Michigan insertion adds to difficult slate

Notre Dame must play Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and USC in 2018 with road excursions to Michigan, Georgia, Stanford, Louisville, Georgia Tech and Duke in 2019.

The renewal of Notre Dame’s series with Michigan – a home tilt to open the 2018 season and a road trip to Ann Arbor smack dab in the middle of the 2019 campaign – is just what college football aficionados crave.

In the 31 games played between the Irish and Wolverines since the end of a 35-year hiatus in 1978, Notre Dame won 15 and Michigan won 15 with a 1992 tie mixed in.

If, however, you’re of the mindset that says a) to hell with Michigan and b) the schedules are difficult enough, the two-game renewal with talk of matching up again further down the road may not be quite as exciting, particularly with Michigan’s hiring of Jim Harbaugh as the Wolverines’ head coach prior to the 2015 season.

Notre Dame and its Vice President/Director of Athletics, Jack Swarbrick, came under criticism when it was announced that the Notre Dame-Michigan series would go on hiatus for the foreseeable future following the 31-0 thrashing of the Wolverines in Notre Dame Stadium in 2014.

The Irish had just gone into an agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference to play anywhere from four-to-six games on a yearly basis. Notre Dame played four ACC teams in 2014 and six in 2015. The Irish will take on five ACC teams this season.

Constructing a national schedule as a major independent is no easy task. Yes, most major college football programs want a shot at the Irish, but usually on their own terms. Teams in the midst of their conference schedules generally would prefer to avoid the distraction while in pursuit of a conference title.

When the series took a pause following the 2014 season, Swarbrick and Co. needed time to stand back and assess the landscape before re-entering into talks with Michigan.

The timetable gathered steam due largely to the opening of communication lines between Swarbrick and new Michigan AD Warde Manuel, a former Wolverine (and Irish recruit) who obviously helped smooth over the relationship after Swarbrick and then-Michigan AD David Brandon had reached a point of contentiousness.

Notre Dame and Michigan were at odds for the better part of the first half of the 20th century when the series lapsed from 1910-41, and again after the 1943 season when Michigan head coach-turned-athletics director Fielding Yost called an end to a two-year resumption of the series.

To Manuel’s credit, Michigan had to bend more schedule-wise than Notre Dame to make the renewal happen. Michigan already had a home-and-home series slated with Arkansas, including the season-opener in Michigan Stadium in 2018. Michigan had to buy its way out of the agreement with the Razorbacks.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, was in a flux with its Shamrock Series as Swarbrick acceded to the wishes of Irish fans more interested in coming to a newly-renovated Notre Dame Stadium than traveling to a neutral site, usually for a lesser opponent.

To open the season with Michigan in ’18, followed by a home tilt with Ball State, the timing was right. It required a bit more bending on Notre Dame’s part to play Michigan on Oct. 26, 2019, with a road trip to Georgia Tech and a home game against Virginia Tech wrapped about the clash with the Wolverines. But that also falls in the middle of Michigan’s Big Ten slate.
For those who think Notre Dame’s schedule is already tough enough, it will become even more difficult with a Harbaugh-coached team on the docket.

In 2018, the Irish play powerhouses Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and USC, although the final game of the regular season against the Trojans is the only one of those four on the road. A trip to Virginia Tech in the middle of October also will be a trip into a hornet’s nest for the Irish.

It gets much more difficult in 2019, at least as the upcoming opponents are presently perceived. Notre Dame’s road schedule is brutal – at Louisville to open the season, at Georgia in Game Three, at Georgia Tech in Game Six, at Michigan in Game Seven, at Duke in Game Nine, and at USC to conclude the regular season. (Note: The Irish still need to fill a spot on the schedule either one or two weeks before traveling to Georgia Tech on Oct. 19.)

Clearly, college football benefits from a Notre Dame-Michigan matchup on the gridiron. From 1978-2014, the Nos. 1 and 2 programs in all-time victories squared off 31 times. Only six times in a 37-year span did the two powerhouses not meet on the field. In 21 of the 31 games, both teams were ranked. At least one team was ranked in 27 of the 31 clashes.

Notre Dame vs. Michigan is good for college football; not so good for programs annually competing for national titles. There’s a tradeoff, one which Notre Dame and Michigan, suddenly in a period of “glasnost,” were willing to make.

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