They play semi-annually, sometimes grudgingly, and both count a different foe as their chief foil.
But if you grew up on Notre Dame or Michigan football in the 1980s, this is your rivalry. ND/USC? (I never suffered through a loss to the Trojans in middle school, high school or college…kind of hard to hate the nail when you're the hammer, as young USC fans would surely agree.)
Notre Dame and Michigan, on the other hand, have met on 26 occasions since the series resumed in 1978: the Irish hold a 13-12-1 edge.
Before national games were split into regions; before ABC wisely added a prime time matchup to its schedule and before the BCS title regularly ran through a team from the south, the ND/UM game marked the unofficial start to the college football season.
18 times the teams faced off from 1978 through 1999 – both programs were ranked in 15 of those matchups; at least one squad ranked in each. Seven times the matchup featured two Top 10 squads whose national title hopes were leveled by mid-September. Either Notre Dame or Michigan was ranked No. 1, 2 or 3 on nine occasions in that span.
On the Rise?The 2006 matchup, won easily and brutishly by the visiting Wolverines, marks the last time the game was nationally relevant. Michigan was due for a win that day – they emerge from South Bend with a victory once per decade (1978, 1986, 1994, 2006); Notre Dame fares only marginally better in The Big House, winning in 1979, 1987 and '89, 1993 and 2005.
Tomorrow's winner will hit the practice field Monday nationally ranked and among the feel-good stories of September. Michigan enjoyed the brief notoriety last season before plummeting to earth, losing 7 of 8. The Irish fared well for the next 45 days then dropped their last four. A repeat nose-dive by Michigan would elicit a coaching change; if the Irish drop even three straight at any point this season the honeymoon will end for a coach who's avoided a single hiccup over nine months.
For his part, Irish coach Brian Kelly has downplayed the significance of one contest.
"I want to be careful not to underplay the significance of the game, this game is more than the rivalry," Kelly said Thursday night. "It's still about identifying who we are as a football team. That's where my focus is.
"It's more important that my team gains an identity and respect for how they're going to play the game more so than what my personal feelings are playing against Michigan," Kelly added.
Technically he's correct and a coach's approach certainly shouldn't vary because fans put more stock in one win than another, but Kelly has yet to see Notre Dame Stadium in fervor. He's about to experience what the Michigan game means to South Bend.
The season-opener vs. Purdue? Listen, when Purdue beats Notre Dame (5 times since Lou Holtz left), it's because Everybody is beating the Irish (38 total losses in those select 5 seasons). In the 13 seasons in which Notre Dame has defeated Michigan since the series resumed, the Irish have averaged 9 wins per.
As a whole, ND fans are spoiled and comparatively well-mannered. When matched up with Purdue, Stanford, Pittsburgh, and Utah…well, the denizens generally need a reason to cheer.
Saturday's a different animal. Saturday is Michigan. Saturday is a proving ground for both programs. Saturday's Stadium crowd and corresponding atmosphere will be the largest and most boisterous ever to favor a Brian Kelly-led squad. A Saturday win would start the course for a season of success in keeping with former program standards; standards to which Kelly has aspired since his first press conference.
Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez has lost 8 of his last 9 road contests. Brian Kelly has won 19 consecutive regular season games. Michigan exits South Bend once every 8-12 seasons with a W…they'll have a new Michigan Man roaming the sidelines the next time that three-hour bus ride northeast is full of smiles.
Notre Dame 30 Michigan 29
Season Prediction Record: 1-0; Against the Spread: 1-0
Note: IrishEyes will have more on the matchup in this afternoon's Friday Free-for-All column. For detailed previews and statistical notes on Saturday's contest, follow this link.