Before I get to this week's abominable opponent, I would be remiss if I did not commend the Irish on a superb road victory in East Lansing. I have been a vocal critic of Brian Kelly and, while he has not won me over yet, he and Bob Diaco deserve plenty of credit for an excellent job on Saturday. It is clear that Kelly's defensive recruiting has started to pay dividends, as the Irish front seven has been simply dominant over the first three games of the 2012 season. Kudos to the players and staff for beating those low rent flag planters to the north.
With Sparty in the rear view mirror, it is time to focus on the hated Wolverines. Ordinarily, I like to start my Michigan week by chewing on some barbed wire and reading John Kryk's acclaimed book, "Natural Enemies," which details the history of the ND-Michigan feud. Unfortunately, I let someone borrow the book last year and he still hasn't returned it, but I will give the Cliffs Notes version from the top of my head:
• Michigan taught Notre Dame how to play football during the 1800s
• After losing the first 8 contests, the fledgling Notre Dame program eventually broke through to beat Michigan in the early 1900s. Michigan, in true sportsmanlike fashion, responded by criticizing the referees and cancelling the series.
• Under Father John Cavanaugh, Notre Dame sought to join the Western Conference (now the Big Ten), but was rebuked by Michigan's virulent anti-Catholic bigot leaders, Fritz Crisler and Fielding Yost. Despite fancying itself as a beacon of progressive education, Michigan still allows Crisler's name to grace its basketball arena and Yost's name to grace its hockey arena.
• Michigan's actions backfired badly, as the exclusion of Notre Dame from the Western Conference led legendary Irish head coach Knute Rockne to adopt his famed "barnstorming" strategy, in which the football team would travel throughout the country to play all comers as an independent. Rockne's approach galvanized a nation of Catholic fans, launched the famous USC rivalry (with an assist to Betty Rockne according to legend) and allowed Notre Dame to become the most storied program in college football, as well as the last great independent.
• Once Notre Dame started winning national championships with regularity in the 1940s, Michigan cancelled the series, leading to a 35 year hiatus
• Beginning in 1987, Lou Holtz beat Bo Schembechler three years in a row, sending Bo into retirement with a tidy losing streak against the Irish, who he loathed as evidenced through his infamous "To Hell With Notre Dame" quote (more on Bo later)
Given this history, it is easy to see why Notre Dame fans harbor animus toward Michigan. For me and many others, however, the real source of enmity stems from haviing to interact at some point with a Michigan Man™. The Michigan Man™ likes to tell you that Notre Dame and Michigan are very similar because they both "do things the right way," are "great academic programs" and are "comparable in terms of football success." If you are dumb enough to believe any of these myths, then you are probably dumb enough to ride shotgun with Gary Moeller sans seatbelt. Time to deconstruct these fallacies, again with bullet points:
• Notre Dame is a much better school than Michigan. Notre Dame accepts about 24% of undergraduate applicants, compared to 42% at Michigan. Likewise, Notre Dame incoming freshman have higher SAT and ACT scores on average. It really isn't a close call.
• For football players, the difference is stark. Notre Dame perenially tops the charts in graduation rate at around 99%, while Michigan consistently lags behind.
• The differences in graduation rate are accentuated when you consider that Notre Dame student athletes actually attend the same classes as the rest of the student body. As exposed by the Ann Arbor News and confirmed by former Michigan QB Jim Harbaugh, the overwhelming majority of Michigan football players are herded into joke majors to ensure eligibility. In other words, UM uses the players for their football skills and kicks them out on the street without a meaningful degree after their eligibility expires. Progressive indeed.
Doing Things The Right Way?
• Notre Dame doesn't recruit predicate felons. Michigan does.
• Notre Dame doesn't bankroll its athletes with funds from illegal gambling rings. Michigan does.
• Notre Dame doesn't exceed NCAA mandated practice restrictions. Michigan does.
• Since the advent of the AP poll, Michigan has won 1.5 titles, while Notre Dame has won 8.
• The lion's share of Michigan's "national championships" took place just after the turn of the century when there were few teams playing college football and when there was not an accepted methodology for ranking teams. This is also why Michigan has the most all time wins.
• Regarding the .5 title, Michigan was fortunate to play a pedestrian Washington State team in the Rose Bowl rather than an undefeated Nebraska team that obliterated Tennessee in the Orange Bowl.
• Michigan fans revere Bo Schembechler, which is quite appropriate because he embodies Michigan football : bitter, biased and overrated. The "legendary" Schembechler won precisely zero national championships and rationalized losses to Notre Dame as being "exhibitions" since they were not conference games.
• Speaking of the Rose Bowl, Bo was 5-12 in bowl games and a robust 2-8 in Rose Bowls. His wins include the Bluebonnet and Hall of Fame Bowls.
• Heismans? Notre Dame 7, Michigan 3 (and, let's be honest, Peyton Manning was far more deserving than Charles Woodson)
Must Win Game
Independent of animosity, the stakes are extremely high for this year's contest. Notre Dame can enter its off week with an unblemished 4-0 record by defeating Michigan. In addition, although polls are not especially meaningful, a win would likely vault Notre Dame into the top ten of the AP Poll, which would be a noteworthy milestone for a program seeking to reach the elite level of college football for the first time in years. From a recruiting standpoint, this game is enormous because, as with last year, there will be an abundance of high school juniors and seniors in attendance. Above all, Brian Kelly is 0-2 against Michigan and falling to 0-3 would be simply unacceptable. For the sake of his career, and my overall health and well being, we cannot lose to Michigan again. We just can't.
With respect to the matchups, Michigan enters the game ranked 57th in total defense and 104th in rushing defense. They have notched just two sacks and zero interceptions. On offense, Michigan is ranked 52nd and the overwhelming bulk of its offense has come from Denard Robinson. The Wolverines have struggled to run the ball effectively with their tailbacks and the scatter armed Robinson has remained characteristically inaccurate (4 INTs). In other words, they are ripe for the beating.
Notre Dame should have no problem moving the ball against Michigan, especially on the ground. Cierre Wood provided a needed shot in the arm for the Irish running game against Michigan State and I expect him to receive a steady share of carries this week, along with Atkinson and Riddick. Prior to the fourth quarter last year, Diaco actually had a decent game plan against Robinson. If Notre Dame can just slow Robinson down a bit, they should be able to win the turnover battle and to score enough points to put away Michigan.
This is going to be a long week of anticipation and there will be some sleepless nights, but I intend to leave Notre Dame Stadium in a very good mood.