Friday, September 21, 2012

Wake Up the Echoes or Put Them Back to Sleep?

Michigan, Notre Dame. These used to be the biggest, baddest, most sanctimonious, self-important but also the winningest two programs in all the land.

Well, that last part is still factually correct. Michigan has won more games than any other program, Notre Dame is third. The Wolverine have the highest winning percentage in history, by four-one-thousandth of a percentage point over the Irish.

But the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry has always been a bit manufactured. They didn't get serious about an annual battle until 1978, resuming a series that was abandoned after Michigan got pissed because Notre Dame got good under Knute Rockne. The renewal of the rivalry came a bit late with both programs beginning to hit the twilight phase of their respective existence.

To be sure, the games have been thrilling, especially of late. In the last three years, the outcomes were decided with 11, 27 and 2 seconds remaining, respectively, with Michigan pulling it out in dramatic fashion each time. But you can't help but feeling that it's a bit like watching Ali and Frazier slugging it out - when each is in his 70s, throwing uppercuts while leaning on a walker.

This year, though, things might be just a tad different.

Notre Dame is off to its first 3-0 start since 2002, instantly inspiring talks of the program's first championship run since 1993. The idle chatter really picked up steam last week after the Irish throttled then-No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing. If they beat Michigan this week, expect lots of frothing at the mouth, especially coming from the likes of Mike Golic and Lou Holtz, up on the mothership in Bristol.

The Irish also found other ways to stay in the news, with the recent announcement that they're joining the ACC in all sports except football (sorta). Part of the deal is that Notre Dame has to play five ACC teams a year in football, starting perhaps as soon as 2013. That also means the series with Michigan might be put on ice in the near future.

Michigan AD Dave Brandon revealed last year that though the schools have verbally agreed to a 20-year extension to keep the series going until 2031, the contract was never signed and therefore both sides are now operating under a gentleman's agreement. Notre Dame has no way of fulfilling its ACC commitment for the 2014 season without dumping at least two games, so there's a chance Saturday's game might be Michigan's last appearance in South Bend in awhile if the series is put on hiatus.

Notre Dame desperately needs to beat Michigan to stay BCS-relevant for this season as its schedule is only going to get more difficult after Saturday. Still to come for the Irish are a home game against Stanford and road games against Oklahoma and USC. All that national championship happy talk will instantly vaporize with a fourth straight loss to the Wolverines, to be replaced by depressing dialogue about which amongst Orlando, Tampa or Jacksonville has the best Waffle House for the Irish's December bowl trip.

Of course, Michigan, which had its own national relevance shredded by Alabama in its opener, would like nothing better to do the same to Notre Dame, preferably in thrilling fashion again. Not since Roosevelt (Teddy) was president, when the Wolverines were an early adapter of the new sport, have they beaten the Irish four consecutive times.

The rest of the college football world have caught these venerable programs and passed them by. But for one night, under the gaze of Touchdown Jesus, Old Man Football will be back on center stage.


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