Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame an underdog heading to Michigan, and understandably so


Nothing about No. 8 Notre Dame’s trip to No. 19 Michigan will be glamorous. The rare Irish bus trip will be welcomed by 107,000 in primetime (7:30 ET; ABC) and a run defense to worry about.

The Wolverines may have struggled this season, but their two losses were both on the road against top-15 teams. That is hard to genuinely fault. Furthermore, they may have finally found their footing this season — Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly specifically pointed to Michigan’s offensive line improvement in the last few weeks. The Wolverines did not run rampant in their 28-21 loss at No. 7 Penn State, but they did lean on the ground game, nonetheless, taking 40 carries for 148 yards (sack adjusted).

For that matter, note the singular notation within those parentheses. On 42 dropbacks, Michigan allowed only one sack along with six other quarterback hurries. Giving senior quarterback Shea Patterson enough time to go 24-of-41 for 276 yards is far from troublesome.

Obviously, that wasn’t enough in Happy Valley, and now the 5-2 Wolverines need to beat the Irish to maintain some semblance of momentum this season. A loss to Notre Dame could position Jim Harbaugh’s team for a 7-5 finish, with both Michigan State and Ohio State still on the horizon.

Let’s make another semantics note there: The verb chosen was “beat,” not “upset.” Michigan is favored this weekend, by all of one point as of early Tuesday morning.

That may or may not jump the fence this week, but the number makes plenty of sense where it is.

The Wolverines’ defense looked suspect in the season opener when it gave up 21 points to Middle Tennessee State, but two of those touchdowns came on drives beginning on the Michigan side of the field. The laughter at the Wolverines reached a nationwide peak when it needed double overtime to get past Army, but triple-option teams will have that effect. If anyone can appreciate that, it is Irish fans.

And yes, Wisconsin boat-raced Michigan to the tune of 35-14 in a game that was hardly that close, but this coming weekend could yet illustrate the Badgers are just that good, lookahead loss to Illinois on Saturday aside.

The point is, the Wolverines have given up 14 points per game since that loss in Madison. No matter the opponents, holding four Power Five foes to an average of 14 points is notable. If its offense really did find its way in Saturday’s second half, Michigan may be rounding into exactly what was expected all offseason. Thus, it is favored.

That offense, of course, will have its work cut out for it …

In last week’s mailbag, much time was spent wondering if Irish senior quarterback Ian Book will return in 2020. Additional time was dedicated to projecting other returnees/departures.

The final math suggested Notre Dame will likely return 11-to-15 starters next season. Of that four-man window, only junior tight end Cole Kmet will be pondering an NFL decision. The other gray areas tie to if considering junior running back Jafar Armstrong a “starter.” (This space will stick to its tried-and-true argument of thinking senior Tony Jones should head to the NFL, simply because of the nature of his position.) Similarly, neither Daelin Hayes nor Ade Ogundeji is a starting defensive end at this point, but they are of that caliber.

Anyway, looking at that scenario, and recognizing how strong that offense could be, the logical next thought was of the 2020 schedule. In a word, off.

One six-game stretch, in particular, looks daunting:
Sept. 26 at Wake Forest
Oct. 3 vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.
Oct. 10 vs. Stanford
Oct. 17 at Pittsburgh
Oct. 31 vs. Duke
Nov. 7 vs. Clemson

Rankings vary across 12 months, and much of this is cyclical, but only one of those six currently has a losing record. The other five are a combined 28-7 to this point, with all five still in contention for conference championships. The current weak spot is simply a traditional rival that often elicits a headache, Stanford.

Clearly, some entertaining and a few worthwhile questions came in for last week’s mailbag, so consider this a reminder the line is always open … insidetheirish@gmail.com — Anything received there, at worst, spurs future thoughts, be they for Friday or for the offseason.

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40 Predictions Updated: Notre Dame ahead of most preseason expectations

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