESPN and at a time where the vitriol between the two schools seems heightened. Suffice it to say there should be some noise from some (possibly overserved) folks wearing maize and blue.
The Irish are 1-6 in their last seven visits to Ann Arbor, their last win coming in 2005. Lou Holtz is the only Notre Dame coach of the semi-modern era to have any success in that building.
So in lieu of finding any real X's and O's reasons to push one team over the other—they're separated by literally the thinnest of margins—I'm going to trust that Rees won't be able to handle the Big House spotlight. Look for a contest anchored by both defenses, with the Irish falling just short on a fourth-quarter drive. If the result goes the other way, though, no one should be all that shocked.
Score: Michigan 23, Notre Dame 17
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