Rivalry or no rivalry… it’s still a big deal

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It’s Michigan Week.

For Irish fans, these seven days come with an extra chip on their shoulders, with the hated Wolverines winning five of the last seven games against Notre Dame, nearly all of them in unreasonably cruel fashion. For Michigan fans, it’s an early season opportunity for the Winningest College Football Program to ruin Notre Dame’s season before it gets started, a nice September test before getting into Big Ten conference play.

Last year, the Irish conquered a few demons in Notre Dame Stadium, forcing Denard Robinson to turn the ball over five times on the way to a hard fought 13-7 victory. Making the pill even more difficult to swallow for Wolverines fans, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick hand-delivered a letter to Michigan AD Dave Brandon, notifying the school that the Irish were canceling games in 2015-17, ending a 13-year run of playing each season.

The decision to step away from the rivalry was a product of scheduling conflicts that have arisen with conference realignment. While Michigan already asked to get out of games in 2018-19, Brandon made it clear that the decision to cut things early wasn’t a decision made by him.

“The decision to cancel games in 2015-17 was Notre Dame’s and not ours,” Brandon said in a release. “We value our annual rivalry with Notre Dame but will have to see what the future holds for any continuation of the series.”

On the banquet circuit, Michigan coach Brady Hoke threw some gas on the fire by accusing the Irish of “chickening out.” While Notre Dame fans can make the argument that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s land grab in conference realignment has had a bigger hand in this cancellation than either school, Notre Dame’s commitment to play five ACC games a year starting next year forced the Irish to make some room in their schedule, and Michigan was a game they felt like losing.

For better or worse (and it’s pretty obvious it’s for the worse for college football fans), this series only has two more games until the end of the decade. And while we can argue until we’re blue in the face as to who or what is at fault, it’s turned the focus onto one of those debate points that two proud fanbases like Notre Dame and Michigan love to discuss: Is this game a rivalry?

Here’s Brian Kelly’s take on the subject:

“I really haven’t seen it as one of those historic traditional Notre Dame rivalries,” Kelly said. “I’ve seen it as one of those great football games that Notre Dame has played. For me, I’ve been in Michigan a long time, so I’ve always felt the Notre Dame-Michigan game was a big regional game, but I think the Notre Dame history books, this game has played itself, but there have obviously been a number of years where it hasn’t been played.

“I think if you ask a lot of the traditionalists, the historians, this game has had many years where it hasn’t been played. From my perspective, being in Michigan, these have been really hard-fought and a really-high profile games.”

All fair points, considering there have been two thirty-plus year gaps in the rivalry, one a well-discussed product of blackballing and hatred. Of course, rivalries don’t need to be annual to be important, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke brought up the fact that ESPN’s College GameDay will be in Ann Arbor this weekend, the sixth time they’ve been at this match-up, squelching the notion that this game only has regional significance.

“I think it’s great for college football. ESPN Gameday has been here six times for this football game,” Hoke said Monday in his weekly press conference. “That’s pretty significant if they’re coming to this campus or to the campus in South Bend. So, it must have some sort of national appeal. Coaching in a lot of places, and maybe it’s just me, but I know that whenever Michigan and Notre Dame was on TV, I was going to be watching it. I know people in Corvallis, Ore., were going to be watching it — for one reason or another.”

Rivalry? Regional or National? At this point, who cares.

For Kelly and Hoke, two head coaches who have been going head to head for almost a decade, calling this anything but one of the biggest games of the year is a lie. While they might stop playing each other after next season, these two will be going head to head each year for the region’s best players for as long as they both represent two of college football’s biggest programs.

Both teams head into Saturday with the belief that they should walk away victories. For the Wolverines, their 50-point victory over Central Michigan gave them the opportunity to get Devin Gardner and a young defensive front comfortable. For Notre Dame, an early offensive explosion and a vanilla defensive effort have the Irish heading into Ann Arbor with a much needed tune-up.

Water-cooler topics like this tend to get a ton of attention. But with a great football game on tap for this Saturday, let’s not waste time debating semantics. We’ve only got two of these left on the schedule.