Devin Gardner's Play vs. Notre Dame Will Reveal Michigan Wolverine's Ceiling

Alex BallentineFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2013

Aug 31, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner (12) drops back to pass in the second quarter against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines could be a BCS sleeper or a team on the periphery of the Big 10 title race. Most of that is up to starting quarterback Devin Gardner

With Brady Hoke's squad set to take on rival Notre Dame at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, we're about to get a much better look at where Gardner and the rest of the Wolverines stand. 

Gardner's first start as the unquestioned leader of the Wolverine's offense against the Central Michigan Chippewas yielded mixed results. Overall, the offense put up 59 points and ran the ball for 242 yards. So while no one will complain, Gardner's passing numbers were less than stellar. 

He went 10-for-15 for just 162 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions as Michigan kept things fairly vanilla against their in-state foes from the MAC. 

This week, Michigan won't have the luxury of keeping things simple. Notre Dame boasts a talented front seven on defense that includes NFL-caliber talents on the defensive line in Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, while Michigan's interior offensive line trio of Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis are all either freshmen or sophomores. 

They played well last week as the Wolverines ran to a victory, but this week will be a different challenge unto itself.

Hoke can't expect for the Michigan running game to churn out another game of 5.1 yards per carry on 47 attempts against the Notre Dame defense that held them to 3.9 yards per carry on 41 attempts last season. They'll need Gardner to balance out the offense to alleviate the pressure for his young offensive line. 

Last season, the Wolverines were a talented team, but failed to beat the Irish because Robinson didn't pose enough of a threat in the passing game to keep Notre Dame from stacking the box. "Shoelace" contributed 90 yards on the ground, but he completed just 13-of-24 passes and threw four interceptions as turnovers doomed the offense in a slugfest. 

Now, the Wolverines once again have a talented squad that should match up well with the Irish. As the second-highest ranked team in the Big 10, behind their bitter rivals in Ohio State, Michigan is just one upset at the end of the season away from being the favorite to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. 

However, proving that they are deserving of that ranking begins with beating Notre Dame. And that begins with Gardner proving that he can recapture the form last season that allowed him to pass for 11 touchdowns and five interceptions in the final stretch of last season.