If Notre Dame never plays Michigan again in football after this weekend, I’m good.
Michigan gets more out of this matchup than Notre Dame, and remember: Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a rivalry game for the Fighting Irish, and it was Notre Dame officials who announced six years ago they were whacking these guys from their schedule, you know, not the other way around.
While I’m thinking about it, the Irish also can dropkick their yearly matchup with Navy, but that’s another column.
As for this one, I’m The Notre Dame Guy, born and raised in South, Bend, Ind., and when you bleed blue and gold like I do, the reaction after most Irish victories isn’t glee. It’s relief. It’s the realization they somehow survived despite all of those things making it a miracle they don’t go winless every season.
Unlike most college teams, Notre Dame doesn’t regularly enhance its roster by taking junior college transfers or by giving players an extra year of eligibility through redshirting. The Irish haven’t banned junior college transfers. They just take one every other solar eclipse, and if I told you all of the qualifications the average Notre Dame athlete must satisfy for the university to get redshirted, I’d run out of cyberspace. According to Irish spokesperson John Heisler, the few Notre Dame football players granted an extra year of eligibility usually receive their degree in four years and “then are in a graduate program for at least that fifth fall, and sometimes longer.”
That doesn’t sound like Clemson, Ohio State or just about anywhere else where the objective is football first, second and beyond, especially under the NCAA’s new rule that allows players to appear in four games for a season and still redshirt.
Here’s another reason I’m stunned when the Irish don’t lose: They join Southern Cal and UCLA as the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs that have never played a Football Championship Subdivision opponent. In other words, from the days of Knute Rockne to those of Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz and now Brian Kelly, Notre Dame hasn’t feasted off football cupcakes.
Georgia opens against Austin Peay.
The 12th-ranked Irish face No. 14 Michigan.
We’re back to Michigan, and this ties into the biggest reason neither the Irish nor their fans can exhale all season: For their opponents, THE NOTRE DAME GAME is the most ballyhooed one on their schedule. Even for Michigan. Especially for Michigan, with more victories (943) than any team in college football history. The Wolverines also have won a record 73 percent of the time, and I hear what you’re saying. Notre Dame isn’t their top obsession. I mean, the Wolverines have those yearly battles in the Big Ten against Ohio State, their scarlet-and-gray nemesis, and Michigan State, their pesky instate foe.
Well, consider this: Michigan Stadium has been around for 91 years, and it’s called the Big House since nobody in college football has more than its 110,000 seats. The most attended game ever at Michigan Stadium didn’t involve Ohio State or Michigan State, and the second-most attended football game ever at Michigan Stadium also didn’t involve Ohio State or Michigan State.
It was THE NOTRE DAME GAME both times.
In September 2011, a then-record crowd of 114,804 watched the Irish play in Ann Arbor. Two years later, 115,109 folks topped that by filling every centimeter of The Big House for the final game at Michigan between these two teams. That was the year after Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick dropped the Wolverines to accommodate the Irish’s future scheduling reality. He wanted to combine Notre Dame’s legendary independence status with the requirements for bringing its other sports into the Atlantic Coast Conference, which meant he preferred to keep Notre Dame’s true rivalry games (Navy, Stanford and Southern Cal) and cut some of the others.
Like Michigan, which first played Notre Dame in 1887. After that, the series stopped and started four times for various reasons until the late 1970s. Even then, the two teams didn’t play continuously before Swarbrick’s cancellation notice to Michigan before the 2012 game, and former Wolverines coach Brady Hoke told his boosters that Notre Dame “chickened out.”
Guess Hoke’s mouth didn’t matter. During the last meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan in 2014 in South Bend, the Irish gave Hoke a shove toward the door with the Wolverines after a 37-0 smackdown. So Michigan players have that to get jacked up about, and they also know Jim Harbaugh is fighting for his job. Among other lowlights, he is 1-5 against Ohio State and Michigan State during his previous three years with the Wolverines as the most overly hyped coach in college football history.
This is Michigan’s Super Bowl, but what else is new for the Wolverines when they play Notre Dame? For the Irish, it’s just another huge game. They’ll keep inhaling the rest of the way against nationally ranked Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Southern Cal, and they’ll face Wisconsin, Clemson and even Ohio State during the next few years.
In case you’re wondering, after Saturday’s game in South Bend, the Irish go to Michigan in 2019, and then the series ends again.