ANN ARBOR — Michigan and Notre Dame first met on a football field when Grover Cleveland was president.
The programs are central to many of college football’s most indelible moments. Their coaches, fight songs, traditions, and stadiums are romanticized. And on Saturday night in South Bend, Ind., one of the sport’s holiest cities, they meet again as the game of the week.
College GameDay will be there, a primetime national audience will tune in on NBC, and the outcome will produce a litany of hot takes.
“I’m excited about it,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I had a chance to watch the game as a kid in-person. I had a chance to play in the game twice and watched it once from the sidelines as a player. I’ve coached against Notre Dame. It’s so close — 2.5 hours away, two great Midwestern teams.”
The series resumes after a three-year hiatus and some hurt feelings. Depending on whom you ask, either former Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon or Notre Dame A.D. Jack Swarbrick is at fault. Now that the two rivals are playing in the same sandbox again, college football fans should appreciate that this game is back.
Michigan fans wave pom-poms before a September, 2011 game against Notre Dame in Ann Arbor, Mich. This is the first ever night game to be played at Michigan Stadium.
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There was a time when the Michigan-Notre Dame game marked the unofficial beginning of the college football season. Matchups in the 1980s and ‘90s were hyped and often lived up to the billing. This year’s renewal is shaping up to be in the same conversation.
“It’s great for college football,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re excited about this matchup. I know our kids and our coaches can’t wait for Saturday night.”
The 12th-ranked Irish are favored by one over No. 14 Michigan. A defensive slugfest is predicted by many, even with the arrival of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson for the Wolverines. The teams return a combined 18 starters on defense.
Michigan’s lost 16 consecutive road games against top-25 teams, dating to a victory in 2006 at No. 2 Notre Dame. Chances are at least three road games this season — Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State — will come against ranked opponents in hostile environments.
In the teams’ last meeting, the Irish won 31-0, their largest margin of victory in series history. Notre Dame has won six of the past eight games in South Bend.
“Everyone says we have this tough, hard schedule, which we do,” junior offensive lineman Ben Bredeson said. “We have one of the hardest schedules in the country. But really, it’s exciting because we get to go play in how many legendary college stadiums?
“The atmosphere [at Notre Dame] is always incredible. Going into Notre Dame at night, it’s going to be a challenging environment for sure. But it’ll also be exciting for us. We feed off energy, whether it’s positive or negative, and I think the team is going to respond really well.”
Notre Dame's Nicky Baratti, second from right, is congratulated by teammates after intercepting a pass intended for Michigan's Drew Dileo (9) during the first half of a September, 2012 game in South Bend, Ind.
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The city of South Bend is getting in on the festivities, with Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a possible 2020 contender for president, renaming a portion of Michigan Street “Fighting Irish Drive.” No word from the governor’s office if Michigan City, Ind., ironically where the Wolverines will stay Friday night, is getting a new name.
Michigan senior safety Tyree Kinnel is one of the few Wolverines who was around for the last Michigan-Notre Dame game. It wasn’t the season opener in 2014, but the humbling loss was part of a year-long tailspin which saw UM finish 5-7 and coach Brady Hoke get fired.
The 2018 edition will be the ninth time Michigan and Notre Dame have opened the season against each other. The Irish won in 1988, launching a national championship season; in 1989, when Notre Dame finished 12-1 and ranked No. 2; and 1993, another one-loss, second-ranked finish for the Irish.
Those memories are what Michigan is aiming to create.
“It’s exciting to be a part of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry,” Kinnel said. “I grew up watching it. We’ve got to win the big games on the road. We got a lot of big games on the road this year. If we want to reach our goals, we have to win those games.”
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