Following a three-year break in the rivalry, Notre Dame and Michigan reengage on the football field Saturday night in South Bend.
It’s debatable who is more excited about that prospect — Irish fans, Wolverine followers or college football fanatics in general.
The appearance of ESPN GameDay by itself certainly lends credence to all the storylines.
Bob Crable. Harry Oliver. Reggie Ho. Desmond Howard. Ricky Watters. Tim Brown.
And, just for the record, Ho, Howard, Watters and Brown (and lots of other greats from both sides) are in town for this year’s renewal.
All those names may be more history book footnotes than real live touch points for today’s Irish and Wolverine players.
Yet, with 75 members of the 1988 Notre Dame team in attendance this weekend, it’s not lost on that group how Ho and Watters played big roles in catapulting the Irish to a national championship year in a season-opening victory over Michigan that year under the Notre Dame Stadium lights. And don’t forget that the home team has never lost in a Notre Dame-Michigan game played at night (this is the sixth of those played in South Bend)
Here are some areas to watch Saturday night (and, seriously, there are way more that matter in a matchup like this):
- How well can Michigan expect new quarterback Shea Patterson to play in his first time out wearing maize and blue? Whatever he does, how will it compare to what his head coach Jim Harbaugh did in a Michigan uniform in Notre Dame Stadium (15 of 23 passing for 239 yards in 1986 in a 24-23 Wolverine win in Lou Holtz’s first game as Irish head coach)? As a head coach at Stanford, Harbaugh led a 37-14 win over Notre Dame and Brian Kelly at Notre Dame Stadium in 2010, after a 28-21 loss in South Bend to a Charlie Weis-coached Irish team in 2008.
- Do the Notre Dame experiences of Michigan assistant coaches Greg Mattison (a former Irish defensive coordinator) and Ed Warinner (he coached with Brian Kelly on the offensive side in 2010-11) mean anything? What about Irish assistant head coach Mike Elston having played at Michigan? If nothing else, they make the rivalry even more personal.
- Clark Lea stepped into familiar shoes as the new Notre Dame defensive coordinator after Mike Elko departed, but will Irish fans — and, more importantly, Michigan — notice any differences in the product Lea puts on the field?
- Nearly everybody in the Notre Dame camp says quarterback Brandon Wimbush is more poised and more experienced and better positioned than a year ago — and will Irish fans agree after Saturday night?
- Depth charts and lists of returning starters (nine on defense for Michigan, while the Irish have nine who started at least four games in 2017) suggest that both these teams look at defense as a major strength and asset. Notre Dame allowed only nine opponent rushing touchdowns in 2017 — Michigan rated third nationally in total defense a year ago and has led the nation two straight years in pass defense. So which program will be more in agreement with that assessment in the Sunday morning video analysis?
- How motivated will Michigan players be to end a 16-game road losing streak against ranked opponents (the last time the Wolverines won one of those was in 2006 at Notre Dame Stadium by a 47-21 count against the second-rated Irish)?
- With multiple new coaches on both sides (topped by a new defensive coordinator for Notre Dame), which sideline will be better at making in-game adjustments, given that these teams haven’t seen each other in a while?
- If there are never more legitimate questions than in a season-opening game, will the Irish or Wolverines have more answers?
- If both these defenses are legitimate, will either team be able to run the football with any consistency or effectiveness? That could be the difference in the ballgame.
- In a series where plays in the kicking game have often been game-changers, will Notre Dame senior kicker Justin Yoon have a chance to do something dramatic Saturday night (he needs only 16 more field goals and 46 points to become the Irish career leader in those categories)?
- If the Irish set a lofty standard along the offensive line in winning the Joe Moore Award last season, how close to that level will Notre Dame’s line play be in 2018 — with veterans and captains Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars leading the way?
- If No. 11 Notre Dame vs. No. 14 Michigan is the marquee matchup, how about the rest of the opening weekend smorgasbord that also features No. 6 Washington vs. No. 9 Auburn in Atlanta (3:30 p.m. EDT Saturday), No. 8 Miami vs. No. 25 LSU in Arlington (7:30 p.m. Sunday) and No. 20 Virginia Tech at No. 9 Florida State (8 p.m. Monday)?
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series