The most interesting matchups of the season, chronologically.
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There's no use in pretending there's something profound here beyond the names, helmets, fight songs and unbearably haughty attitudes of glorious, bygone eras that no doubt featured a fine array of classy hats. There are no championship stakes, mythical or otherwise; both teams are excluded completely from a majority of the summer top 25 polls; both teams have longer, fiercer, more desperate rivalries with the pair of great white whales at the end of the season, the games that stand a better chance of defining just how far two young outfits have come. Objectively, without the history, it's just the Rebuilding Bowl, and on that level, probably slightly less relevant to the national landscape this year than Kansas-South Florida.
NBC cannot sell this game, between these particular collections of players, without the specific history of Notre Dame and Michigan. And it shouldn't bother -- even with the realistic elements of both sides preparing for relative low points, the history sells itself. Not because of the bogus mystique of the nation's two winningest programs or the grandeur of their tasteful, upper Midwestern disdain for one another, but because of precisely the opposite: probably at more than any other points since ND and Michigan started playing in 1899, neither team comes into the game with anything to justify those historical expectations. Between the aftertaste of the worst season in Irish history and the initial lurches of the most extensive one-shot overhaul of a major program in recent memory in Ann Arbor, the total insecurity is (or should be) unprecedented. Partisans must be cowering in the corner, looking for some good news to entice them out, or another reason to throw the covers over their heads until it's safe to come out.
Things definitely ain't what they used to be.
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Well, there was last year. They probably felt boxed into a corner then, too, off shocking 0-2 starts that couldn't have gone more disastrously if they'd been staged by Jerry Bruckheimer. But that was only about staving off disaster, avoiding the unimaginable void that comes with 0-3 -- the very abyss that quickly consumed Notre Dame, and that looms over its daily existence all the way into this game. This time, it's more about sustaining a sense of opportunity than mere survival.
I think of it as a meeting between heavyweight boxers riding escalators in opposite directions, ND on the way up and Michigan coming down, and throwing down on some kind of suspended ring where they meet. They can't exactly toss each other off the edge, like Michigan did to the Irish last year -- there's the safety net of dramatically lowered expectations created precisely because of that grisly display. This is more like a contest for a few steps onto the 'up' escalator, to validate the sense of optimism that usually comes naturally to the suddenly nervous fans, and that they maybe felt all along but had read too many magazines to show publicly. Off the immediate uptick in recruiting under Charlie Weis, Notre Dame is far too talented -- and, after last year's growing pains, too experienced -- to be anywhere near the cellar it collapsed into in '07; Michigan remains one of the most well-stocked teams in the country, physically, and is finally free of the stale predictability that had begun to eat away at the program. Tens of thousands of people will come away feeling many times better about Jimmy Clausen or the short-term prospects of the Spread 'n Shred than they did a few hours before.
For both sides, a win is a validation for optimism, but it seems to me the consequences of a loss are much greater for Michigan. Partly, this is because last year resigned Notre Dame to much more terrible depths and isn't as likely to send it into the same sort of existential tailspin, but mainly it's because of the schedules: ND has replaced last year's murderer's row of solid bowl teams with a very un-Irish-like stretch of most of the weakest sisters the BCS conferences could possibly offer (Washington, Stanford, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, declining Boston College, Syracuse) and could plausibly be considered favorites in seven or eight of the nine games following Michigan -- maybe, depending on your opinion of BC, Michigan State and Purdue, in all nine. But Michigan immediately gets Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State in its next four games, dramatically reducing the odds of a fast recovery and increasing the likelihood of a descent into an inexperienced, immobily-quarterbacked hell by midseason. If the new Michigan expects to resemble the Michigan of the last 40 years, record-wise, this is a game it very badly needs.