The Michigan Football team and an undefeated start by the home town Irish.
For those among the Notre Dame fan base that have entered the last 5, 10, or 15 football seasons with a sense of unbelief, Saturday night's matchup with Michigan will provide the antidote: you'll either be proven correct yet again, or Notre Dame will have announced its return to college football on field importance with a 4-0 start heading into the season's bye.
Sure, tougher tests (Stanford, Oklahoma, USC) await, but a return to prominence doesn't preclude a hard-fought head-knocking defeat or two. If Brian Kelly's third-edition Irish can beat both Michigan State and Michigan in the same season, that on the heels of a win over a game Purdue squad, its fair to start wondering about more than Christmas-time bowl bids.
Belief, finally, would be reasonably allowed.
But first, 60 minutes of football remain against a team vs. which Notre Dame only maintained its composure and focus for 43 last fall. Below are three key situations to monitor as the game progresses:
#1 -- R-A-CThree pressing concerns remain for the impartial Irish fan, and each likely stems from the following:
Notre Dame's defense matches up better vs. Michigan State's straight-ahead-strength and style than it does the Wolverines quick-twitch attack.
The Irish front seven dominated the Spartans last week. It did the same in 2011, too. The difference last Saturday in East Lansing was better coverage by the team's back seven defenders and, to be blunt, a dearth of weapons available to the Spartans offense.
The latter is the issue Saturday night, as the preternatural talents of quarterback Denard Robinson, he of the nearly 1,000 yards of total offense, 8 touchdowns, 3 turnovers vs. the Irish in two games returns for a third crack at Bob Diaco's defense.
In the 2010 matchup, Robinson ranked among the greatest players to ever take the field in the House that Rockne Built, carrying the Wolverines to a four-point win. In the 2011 matchup, Robinson ranked among the worst quarterbacks the Irish have faced this decade -- until the final 17 minutes when he erupted for four scores and more than 300 yards en route to the biggest head-shaker-of-a-loss at the program since USC's Anthony Davis dealt a similar solo-shot death blow in the early 70s.
Contending with Robinson is Job 1, but next in line is making plays in space. That is, Irish tacklers among the defensive back seven vs. Michigan's skill position athletes, all of whom are involved in a run-after-catch attack that makes the Wolverine's offense go.
Robinson will be allowed passes to both the boundary and field flats -- the end result of most drives will be based upon Notre Dame's ability to tackle, either immediately after the catch, or just past the chains.
That puts Danny Spond (field/wide side) and both Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams (boundary/near side) on the spot when the defensive front shows 3-4, and Dan Fox (strong side) and Carlo Calabrese (weak side) on point when the line kicks to 4-3…and the secondary against every ball that escapes to the perimeter as well.
#2 -- Blocking BenTight end Tyler Eifert will play well Saturday. So too should running backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, wide receivers Robby Toma and T.J. Jones, and potentially a host of other youngsters including DaVaris Daniels, George Atkinson, and Troy Niklas.
Key to the efforts of each will be No. 3 tight end Ben Koyack, one of the few No. 3 (or 2B, to Niklas) position players in the nation who's counted upon weekly in a team's base attack.
As currently constructed, Notre Dame prefers its "12 personnel," a two tight end offense that blends either one receiver and two running backs (Riddick acting as a receiver) or one 'back and two receivers. But in both short yardage and goal line situations, head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin have shown a penchant for a three tight end set that includes Koyack as an in-line blocker.
Koyack entered college as a highly touted receiving threat, but one that would need to develop as a blocker. The latter has proven true, as Koyack was overwhelmed by Purdue's defenders and came out on the short end of the stick (though with a key block or two late) at Michigan State. He conversely dominated vs. Navy, suggesting technique isn't the only issue limiting his ascent.
"He does some really good things, he's a young guy," said Kelly of Koyack. "He really has to be focused on the little things during the week. He's coming; we need him. We desperately need him to play for us at a higher level.
"He's got to be more consistent at the position, in particular blocking. That's what we ask him to do for us. He's committed. He's a good teammate. He's just got to continue to grow, and he is each and every week."
Koyack vs. playmaking outside 'backer Jake Ryan is Saturday's matchup to watch on the perimeter.
#3 -- 1-2-3-FarleyThe loss of 5th-year senior safety Jamoris Slaughter will manifest at some point this season. Saturday night happens to bring to town a team that has exposed defensive backs at Notre Dame in the recent past. Most remember last year's Ann Arbor debacle that included a 45-yard lob ball down the post completed when both Irish safeties mis-timed their jumps and collided, and three touchdown passes vs. a cornerback that couldn't locate/defend the ball in the air, not to mention the crippling 64-yard gain on 2nd and 80-to-go with 23 seconds remaining.
But the 2010 game had its share of secondary mix-ups as well: a 31-yard short post for an untouched score and an ensuing 31-yard gain down the left sideline in which the Irish corner and safety were playing disparate coverages -- on consecutive series.
At some point Saturday night, Matthias Farley, in his first career start at safety, will be charged with one, two, or three key moments, whether it be angling a free-running Denard Robinson in space, choosing the correct relatively open receiver to attack, or making a play on a 50/50 ball thrown downfield.
"You know he's got 140-some snaps," said Kelly of Farley who started at outside linebacker vs. Navy's specialized offense. "That's a lot of football. It's not a guy that's getting the first time out there on the field, he responded really well in practice this week. Now, he wasn't put in the same position that he's going to be put in this week.
"So he's going to be asked to do a lot more. But he's s smart kid, he's athletic, he's sneaky fast. He can run well. Again, I think the most important thing is he's played 140 snaps and he's starting to feel more comfortable in the position."
#4 -- Bowled OverWhile Notre Dame fans lament containing Robinson, tackling athletes in space, and an inexperienced secondary, there remains more than a few items in Irish favor, and at the top of the list is the following reality:
Notre Dame's offense ran through Michigan's defense like a hot knife through butter last September.
Kelly's crew amassed 31 points despite four turnovers, two of which occurred in the red zone with another when the Irish were in scoring position. On two of the four, no Michigan defender touched the football prior to recovery.
Along the way, running back Cierre Wood ripped off 194 yards, backup Jonas Gray another 81 from scrimmage on just seven touches, and Tommy Rees fired for 315 passing yards, completing 78 percent of his throws. He was never sacked and the Irish converted 8 of 14 third-down opportunities (though three misses were especially timely thanks to heroic plays by the UM defensive front).
In other words, "How the hell did they lose the football game?"
Notre Dame shredded Michigan's defense last fall. Its weapons are far different than last year's (no Gray, no Michael Floyd, two different starting offensive linemen) as is its offensive philosophy, but the ability to move the football shouldn't change.
The Irish defense must contend with the nation's most valuable offensive football player and by proxy, the one-on-one matchups that result elsewhere. Michigan's defense, one with just three sacks to its credit through three contests, and one that's allowed 26 points per game, has its hands full across the board.
Michigan was better than Notre Dame and won in 2010 because Denard Robinson was light years better than the rest of the players on the field. The Wolverines beat the Irish last year because Robinson made everyone around him a viable weapon, and Notre Dame choked. Period.
The Irish offense has scored two or fewer touchdowns in five of their last six games. They'll score at least three Saturday night en route to victory No. 4 of the season.