Michigan vs. Notre Dame: The 1 Game That Will Determine Wolverines' 2014 Season

Phil CallihanContributor IMarch 23, 2014

Can Devin Gardner beat Notre Dame in South Bend?
Can Devin Gardner beat Notre Dame in South Bend?Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The polar vortex brought record snowfall and subarctic temperatures to Ann Arbor, Mich., this winter.

Inside Schembechler Hall, however, the heat is on the Michigan football program. Michigan’s 7-6 finish last season claimed the job of offensive coordinator Al Borges and caused the shake-up of the defensive staff.

While Brady Hoke has the support of athletic director David Brandon, the pressure is on for the team to deliver a Big Ten title or at the very least return to an upper-tier bowl game.

So while Brandon notes that construction continues on Schembechler Hall to "make [it] one of the best football buildings in the nation,” Hoke and his staff work to make Michigan one of the best football teams in the country.

The climb will be difficult.

Entering this season, Michigan has three critical games on the schedule and plays all three away from Michigan Stadium.

With doubts still lingering from last season’s 1-4 November slide followed by a bowl loss to Kansas State, the team’s early-season matchup with Notre Dame takes on increased significance.

Michigan 2014 Football Schedule
August 30Appalachian State
September 6@ Notre Dame
September 13Miami (Ohio)
September 20Utah
September 27Minnesota
October 4@ Rutgers
October 11Penn State
October 25@ Michigan State
November 1Indiana
November 8@ Northwestern
November 22Maryland
November 29@ Ohio State

Notre Dame enters this season as the most vulnerable of Michigan’s key rivals. Ohio State and Michigan State battled for the Big Ten Championship and both have all season to prepare for Michigan.

Michigan needs to beat Notre Dame next season to prove that Hoke has the team back on the path to national prominence.

Ohio State and Michigan State are important, but a loss to Notre Dame on national television would bring all kinds of the wrong attention to Hoke.

Beating Notre Dame would buy Michigan time to get ready for its other rivals.

Losing would cause critics to question why Michigan can’t win on the road. Nothing short of sweeping Ohio State and Michigan State would satisfy fans.

Michigan lost 13-6 the last time the team traveled to South Bend, Ind., while the Fighting Irish gave notice that the series between the two teams would end in 2014. The defense did its job while the offense repeatedly turned the ball over.

Notre Dame went on to play for the national championship and Michigan finished 8-5.

Notre Dame stifled Denard Robinson in 2012.
Notre Dame stifled Denard Robinson in 2012.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

A pattern emerged of the Michigan offense evaporating on the road while rolling up gaudy numbers at home. It would eventually cost Borges his job. 

Michigan’s greatest challenge is to prove that the systematic problems on offense under Borges have been purged.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was brought in to retool the offense, but finds himself with a huge problem on the offensive line.

Michigan needs to replace its two best linemen from last season, tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, while trying improve a position group that struggled.

Efforts to rebuild the line have been hampered by the loss of center Graham Glasgow, who was “suspended for a portion of spring football and will miss the season opener against Appalachian State for a violation of team expectations.” Meanwhile, Eric Magnuson and Joey Burzynski are both out with injuries.

All three are expected to be back for the upcoming season, but are missing critical practice reps this spring.

The Michigan offensive line struggled last season.
The Michigan offensive line struggled last season.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Hoke has denied that the absence of three players expected to be key contributors will hamper the development of the offensive line, but it surely doesn’t inspire confidence.

Michigan does have the advantage at quarterback—if Devin Gardner fully returns from last season’s injury versus Ohio State. Gardner refused that say that he would be fully recovered by next season, but insisted he would be ready to compete—and win the starting quarterback position.

Besides the offensive line, Michigan will need to find new deep threats at wide receiver to replace Jeremy Gallon. Word out of spring practice is that freshmen Freddy Canteen and Drake Harris are battling Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh for playing time.

Derrick Green has dropped 20 pounds since last season.
Derrick Green has dropped 20 pounds since last season.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith are competing at running back, and both showed great potential last season.

Michigan has struggled on the road under Hoke, which he blamed on the youth of his players and lack of roster depth. Those excuses are gone this season.

The dismissal of Borges and the shuffling of the defensive coaches show that Hoke understands he needs to evolve to win the Big Ten Championship.

An early-season victory over Notre Dame is the next step needed to show that Michigan is moving toward that goal.


Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via Press Conferences or in person.