September 07, 2010
Of the multitude of "name-brand" games this weekend, probably none stand to tell us quite as much as Michigan's visit to Notre Dame, or quite as little. One one hand, the Irish and Wolverines have served as an early litmus test for one another for the last 30 years, ad never more so than when one – or, lately, both – are venturing tentatively into a rebuilding year, where a win can essentially confirm the pending turnaround and return to glory everyone secretly expects.
In 2005, it was an upset at Michigan that launched the Irish on a surprising run to the Fiesta Bowl under first-year mastermind Charlie Weis. A year later, it was a Michigan blowout in South Bend that erased the taste of a 7-5 flop in '05 and an 11-0 start, ending in the Rose Bowl. Even when both teams got off to grisly 0-2 starts in 2007, it was a 38-0 rout over the irish that settled Michigan down and kicked off an eight-game Wolverine win streak. Always, one side or the other comes out of this weekend feeling really good about itself.
After last week's summary dispatches of Purdue and UConn, respectively, this year shouldn't be any difference, even though both sides really know better at this point. When Notre Dame hammered Michigan in Rich Rodriguez's third game on a UM sideline in 2008, it wasn't yet the Worst Team in Michigan History; by the time the depth of the Wolverines' woes were becoming abundantly clear, the Irish were on their own descent to 6-6 over the second half of the season. Last year, the dramatic comeback win over ND briefly turned true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier into a Michigan folk hero, but it also turned out to be a mirage: Even before their rapid declines over the last two months (ND and Michigan combined to go 4-12 in October and November, two of the wins coming against Delaware State and Washington State), both teams' fast September starts were already on shaky ground.
The truth we've had trouble discerning in the second and third (and fourth and fifth) games of the season is that those were just bad teams – both years, they both sucked. Through some combination of "tradition" and recruiting rankings and hype and Pavlovian responses to the helmets and fight songs or whatever, that's taken a little time to register: These teams suck. This week, Tate Forcier, third-string transfer risk, is a testament to just how little the game has meant to any kind of larger picture over the last two years.
So we know better, We've learned our lesson about looking to far into the past, have we not? For the third time in the last four years, both the Irish and Wolverines come in unranked, still mired deep in rebuilding mode. We're not about to start imagining January bowl games in Florida or at-large BCS bids here because one unranked team beats another, even in potentially decisive or melodramatic fashion.
Well, maybe. The other fact is that Saturday's game is a collision of exciting new orders – Brian Kelly at Notre Dame vs. Denard Robinson at Michigan – that, as far as we can tell so far, do not suck. For a lot of people, after their respective successes last Saturday, the temptation to anoint the order that's still standing on Saturday night as the log-awaited ticket out of purgatory is going to be fairly overwhelming. Robinson was flatly spectacular in his first start, carving up UConn at will on the ground and acing his test as a full-time passer, showing off an accuracy and command that didn't seem possible when he arrived on campus last year with the arm of a ventriloquist's dummy and the brain of a startled cat. Kelly's first time out in South Bend wasn't such a revelation, but it was the same competent brand of efficient, productive passing and opportunistic defense that led middling Cincinnati into back-to-back bowl games his last two years there – and of course, it was just the first time out. With the possible exception of Michigan's sad-sack secondary, it's not like either team is lacking the players to mount a sustained comeback tour. It's not like they're both going to suck forever.
And for the winner, it's still a safe bet that the theme of the following week will be the extent to which they're really "back" – see last year, when Michigan actually entered the polls after knocking off the Irish, and spent three weeks there. Unless both teams kick the ball around all afternoon in a stultifying gaffe fest that no one could possibly mistake for improvement, it almost seems inevitable: Premature hype is what we do, you know, always ahead of the curve. And based on the existing templates we have to build the appropriate narratives – Kelly's lightning turnaround at Cincinnati, the emergence of Pat White as the messiah of Rodriguez's "spread 'n shred" in West Virginia – the leap from tentative optimism to full-blown hype is a short one. But anyone willing to take it this time is risking another long, hard fall in a month or two when it turns out the new foundation isn't quite as solid yet as it looks.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.