The program most comparable to Notre Dame is not USC; the Trojans will always have more talent on hand simply due to their Southern California location. It is not Stanford; the Cardinal arguably have stiffer academic standards to meet, but even if that is not the case, Stanford lacks the Irish history.
The program most comparable to Notre Dame is the one three spots ahead in the all-time winning percentage rankings, the one in a neighboring state, the one that historically gets faulted for Irish independence. It is Michigan. Even the current roster knows this, though no one on either team has experience beyond last season’s meeting.
“The proximity is certainly one that we’re quite aware of, as well,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “Clearly the guys know Michigan. They know the history and tradition of it. They know it’s a really good football team.”
That is why Irish fans clung to the 31-0 shutout that ended this series in 2014 until this two-year revival, and that is why a loss to the No. 19 Wolverines would sting so thoroughly, as there is no sign of another chance to claim the upper hand in the series.
That measuring stick will not come until Saturday night (7:30 ET; ABC), but that result will also have a direct impact on Notre Dame’s season (obviously). The No. 8 Irish will be favored by two possessions in their final five games, not the singular point tipping expectations toward Notre Dame this weekend.
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However the trip to Ann Arbor goes, the Irish are on their way toward their third-straight 10-win season and fourth in five years, a stretch not matched since 1989-93. In that interim, Notre Dame managed only three 10-win seasons across 21 years.
Change some of those exact dates around, and that entire previous paragraph holds for Michigan, though the Wolverines likely need to win Saturday to have a chance at a double-digit win season. (At 5-2 currently, Michigan still has to face No. 3 Ohio State.) Reaching that threshold this year would make for four such seasons in Jim Harbaugh’s five as the Wolverines head coach. In the 15 years preceding Harbaugh, Michigan reached 10 wins a total of four times.
The measuring stick is a stout one these days, no matter the metric, the speculation about Harbaugh’s job or the national landscape tilting toward the Southeast. The Irish know that, too, as Kelly said.
“What gets their attention more than anything else, it’s a really good football team. If it wasn’t, we would be talking about other things.”
Even the doubts of Harbaugh’s ability to win big games — going 1-9 against top-10 teams if using their opponents’ rankings upon meeting, 2-11 if using their year-end rankings — are similar when not stretched to fit a narrative.
Records against ranked opponents since 2015:
Records against opponents ranked at the end of the season, since 2015:
Notre Dame topping Michigan would not be the death knell for Harbaugh’s tenure some think it could be, but it would be a distinct and inarguable point that the Irish are at a better spot than the Wolverines currently. That matters for recruits, that matters for 2019’s grandest hopes and it matters for setting a floor on the season, a floor possibly as high as 11-2.
To make that happen, Notre Dame would be buoyed by a genuine, productive return from junior running back Jafar Armstrong. This has been said before. To pull a smattering of sentences from this column preceding the Irish victory against USC, when an Armstrong return was teased but ultimately unfulfilled for all practical purposes:
“Notre Dame has missed his versatility and speed out of the backfield. … Notre Dame has yet to combine an efficient rushing performance with an explosive passing showing. … Armstrong should create further offensive mismatches, a la Kmet, for Book to exploit. There was a reason the Irish opened exclusively with two-back looks on the first drive against Louisville. The combination of Armstrong and Jones puts two backs on the field, both adept in rushing, receiving and blocking.”
Specifically, senior running back Tony Jones will need the relief, if for no other reason than no other Notre Dame back can be trusted against an excellent Michigan rush defense.
Jones has developed into a No. 1 running back this season, though he will not so boldly admit that himself.
“You can tell me,” he said after taking 25 carries for 176 yards against the Trojans, with a wide grin making it clear his honest thoughts. “… I always been like this. Coach is letting me out of the cage a little bit.”
Out of the cage, Jones has taken 80 rushes for 557 yards this season, an average of 6.96 yards per attempt. He is a well-rounded back, weak in no areas.
But against the Wolverines — No. 17 in the country giving up only 3.03 yards per rush, a number that drops to 2.18 if removing Wisconsin’s butchering of Michigan’s defense — more than Jones will be needed. Every chance at a worthwhile gain on the ground will need to be exploited. Jones, able in all areas, will not best break through a hole in the line, not capable of turning a moderate run into a long one with an accelerating burst.
“We know that we have been most effective in winning games over the last few years finding a running game at some part of the game,” Kelly said. “Maybe it’s not the first quarter. Maybe it’s the second or the fourth, but we’re going to have to carve out a run game at some time during the game. That’s just being persistent, that’s being patient.”
That approach could make the most of a limited showing from Armstrong. He may not yet be ready for a full workload — a torn abdomen muscle sounds miserable — but if Jones can grind down the Wolverines, perhaps Armstrong can capitalize.
Anticipating a minimal workload may also be wise when considering fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford. Kelly said Thursday that Crawford worked into specific situations during practice this week, mentioning two-minute drills, in particular.
“He’ll play for us,” Kelly said. “I think he’ll be very effective.”
Notre Dame would be glad to get whatever it can from the savvy defensive back, but he also dislocated his elbow only four weeks ago. Michigan boasts four physical receivers that should give the Irish trouble as long as senior quarterback Shea Patterson has time to work.
“They’re a different group in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “They stand by themselves. … What they do really well is use their strengths, that is they body up defensive backs very well, and they use their length and strength to their advantage and do a great job of it.”
Limiting those receivers and getting Armstrong involved will give the Irish their best chance at a win in Ann Arbor for the first time since 2005. That win would keep Notre Dame in the Playoff conversation when the first rankings that matter are released Nov. 5.
And that win would also keep the Irish ahead of the Wolverines in nearly every respect, this season and otherwise. With no other dates between the two coming, those bragging rights would last a long while.
A QUICK POSTSCRIPT
The 0-6 Notre Dame record on the road against opponents that end the year ranked should be expounded upon. None of them were losses that reflect poorly on a program, quite frankly, though a win in any one of three of them in particular would have likely put the Irish into the Playoff …
24-22 loss at Clemson, which ended the season ranked No. 2.
38-36 loss at Stanford, eventual No. 3.
45-27 loss at USC, eventual No. 3.
41-8 loss at Miami, No. 13 in the final rankings.
38-20 loss at Stanford, No. 20.
23-17 loss at Georgia, currently No. 10 in the rankings, still in reasonable position to reach the Playoff.