Michigan Football: Big Test Against Notre Dame Will Define Wolverines' Season

Mike HoagCorrespondent IISeptember 7, 2013

ANN ARBOR, MI - AUGUST 31: Devin Gardner #12 of the Michigan Wolverines runs for a first quarter touchdown past Louis Palmer #56 of the Central Michigan Chippewas at Michigan Stadium on August 31, 2013 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Stomping Central Michigan 59-9 really isn’t a good barometer for this year’s Michigan Wolverines football team. In Week 2, though, Brady Hoke’s new-look squad will face one of its toughest challenges this season. That isn’t just hyperbole, and Hoke knows it.

“No disrespect to Central, but Notre Dame has some big guys up front who have played a lot of snaps,” the coach said, per the Associated Press' Jack Miller. “It's going to be a much bigger test.”

Those big guys are part of a stout front seven that stifled his team to just six points in South Bend a season ago. The Irish held Michigan to under 300 yards of total offense (299) and forced six turnovers.

Besides San Diego Chargers draft pick Manti Te’o, most of those guys will make the trip to Ann Arbor for their chance to avenge their shootout loss to Hoke’s team at the Big House in 2011.

NFL-ready talents like 6'6" defensive end Stephon Tuitt and 357-pound defensive tackle Louis Nix III will provide a true test for a Michigan offensive line that is starting three new underclassmen.

Finding out how far along that group is will help identify just how far this Wolverines team is prepared to go in 2013. But despite those lofty expectations, Hoke isn’t getting ahead of himself.

 “We’re obviously playing with a lot of young guys who haven’t played a lot,” he said, per Todd Jones of the Columbus Dispatch. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Three of Michigan’s five losses in 2012 came in nail-biters, along with two narrow victories over Northwestern and Michigan State. After failing to win the majority of those close contests and turning over much of their roster during the offseason—11 total returning starters—that’s a spot-on assessment by the third-year head coach.

There are a lot of expectations for the Wolverines this season, with Big Ten title aspirations being the biggest. An early win over a rival and national powerhouse would cultivate the type of confidence it takes to accomplish those ends. In order to win championships, teams have to believe they can do it first.

Devin Gardner, most of all, needs to not only believe in himself and prove that he can handle the pressure of big games. After starting the last five games of 2012, he has demonstrated he can be effective. But how will that translate when the country is watching on national television against a defense like Notre Dame’s?

That’s also a big takeaway for the young Wolverines in this game. For a team that potentially plans to rotate many underclassmen in and out of games, they’ll get their first dose of pressure under the lights. Winning in those conditions will help them prepare for future spotlight matchups like The Game and potentially the Big Ten Championship Game.