Michigan, Notre Dame. These used to be the biggest, baddest, most sanctimonious, self-important and winningest two programs in all the land.
Well, that last part is still factually correct. Michigan has won more games than any other program, Notre Dame is third. The Wolverines have the highest winning percentage in history, by four-one-thousandth of a percentage point over the Irish.
But the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry has always been a bit manufactured. They didn't get serious about an annual battle until 1978, resuming a series that was abandoned after Michigan got pissed because Notre Dame got good under Knute Rockne. The renewal of the rivalry came a bit late with both programs beginning to hit the twilight phase of their respective existences.
To be sure, the games have been thrilling, especially of late. In the last three years, the outcomes were decided with 11, 27 and 2 seconds remaining, respectively, with Michigan pulling it out in dramatic fashion each time. But you can't help but feel that it's a bit like watching Ali and Frazier slugging it out - when each is in his 70s, throwing uppercuts while leaning on a walker.
This year, though, things might be just a tad different.
Notre Dame is off to its first 3-0 start since 2002, instantly inspiring talks of the program's first championship run since 1993. The idle chatter really picked up steam last week after the Irish throttled then-No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing. If they beat Michigan this week, expect lots of frothing at the mouth, especially coming from the likes of Mike Golic and Lou Holtz.
The Irish also found other ways to stay in the news, with the recent announcement that they're joining the ACC in all sports except football (sorta). Part of the deal is that Notre Dame has to play five ACC teams a year in football, starting perhaps as soon as 2013. That also means the series with Michigan might be put on ice in the near future.
Michigan AD Dave Brandon revealed last year that though the schools have verbally agreed to a 20-year extension to keep the series going until 2031, the contract was never signed and therefore both sides are now operating under a gentleman's agreement. Notre Dame has no way of fulfilling its ACC commitment for the 2014 season without dumping at least two games, so there's a chance Saturday's game might be Michigan's last appearance in South Bend in awhile if the series is put on hiatus.
Notre Dame desperately needs to beat Michigan to stay BCS-relevant for this season as its schedule is only going to get more difficult after Saturday. Still to come for the Irish are a home game against Stanford and road games against Oklahoma and USC. All that national championship happy talk will instantly vaporize with a fourth straight loss to the Wolverines, to be replaced by depressing dialogue about which amongst Orlando, Tampa or Jacksonville has the best Waffle House for the Irish's December bowl trip.
Of course, Michigan, which had its own national relevance shredded by Alabama in its opener, would like nothing better to do the same to Notre Dame, preferably in thrilling fashion again. Not since Roosevelt (Teddy) was president, when the Wolverines were an early adapter of the new sport, have they beaten the Irish four consecutive times.
The rest of the college football world have caught these venerable programs and passed them by. But for one night, under the gaze of Touchdown Jesus, Old Man Football will be back on center stage.
Other games with BCS implications:
Kansas State at Oklahoma, 7:50 p.m., FOX - The Sooners are a double-digit favorite but they seem primed for an upset. OU was hardly impressive in wins over UTEP and Florida A&M, giving up three sacks in each game. The Wildcats have not beaten OU since the 2003 Big 12 title game and haven't won in Norman since 1997, but this might be their chance to exact some payback.
Clemson at Florida State, 8 p.m., ABC - Despite their lofty ranking and the fact they won their first three games by a cumulative score of 176-3 (and would've been more if God hasn't shown mercy on Savannah State in the form of a thunderstorm), the Seminoles have yet to pick on someone their own size - sorry, Wake. Clemson will give us some idea whether this year's FSU team is just another underachieving bunch or something more than that.
Cal at USC, 6 p.m., Pac-12 Network - Pac-12 commish Larry Scott continues his feud with DirecTV, this week taking out full-page ads in West Coast papers exhorting Pac-12 fans to switch carriers. The problem is, he's lost considerable leverage after USC's defeat at Stanford last week. The Trojans, however, can't afford to worry about who's (not) watching this week, because another loss they might as well flush the rest of the season down the toilet.
Arizona at Oregon, 10:30 p.m. ESPN - With USC mostly out of the picture, Oregon is now the flag bearer for the Pac-12. And this week, the Ducks can finally show their latest gaudy Nike threads after hiding on the Pac-12 Network in two of their first three games. RichRod's Wildcats will provide a bit of a test, but they're still a couple of years away from matching Oregon's firepower.
Missouri at South Carolina, 3:30 p.m., CBS - Missouri already had a taste of Old Man Football with a southern accent, losing its inaugural SEC game to Georgia. Now the Tigers must go to the other Columbia for the first road game in their new conference - against the Ol' Ball Coach. Steve Spurrier says Connor Shaw will start at quarterback, but we're not yet sure if that's supposed to be good news for South Carolina.
Oregon State at UCLA, 3:30 p.m. ABC/ESPN2 - Two Pac-12 games feature matchups of unbeaten teams this week, but who'd thunk that the one in L.A. actually stars not USC but its crosstown rival UCLA? Jim Mora has pumped more than just a little life into the Bruins, who are seeking their first 4-0 start since 2005. But beware of Oregon State, a perpetual giant killer who upset Wisconsin in its only game so far this season.
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