Top 25 foes collide in the Big House, as the 17th-ranked Michigan Wolverines play host to the 14th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Brady Hoke's Wolverines began the post-Denard Robinson era with an impressive display against Central Michigan, routing the Chippewas last weekend in Ann Arbor, 59-9. Last season, Michigan posted an 8-5 record, with the five losses coming against powerhouse teams in Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State and South Carolina, all outside of Ann Arbor.
Brian Kelly's Irish certainly have a lot to live up to. Last year's squad ran the table in the regular season and entered the BCS National Championship game with a perfect 12-0 record. However, the team's weaknesses were revealed in an ugly 42-14 loss to Alabama. Notre Dame opened the 2013 campaign last weekend at home and posted a 28-6 win over Temple.
These two teams have won a collective 20 national titles and rank first and second in terms of all-time winning percentage. Michigan leads the country at .7341 (904-315-36), while Notre Dame is a close second at .7339 (866-301-42).
This is the 41st all-time meeting in this series, with the Wolverines holding a 23-16-1 advantage. Notre Dame won last year's matchup in South Bend, forcing six turnovers, including five interceptions, en route to a 20-3 victory.
No added storylines are necessary when these two teams meet.
"Well, we go on the road this week against a very good opponent in Michigan," said Kelly. "Excited about the opportunity. Certainly we'll have to play very good football. It's a great and historic rivalry that we'll be playing this Saturday, so let's get that out of the way right away so we don't have to answer any more questions about this rivalry. We're excited about the game, excited about playing it. This will be decided by the players on the field and the preparation that goes along with it so we can stick to that and dispense with the nonsense."
The Irish didn't light up the scoreboard last weekend against the Owls, although they did fill up the stat sheet by churning out an impressive 543 yards of offense. The ground game was credited with 188 of those yards and featured several RBs making contributions, led by Amir Carlisle (68 yards, 9.7 ypc), Cam McDaniel (65 yards, 5.4 ypc) and George Atkinson III (4.2 ypc, one TD).
The threat of the run definitely helped quarterback Tommy Rees, who earned the starting job after Everett Golson was ruled ineligible. Rees definitely has some confidence heading into this matchup, after torching the Owls, completing 16-of-23 passes, for 346 yards and three TDs. All-American candidate T.J. Jones led the way with six catches, for 138 yards in the win, but it was DaVaris Daniels who took two of his three receptions to the end zone.
Replacing everything Heisman runner up Manti Te'o brought to the Irish defense is impossible. Notre Dame will be charged with finding a new identity on that side of the football in 2013. Luckily for Kelly, there are plenty of standout playmakers who should step up. Veteran linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese provide leadership in the middle. Fox led the team with 10 tackles against Temple, while Calabrese finished with nine stops and a fumble recovery.
Up front, Notre Dame has a pair of All-American caliber players in end Stephon Tuitt and tackle Louis Nix III. Tuitt was an All-American in 2012 and opened this season with one of the team's two sacks against Temple. Nix may be the best nose guard in the country at a mammoth 6-3, 357 pounds.
Michigan may no longer have Robinson under center but Devin Gardner did a pretty good impression in the Wolverines' rout of Central Michigan. The 6-4 signal-caller led an offensive attack that rolled up 463 yards against the Chippewas, including 242 yards on the ground. Gardner was responsible for just 52 of those yards, but did score two of the team's six rushing touchdowns. He also found time to complete 10-of-15 passes, for 162 yards and one TD.
Michigan showed patience and balance in its rushing attack, as both senior Fitzgerald Toussaint and freshman Derrick Green led the way in terms of carries, combining for three touchdowns.
The team doesn't have a standout receiver after one game, as eight different players caught passes against the Chippewas. However, senior Jeremy Gallon did lead the way with four catches, for 47 yards and one score.
The defensive numbers for Michigan are probably skewed due to the competition thus far and the Wolverines should be tested more in this one. Still, the team limited CMU to just 210 yards of total offense, including a meager 66 yards rushing (2.3 ypc). In addition, UM registered nine TFL, four sacks and two turnovers.
Junior middle linebacker Desmond Morgan led the way in the win with seven total tackles. Fellow linebacker Cameron Gordon got off to a fast start as well, posting four tackles, 2.5 TFL and two sacks.
Hoke knows his young Wolverines have a tough task ahead of them.
"Does it make you a little nervous when you have a young football team playing in this environment? I think the best thing we do is try to educate them as to what it's going to be like," said Hoke in his weekly press conference. "We started that last night. They're off today, but on Tuesday, we'll talk more about the atmosphere and have some of the older kids talk about what it's going to be like. That's part of it. With technology today, you can show them it. We also talk about not being distracted. That's taking care of your job and being accountable to your teammates."