Trouble Spot #4 – Michigan

A prime-time date in the Big House vs. restructured Michigan ranks as one of Notre Dame's toughest tests in 2011.

Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the rankings.

Trouble Spot No. 4 – Michigan

The Irish haven't lost three straight to the Wolverines since Theodore Roosevelt ceded his presidency. (I believe tight end Mike Ragone had just given his verbal pledge to the Irish…)

Fired Michigan head man Rich Rodriguez finished 2-1 in his three years at the controls in Ann Arbor, beating former Irish head coach Charlie Weis in 2007 and 2009, then winning a classic over Brian Kelly's first Irish team, 28-24 last September.

A Wolverines victory this September would be mark three straight in the series for the first time since Notre Dame handled Michigan in four consecutive matchups – each pitting two top 15 squads – from 1987 through 1990.

Situation (date, time, location): Saturday, September 10, at 8 ET in Ann Arbor on ESPN. The contest will be the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium, with both teams wearing commemorative throwback jerseys for the occasion.

Michigan/Irish Game Slot: The Irish are the featured product in a directional Michigan sandwich, with the Wolverines first hosting Western Michigan in the opener, then welcoming Eastern Michigan one week following their contest with the Irish.

Notre Dame entertains South Florida prior to, and rival Michigan State following, its battle with the Wolverines.

National View of Michigan

Athlon's predicts the Wolverines will finish fourth in the newly-formed, "Legends" division, while placing 40th nationally. Lindy's slots the Wolverines 5th overall in the Big 10 (while wisely ignoring the division split) but among its Top 30 nationally at #29 (ahead of eight Irish foes) while Phil Steele has Michigan as his #41-ranked squad.

My View of the Wolverines: The hiring of new head coach Brady Hoke will make the Wolverines immeasurably better in 2012-13, and beyond. And Year One of the Hoke regime will likely produce a better Michigan product at season's end than would Year Four of the Rodriguez era.

But is Michigan 2011 better equipped to defeat Notre Dame in Week Two this September? Or will the regime change's inevitable bumps in the road prove evident vs. the experienced, much-improved Irish defense?

The Hoke hiring was inarguably an upgrade: I'm not sure it will be evident on September 10 to the casual observer, or on the scoreboard.

(I had originally rated this contest at No. 2 on the Trouble Spots list, but had ignored the reality that a program's growing pains often outweigh emotion and the rivalry element – see Notre Dame, 2010).

Coaching Element

Rich Rodriguez spread offense was run expertly by 2010 wunderkind Denard Robinson as the Wolverines led the Big 10 in yards per game and the QB they call "Shoelaces" torched the Irish last September in one of the most impressive individual performances by a Notre Dame opponent in program history (258 rushing, 244 passing yards). But Rodriguez's defenses ranked among the worst in Michigan history, and practice violations, both in and off-season, under his guidance resulted in the first NCAA sanctions levied vs. the Wolverines in the team's 100-plus seasons of football.

Enter the aforementioned Hoke, the ex-Ball State sage and former San Diego State head man who guided the BSU Cardinals to an unlikely 12-1 season in 2008, and the Aztecs to a 9-4 finish last fall. Hoke took over a San Diego State program that finished 2-10 prior to his arrival in 2009 (the Aztecs lost to Notre Dame, 21-13 in the '08 opener in South Bend) and took them to a bowl victory last season for the first time since 1969.

Hoke's pro style offense and 4-3 defense represent a stark change from the spread and 3-3-5 of the brief Rodriguez era, and running the defense will be ex-Irish assistant coach (1997-2001) and defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, who also aided the Wolverines in the same capacity during the early-to-mid 90s.

Al Borges came with Hoke from San Diego State to run the offense. Borges formerly coordinated Auburn's attack (2004-07), during which the Tigers finished 42-9 including a 13-0 finish during his first season at the helm.

Trap Game Potential

None. The trap element does not exist when college football's greatest September rivalry renews.

Key elements to the Wolverines' Defense/Offense

Pro Style, spread, triple-option, sandlot, Power-I…it doesn't matter: QB Denard Robinson will and should key the Wolverines offense. He's the best natural runner in college football and among its fastest players, at least when healthy and at full strength which he should be on September 10.

A host of talented, quick-footed wideouts return to ease Robinson's transition to the new pro-style offense as do both running backs from last year's contest and tight end Kevin Koger, a talented, under-utilized weapon in recent seasons.

Greg Mattison's defense is spearheaded by nose tackle Mike Martin, a player talented enough to move up and down the line of scrimmage, and underrated lanky linebacker, Craig Roh.

Safety Jordan Kovacs is the most seasoned player in a secondary that continues to rebuild (and reload with returning cornerbacks, notably Troy Woolfolk) after a rash of injuries/transfers from the previous season and regime.

Martin, Roh, and Kovacs all starred in last year's win in South Bend, though the latter pair struggled at times vs. more cohesive offenses during the 2010 season. Linebacker Jonas Mouton, the defensive player of the game in last year's Michigan win, has graduated.

Advantage Irish? I expect Robinson to run and run often early in 2011, especially vs. the Irish, but Michigan's new pro-style approach does not highlight the sandlot runner's skill set. Notre Dame's defense gains a distinct advantage each time Shoelaces remains in the pocket rather than stressing the unit's perimeter with his otherworldly running skills.

Notre Dame is a much more sound defensive unit than the group that faced Robinson and his cohorts in Week Two last fall.

Relevant Storylines

It's the first night game in the 85-year history of the Big House; both teams will wear throwback jerseys in a nationally televised contest on ESPN…and all of that pomp and frill is irrelevant compared to the following:

Not since 1978 has a Notre Dame team that lost to Michigan finished among the nation's Top 10 at season's end. Just two others (1991, 2006) concluded the season ranked.

The Irish are 1-5 at Michigan since 1993, and have lost two straight and 4 of 5 meetings for the first time since the series resumed in 1978. Outside of Michigan's eight wins in the series' first nine meetings (1887-1908), the two teams have split the last 29 meetings: 14-14-1. (13-13-1 since '78.)

If the Irish are to entertain realistic BCS bowl hopes, they must beat Michigan in Ann Arbor in Week Two.

Puncher's Chance for an upset? High, if you've never watched college football and could somehow categorize Michigan beating Notre Dame in Ann Arbor as any form of upset.

Assuming an ND win vs. South Florida in the opener, the Irish should be a mild favorite (between 3 and 4.5 points) entering the contest. Conversely, Michigan could receive an early test vs. an improved, veteran Western Michigan unit the week prior, pushing the Vegas point spread further in Notre Dame's favor.

Note: The Golden Nugget lists the Irish as a 3-point favorite at present. But there's no true upset in this 2011 matchup.

Final Verdict/Prediction

I've come full circle on the Week Two matchup: first believing the Irish would lose, now, considering the Michigan's attempt at transformation, believing Notre Dame can control the tenor of the contest.

But it's been 24 years since Notre Dame blew out Michigan in the Big House (winning 26-7 thanks to Tim Brown in 1987). The '93 Irish dictated the contest throughout, but still prevailed by just four, 27-23, and only one Notre Dame team has won in Michigan Stadium since, a 17-10 victory by Charlie Weis' first team over the then-No. 3 Wolverines in 2005.

Had Notre Dame played Michigan last November instead of Week Two of the Kelly regime, they'd have won by two touchdowns. And if Michigan 2011 had the good fortune to face the Irish later in the season rather than in Week Two of the Hoke era, they'd likely be much more cohesive and game-ready.

Look for Notre Dame to absorb an early touchdown, but to control the bulk of the first three quarters; then hang on in the fourth, winning by less than a touchdown with both teams again scoring between 20-28 points.

#12 Wake Forest

#11 Maryland

#10 Navy

#9 South Florida

#8 Purdue

#7 Boston College

#6 Pittsburgh

#5 Air Force Top Stories