Trouble Spot #2: Michigan

O'Malley's annual "Trouble Spots" countdown continues its look at Notre Dame's toughest game situations for 2013...

Click the links below for the first three installments in our Trouble Spots series:

#12 Temple and for a full explanation of the rankings.

#11 Navy

#10 Air Force

#9 Brigham Young

#8 Purdue

#7 Pittsburgh

#6 Arizona State

#5 Michigan State

#4 USC

#3 Oklahoma

Trouble Spot #2 -- Michigan

Gone is five-quarter Irish killer and two-game conqueror Denard Robinson.

Gone too is the Wolverines quarterback that gift-wrapped a Week Four win for Notre Dame last fall.

Regardless of your view of Michigan's electric former triggerman (and it likely evolved a bit last fall), a new era dawns under center in Ann Arbor, with lifelong-quarterback-turned 2012 wide receiver Devin Gardner taking the reigns for two more seasons.

A five-star prospect in 2010, Gardner is another dual-threat for offensive coordinator Al Borges, though he's a much better passer than was Robinson. He likewise pales in comparison to the electric Robinson as a home-run hitter in the run game, then again, so does everyone else.

Borges' pro-style attack will finally take root in Year 3 at the helm. Promising sophomore tight end Devin Funchess will be a factor in his second season and 2011 game hero Jeremy Gallon is back on the outside.

Matchup to watch: Wolverines all-star left tackle Taylor Lewan (he of Jadaveon Clowney fame) vs. Irish All-America defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Lewan outplayed Clowney for much of the Outback Bowl last January prior to Clowney's hit and forced fumble-heard-round-the-world on Michigan running back Vincent Smith, one that qualified for every highlight reel from here to football eternity.

Back for more: Linebacker Desmond Morgan appears headed back to middle linebacker and safety Thomas Gordon returns to lead the Wolverines back seven as well. Gordon and Morgan recorded a combined 13 tackles and an interception vs. the Irish in 2011-12.

Gordon had nine tackles vs. Notre Dame in 2011 and added five tackles, two for lost yardage, and a sack in the 2010 Wolverines win in South Bend.

Three-season Irish foil and former walk-on safety Jordan Kovacs (25 tackles, 2 INT, 2 TFL vs. ND) has exhausted his eligibility in Ann Arbor after what seemed like a decade in the Wolverines defensive backfield.

Plus/Minus: The Wolverines defense took a size-able hit when star linebacker, pass-rusher, and playmaker Jake Ryan was lost for the season with a torn ACL this spring. The former three-star recruit was among the nation's most versatile, undervalued linebackers prior to injury.

Expected to return at full strength by the fall is cornerback Blake Countess, out since the season-opener of 2012 with a knee injury. Countess started six games and played a major role in the secondary as a true freshman in 2011.

Three-year litmus test: While Michigan was probably fortunate to win 11 games in Brady Hoke's first season, 2011, its also true that the Wolverines lost four games to Top 10 teams last season, including 2012 regular season unbeatens Notre Dame and Ohio State, national champion Alabama, and SEC heavyweight South Carolina in the post-season.

They're not a garden-variety five-loss squad entering 2013.

Why #2?


That's the record between the programs since the series resumed (with a trio of "breaks") since 1978. And when Notre Dame and Michigan go on their next break following next season's contest in South Bend, its a good bet that record will be deadlocked still.

September's greatest rivalry has two games left, at least until the series is likely resumed in 2020; both promise to be bitter head-knockers, the first edition again under the lights in a Big House that, over the last three years, evolved from the quietest gathering of 100,000-plus on the planet to one of the most impressive, loud venues -- especially in prime time -- in the nation.

Expect the unexpected: The underdog won this game outright in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, with Michigan winning the latter trio. The underdog did the same in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006, with the Irish taking the first three listed. Ditto 1998 (ND), 1994 (UM), 1993 (ND), 1990 (ND), the list goes on.

If you say you know why Notre Dame will beat Michigan in 2013, I'll refer you to your similar comments in 2009, '10-and '11. I'll volley the same offering to Michigan fans circa 2002, 2004, 2005, and last fall.

Of this I'm certain: the 2013 contest, like the games played in 1979, '80, '82, '86, '88, '89, '90, '91, '92, '93, '94, '97, '99, 2002, '04, '05, '09, '10, '11, and 2012 before it, will be decided in the fourth quarter.

Likely on one of the game's final drives.

September's greatest rivalry has two seasons left -- expect it to go out with a bang.

Crucial Components

A look at the ancillary factors surrounding Notre Dame's matchup with the Wolverines:

Fast Facts: The aggregate score between the teams in the three-year Brian Kelly era is 69-68 in favor of Michigan, with the Wolverines holding a 2-1 edge. Over the last eight quarters played between the teams, Michigan has managed a touchdown in just two of them (and, famously, multiple touchdowns in one of those). Likewise, after blowing through the Wolverines defense for three quarters in 2011, Notre Dame has hit pay dirt just twice in the last five periods played.

Look-Ahead Factor? N/A, ever. Neither team will be battle-tested prior, with Michigan entertaining in-state little brother Central Michigan, and Notre Dame hosting, curiously, Temple. The Irish hit West Lafayette to take on Purdue one week after traveling to Ann Arbor; Michigan hosts, curiously, Akron.

Should Michigan beat Notre Dame, the Wolverines have an excellent chance to be 7-0 heading into a Game #8 matchup at Michigan State (they play Nebraska, at Northwestern, at Iowa, and Ohio State during a killer end-season slate thereafter).

Notre Dame's tough tests begin with Michigan, then after Purdue, a four-game stretch vs. Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, and following a bye, USC, successively. None of the latter quartet are road games for the Irish.

Puncher's Chance for the Underdog? N/A for reasons listed throughout the column. There is no true underdog, but if you're a betting man or woman, remember to take the points (see below).

Likelihood of an Irish defeat: As with previously published Trouble Spots USC and Oklahoma, this matchup is a 50/50 proposition. The Wolverines could be favored when initial lines appear on June 7, and the spread is unlikely to change much with Michigan facing Central in its opener and the Irish hosting Temple. Regardless, Michigan won't be favored by more than 2.5; if the line touts Notre Dame, it'll be by 2 or less.

Introduction to the Series

For the last, oh, 32 seasons, I've been off. Off by at least one, usually two and often three games in a comparison of my pre-season prediction for Notre Dame's end-season record and the actual mark. And then there was 2007 when I missed by five, but hey, who's counting?

But if you need someone to identify a trap game on the Irish schedule, one in which the South Benders will inexplicably struggle, then this is the column for you.

In 2009 this annual summer series pegged Purdue (a last-second Irish win). 2010 identified Tulsa (straining to pat myself on the back). 2011 it was Air Force (way off, 59-33 ND) and Wake Forest (a fourth-quarter Irish win, 24-17). 2012? Both Brigham Young and Pittsburgh, two games in which the Irish prevailed by a total of six points with three overtimes included.

Why does Notre Dame -- and for that matter, nearly every other college and pro football program -- struggle vs. lesser teams? Its a game played by humans. The ebb and flow of a season is often overlooked as fans and media attempt to predict outcomes.

But not here -- we have you covered.

I can't tell you if Notre Dame will win 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, or 8 games next season, but I can rank, from #12 through #1, the biggest Trouble Spots on the Irish schedule.

Taking into account the game's timing on the schedule (Is it a trap? Does the dreaded "sandwich" game apply?). Projecting the home crowd for Notre Dame (predictably dead vs. both BYU and Pitt last year), and of course considering the location of the contest and ability of each opponent, we present the fifth annual Trouble Spots for 2013.

Consider yourself warned. Top Stories