Suddenly, the Michigan-Notre Dame football game has national relevance
The game had barely ended inside Michigan Stadium and the reminder rang down from the student section.
Forget about Western Michigan, the Wolverines faithful knew what was next.
“Beat the Irish,” the crowd chanted. “Beat the Irish.”
Lest anyone think this game isn’t a big deal anymore, consider the largest boos Saturday came whenever the continued Notre Dame beatdown of Nevada was announced.
The difference now, at least compared to the past couple of years, is an interest because of actual football being played instead of the trainwreckian attributes of the 0-fer Bowl in 2007 and Fumblepalooza 2008.
The Michigan-Notre Dame was important then. Now, though, there’s more of a national tinge to it.
“I would hope,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I would think Michigan-Notre Dame is always going to have a national tone. It’s one of the greatest rivalries there are.”
Michigan and Notre Dame haven’t both entered this game undefeated since 2006. Since then, the Irish have undergone a two-year swoon. Michigan, after rallying around Lloyd Carr and a bunch of seniors in 2007, collapsed in 2008.
Yet, here we are again. Michigan and Notre Dame are undefeated. Both are on the cusp of national relevance for on-field play instead of off-field drama. And yet, in some fitting way, they stand in front of each other attempting to have a breakthrough.
To be fair, this game means a lot more for Notre Dame and Charlie Weis than it does Michigan. The Wolverines’ big game was last week against Western. In that game it showed flashes of coming back.
A win Saturday would burst that door open. But there’s at least some feeling considering the youth within the Michigan program that as long as Rodriguez and Michigan don’t get blown out, that he’s playing with house money this week. A 3-1 September is attainable and likely.
Yet in South Bend, Weis needs to win this game in his fifth year. Last year’s win - the same game where his knees were taken out by Notre Dame defensive end John Ryan - was arguably Weis’ biggest at the time.
And Michigan ended up finishing 3-9. Now, a year later, it appears Weis may have something special in South Bend. And there is pressure for him to be in the conversation for the BCS or risk losing his job.
Beating Michigan, with the rest of the Irish schedule weak at best save for USC, Michigan State and possibly Stanford and Pittsburgh, pushes a long way toward that bar.
To prove itself as a BCS contender, beating Michigan is a must. Crushing a hapless Nevada team is one thing. Taking care of suddenly-potent Michigan is another. This is where Notre Dame should be concerned.
Historically, this rivalry has provided some underdog upsets. In 2006, Notre Dame was the No. 2 team in the country and looked like national title contenders. Michigan went to South Bend, trounced the Irish, 47-21, and Notre Dame never recovered as a title contender.
A year earlier, Michigan was ranked third in the country with the Irish coming to Ann Arbor. Notre Dame won, 17-10, and Michigan tumbled to 7-5. Since 2002 when the teams have played yearly, the lower-or-unranked team has won four times. Twice, neither team was ranked and 2003, then-No. 5 Michigan beat then-No. 15 Notre Dame, 38-0.
The Irish will almost assuredly be ranked again when the newest poll comes out Tuesday. Michigan won’t.
The winner Saturday, though, will likely be in a position to be in the rankings for a while along with back in the national discussion.
That’s what the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry does. It sets tones for both teams’ seasons. It also has much more national credence than most.
“It’s bigger on a national stage,” Schilling said. “Nobody out here knows what the Apple Cup is. A lot of people don’t know what the Apple Cup is.
“The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry is something that goes back I don’t know how long. It’s definitely bigger on the national stage.”
Only this time, it’s not just the names that are heavyweights. One of the teams playing might emerge as one, too.