Who Gets Back to a National Championship First: Michigan or Notre Dame?
173 consensus All-Americans.
22 national championships.
With combined numbers like that in support (not to mention the two greatest fight songs of all-time), and it's nigh impossible to not make the claim the Michigan and Notre Dame are college football.
However, the two schools have only two national championships between them since 1977, and both programs have seen their share of struggles and bowl-less seasons in recent years.
Over the last two years, each school has cleaned house and brought in a new coach to led them back to their historical perch atop the college football landscape. With each showing early signs of success, the question is begged...
Which team will win a national championship first?
In Michigan's Favor: The Big Ten
As Boise State has proven, it doesn't matter how good of a team you have if your schedule doesn't have several tough tests throughout the season.
That surely will not be a problem for the Wolverines.
With the addition of perennial power Nebraska, the Big Ten now stands at a robust 12 teams. This has resulted in a split into divisions, and more importantly, allowed for a conference title game.
The addition of the title game is a major addition, allowing for one more chance against top competition to impress the voters and the BCS computers.
In addition, the Big Ten is one of the toughest conferences in the nation every single year.
Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State and Michigan State all routinely have strong, if not elite, teams. While this makes Michigan's climb back to the top tougher, it also ensures the critical strength-of-schedule component is high, as well as keeping the Wolverines from getting complacent against lackluster competition.
In Michigan's Favor: Brady Hoke
The Rich Rodriguez experiment was mercifully put to an end after 2010 after the once hot coaching commodity posted the worst winning-percentage (.405) in school history.
Brady Hoke to the rescue.
Hoke brings with him a history of turning once dormant programs around.
As head coach of Ball State, a program that hadn't had a winning season since 1996, he took the Cardinals to bowl games in his final two seasons, including an astonishing 12-1 record in 2008.
That led to an offer to become the head coach at San Diego State, a team coming off a 2-10 record. After two seasons, Hoke had the turned the Aztecs into a nine-win team and Poinsettia Bowl champions.
His success as a recruiter and as a defensive-oriented coach led to his opportunity to lead and rebuild the Michigan program.
It also helps that he has a burning hatred of Ohio State, which he refuses to call by name.
In Michigan's Favor: The Denard Robinson Effect
Sometimes it can be the presence of one player that can change the fortunes of a program. That player has to be transcendent—not just dynamic on the field, but who has an appeal that draws top recruits around the country to his school.
While players of that caliber usually lay the foundation for success, they can sometimes finish the job they started (see: Newton, Cam).
The Wolverines have one of those players in junior quarterback Denard Robinson.
Ironically, it was last season's game against Notre Dame that served as Robinson's introduction onto the national scene. Robinson was nearly superhuman in that game, rushing for 258 yards and two touchdowns and throwing for 244 more yards and another score in Michigan's 28-24 win. He accounted for 502 of the Wolverines' 532 total yards.
The Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year finished the season second in the country in rushing with an NCAA quarterback record 1,702 yards (only 29 behind leader LaMichael James) and 14 touchdowns. He proved to be much more than just a run-first quarterback, as he completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,570 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also became the first player in history to throw for over 2,500 yards and run for 1,500 in the same season.
With Rich Rodriguez' spread option offense no longer in place, Robinson's numbers may not have the same gaudy video game feel to them, but that doesn't make him any less dynamic or dangerous.
Or appealing to potential recruits nationwide.
In Michigan's Favor: Ohio State's NCAA Troubles
The rules of sportsmanship tell us that it is poor form to take pleasure in an opponent's misfortunes.
If you are Michigan and that opponent is Ohio State, sportsmanship goes right out the window to the tune of hearty laughter.
In the wake of the Tat-5 scandal, Jim Tressel's resignation and Terrelle Pryor's departure, the Buckeye program is in a state of shock. They recently self-imposed sanctions, including the vacation of all of their 2010 wins, but the spectre of harsh NCAA punishment still hangs an apocalyptic shadow over Columbus.
The Wolverines are already reaping the benefits of this, as five-star recruit and highest rated prospect in Ohio Kyle Kalis recently de-committed from the Buckeyes to go to Michigan.
He likely won't be the last prominent recruit who will bypass Ohio State and their self-made chaos for the winged helmets of Michigan.
More immediately, this balances the power somewhat on the field. While the Buckeyes still have a formidable talent base, they no longer are a national title contender in the near term and are in a state of rebuilding, while the Wolverines are on the rise.
Will this be the season the maize line over takes it's scarlet counterpart on the line graph of Big Ten power?
In Michigan's Favor: Recruiting Strength
At the end of the day, the true strength of a program comes from one source—recruiting.
If early indications are to be believed, Michigan is well on its way to returning to the company of college football's elite in that area.
Their 2012 class is already shaping up to be a tremendous boon to the program and one of the very best in the nation.
They currently have an impressive 20 commitments for next season, including nine four or five-star prospects. Among those are three players in ESPN's Top 150, which currently gives Michigan the sixth ranked class in the nation.
Given Michigan's weakness on defense, it's no surprise that the class is heavy in that area with seven of their top 10 rated players. Among the top recruits in the class is cornerback Terry Richardson (pictured), but Michigan is also loading up on talent along both lines, such as the previously mentioned Kyle Kalis.
If these prospects pan out, the Wolverines will be BCS bowling very soon.
In Notre Dame's Favor: Brian Kelly
Much like Michigan and Brady Hoke, Notre Dame recently brought in a new head coach who found great success at a non-traditional power. However, unlike Hoke, Brian Kelly already has had success at the BCS level.
After compiling a 34-6 record during his time as Cincinnati's head coach, Kelly was brought in to help restore the Notre Dame aura after the worst decade in school history (70-52).
Kelly's Irish struggled early on in his first season, starting 1-3. More complications arose after dropping consecutive games to Navy and Tulsa in which his defense not only surrendered 63 points, but the team lost quarterback Dayne Crist for the remainder of the season due to injury.
Kelly rallied his team around backup Tommy Rees, the defense stepped up and the Irish finished the season on a four game winning streak, including a Sun Bowl win over Miami.
By Notre Dame's lofty standards, the 8-5 record is modest. But in the context of recent years and the mess left by the Charlie Weis era, it is a promising beginning.
He is a proven winner who just may be the answer in South Bend.
In Notre Dame's Favor: Scheduling
As an independent, Notre Dame lacks certain benefits, such as automatic BCS berths for a conference title or a chance to play in a conference title game.
Yet they also have the freedom to construct their own schedule as they see fit, and with many of their annual rivals being perennial powers, Notre Dame is all but guaranteed a top schedule every season.
Michigan, Stanford, USC and Navy are perennial Fighting Irish opponents, but they will be joined over the next few seasons by other top teams.
Oklahoma plays a series against Notre Dame in 2012 and 2013, Arizona State will battle the Irish in 2013 and 2014 and Texas will play two series the first in 2015 and 2016 with the second spanning 2019 and 2020.
These games illustrate that no matter the year, conference or circumstance, Notre Dame takes on the nation's best programs, something for which they deserve a vast amount of credit—in addition to that which they will receive from the BCS computers.
In Notre Dame's Favor: The Allure and Mystique
Brian Kelly's success has continued this off-season on the recruiting trail.
He is in the process of putting together a top 15 recruiting class for 2012 that currently consists of 12 recruits, including five four-star recruits and three in ESPN's Top 150, that is heavy on speed.
While Kelly's skills as a recruiter seem sharp, the greatest asset he has is the allure and cachet of being a member of college football's most storied program.
The list of traditions goes on and on, and the chance to be a part of that is something that is very appealing to player across the nation. When a championship-caliber team is added to the equation, it can be downright irresistible.
In Notre Dame's Favor: A Defense Is Born
One thing that the Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly eras have in common is an offense that favors a dyanmic passing game.
With both Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees returning at quarterback, and several young and touted wide receivers coming in, that aerial success figures to continue into 2011.
What is far less clear is whether the defense will be able to carry over their late season success. While the Irish can score a ton of points, they also surrendered them by the bushel over the season's first nine games and not surprisingly the team found themselves 4-5.
However, they hit their stride over the final four games, giving up only 39 points during that span.
Aiding their efforts to continue their stellar play will be bolstered by talented newcomers, especially at defensive end, where they landed three of the nation's top 10 recruits at the position. If the defensive line can grow into an elite unit, that will only help a talented secondary be more effective. With a deep linebacking corps, the Fighting Irish could have the makings of a truly scary defense.
In Notre Dame's Favor: NBC
Some schools get a rare appearance on national television. Some schools are part of their conference's regional network.
Notre Dame gets one of the four national major broadcast networks all to themselves.
Since 1991, NBC has been the exclusive home of the Fighting Irish's home games. The first contract paid out $38-million over five years, with Notre Dame receiving half the money, while the rest is divided upon amongst their opponents.
After receiving nearly $9-million annually on the following deal, the partnership was renewed through the 2015 season and includes additional content on partner networks and online.
The financial windfall for the university is clear and certainly helps the school with scholarships and facilities, but the greatest asset is exposure.
Already the most recognizable brand name in the sport, having one of the major networks that is available to every television set in the nation is an immense recruiting tool, despite lagging ratings in recent seasons.
In 2009, the team began scheduling one neutral site game a year to help further the Irish reach across the recruiting landscape.
As with their illustrious histories, the margin between Michigan and Notre Dame is again razor thin.
With Michigan, you have a major conference team that has laid the critical foundation of proven coach and dynamic player in place. Add to that an ever growing and highly touted recruiting class, and the pieces for long term contender is slowly coming into focus—provided Hoke is not a bust on the big stage.
As for Notre Dame, you have the biggest name in the sport with a year headstart on the rebuilding process. The resources are immaculate and the allure and aura of the program is as pristine as the gold flakes on the helmets.
Given that Brian Kelly has already proven to be a very capable—if not great—coach has the makings of dominant units on both sides of the ball and the resources and unmatched exposure in recruiting, the Fighting Irish figure to beat their longtime rivals back to the throne of college football.
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