As the hours dwindle in preparation for Saturday night's top-25 matchup between the Michigan Wolverines and Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Ann Arbor, the fallout for any result is clearly defined.
For the victor, a triumph in this historic rivalry will very likely come with a top-10 ranking. The cupcake meter for top teams still reads a bright red—except for you, Georgia, you crazy kids—meaning having the fortitude to play an elite opponent carries more sway with voters than it would when everyone is doing it.
Couple in the rankers' propensity for giving historic powers a little bit of a bump regardless, and you have the makings of an early statement game for both sides. The Irish parlayed their 13-6 win over Michigan in South Bend last season into their first top-10 ranking of the season.
For the loser, meanwhile, skepticism will be boundless. Notre Dame is ranked No. 14 by the Associated Press and Michigan No. 17, but both teams come in with enough red flags to fit in at Pamplona. The Irish replaced a bevy of starters from last season's national championship runner-up, while the shadow of Denard Robinson continues to loom large over the Wolverine offense.
A loss on national television in prime time could only heighten the awareness of those flaws. Just as rankers are easily swayed by early-season wins by national powers, they are also quick to write them off as ghosts of the past. Michigan dropped out of the rankings after this matchup last season—and for good reason. The defending Sugar Bowl champs dropped all the way down to 8-5 in Brady Hoke's second season, a result they'll look to improve on this season.
But could Saturday night spark a similar result on both sides of the coin? Anything is possible. With that in mind, let's check in with a preview of Saturday's action and select a winner for the most notable game of Week 2 (in the northern part of the country).
When: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Betting Line: Michigan -4
Michigan vs. Notre Dame Preview
No matter the result Saturday night, a majority of this game will be about answering looming roster concerns. The Wolverines used their Dexter toolkit to slice up cupcake Central Michigan by 50 points. Notre Dame defeated a Temple squad that will be overmatched in the American Athletic Conference.
Those results aren't exactly telling us much about the viability of either roster. Luckily, if top-25 matchups are good for anything, it's weeding the good players from the flukey performances.
The easiest place to start on both rosters in that regard is at quarterback.
Notre Dame signal-caller Tommy Rees may embody that "fluke or breakout star" question better than anyone. Rees, who spent two years as perhaps the Irish's most polarizing figure in 2010 and 2011, is back under center full-time and came out with a vengeance last week against Temple. He threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns on 16-of-23 passing, giving the Irish an early lead they wouldn't relinquish.
The 21-year-old quarterback led his offense on consecutive three-play drives to start the game, connecting with DaVaris Daniels on two 32-yard touchdowns. Rees would go on to finish with seven completions of 20 yards or more, a number the now-departed Everett Golson never reached last season.
It was a promising start for an Irish offense that will be expected to carry a greater deal of the weight this season. But, again, it was Temple. We'll get a far better idea of where Rees' career trajectory lies when he faces a Michigan secondary anchored by Blake Countess, who should re-emerge as one of the nation's best corners this season after missing much of 2012 with a knee injury.
If Rees is able to keep his stellar play going this week, we may have to look at Notre Dame's passing attack in a whole different light this season.
While the Irish secondary isn't led by a superstar in the making, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner has some concerns of his own he'll need to address. Gardner was one of the Wolverines' only net-negative performances last week, his mediocre passing performance (10-of-15 for 162 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) only really atoned for by a 22-yard scamper for a score.
Now, it's fair to say Gardner receives praise both for his running and passing abilities. But Michigan added a great deal of pro stylings to its offensive attack this season, ones that were designed to highlight the improvement from Denard Robinson under center. If Gardner is making the same mistakes as Robinson—bad interceptions that dig his team a hole—without having as much oomph on the ground, the Wolverines may struggle for points this season.
Running backs Derrick Green and Fitzgerald Toussaint split the workload last week, but neither stood out as a world-beater. Green has immense talent and should be a superstar perhaps even by next season; he just doesn't have the vision and patience yet to go with the physical skills. Toussaint is still working his way back from injury, so it's hard to judge where he'll be in a couple weeks. The explosiveness just wasn't there yet.
And the traditional ground game is unlikely to see a boost this week. Despite the loss of Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and others, Notre Dame's front seven remains one of the best in college football. Blink your eyes and Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix will find themselves in the NFL. The linebacking corps boasts three senior starters.
All that said, there is plenty of reason to think Gardner will right the ship. He was able to calm himself down after those initial interceptions to finish with a QBR of over 90—not bad for a supposed down game. With Michigan's elite secondary likely to give Rees problems—expect at least one pick—this contest should be low scoring and come down to the smallest of factors.
With Notre Dame having won just once in its last seven tries at the Big House, it's fair to be skeptical of Brian Kelly's squad pulling it off.
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