SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Michigan could really use a change in the conversation.
Since the Wolverines ended last season by taking the one-two punch of losing yet again to rival Ohio State and collapsing in a bowl game against South Carolina, there has been plenty of discussion about everything Michigan has not done in three seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. For example, the Wolverines have not:
— Beaten a ranked team on the road, an overall string of futility (0-16) that dates to 2006.
— Finished better than third in Big Ten.
— Beaten the Buckeyes.
— Had a substantially better record than they did in their first three seasons under Brady Hoke (28-11 vs. 26-13), the coach fired and replaced with much hype by Harbaugh, a former star quarterback for the Wolverines.
One game won’t fix everything — well, maybe if the one game was against Ohio State — but Michigan and Harbaugh have a chance to at least shift the narrative Saturday night when the 14th-ranked Wolverines face No. 12 Notre Dame for the first time since 2014.
“I feel good about renewing the rivalry. I feel good about it being game week. I feel good about starting the season,” said Harbaugh, who pushed to get this game back on the schedule.
Rarely is a Notre Dame game played where Brian Kelly is not the coach in the spotlight. The Fighting Irish are coming off a 10-3 season that pulled Kelly off the hot seat and validated a program makeover that followed 2016′s 4-8 debacle. This season, Kelly’s ninth, becomes about sustainability, and showing he can do more than sprinkle in the occasional double-digit victory campaign.
No program lives more week-to-week than Notre Dame, so this is a big opener for the Irish, too. Despite only winning eight games last season, Michigan is loaded with future NFL players on defense (defensive end Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush) and potentially the most talented passer (Shea Patterson) to play in Ann Arbor since Tom Brady.
“My folder, which has all of my notes and breakdowns of my opponent, is quite full this week,” Kelly said.
The last time these teams met, Notre Dame beat Michigan 31-0, marking the beginning of the end for Hoke as the Wolverines coach. A similar result either way in the 43rd meeting between these two teams would be shocking. Odds makers are calling it a toss-up. And there is no reason to believe this is a make-or-break season for Harbaugh, but 1-0 would certainly help Michigan fans move on from last season’s disappointment.
SHEA HEY KID
Patterson’s transfer was a dominant story in college football for much of the offseason. He left Mississippi after the Rebels were hit by NCAA sanctions, went through spring practice with Michigan, but not until late April did the Wolverines find out the former five-star recruit would be eligible this season.
“That was definitely a crazy time in my college career,” he said.
Harbaugh and Michigan have pieced it together at quarterback for three seasons, getting good enough play to have a couple of 10-3 seasons. But last year, between spotty quarterback play and shoddy work by the offensive line, the offense was barely mediocre (seventh in the Big Ten at 5.18 yards per play). Patterson is a potential game-changer.
“He reminds me a little bit of when I watched Johnny Manziel as a young kid in terms of he’s not necessarily looking to run at first,” Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “He’s looking to scramble, extend the play and throw the ball down the field. He’s got a quick release.”
Both teams lost key players to injuries in the past week.
Michigan receiver Tarik Black injured his right foot after an injury to his left cost him much of last season. Sophomore Nico Collins is likely to see more action with Black out of the lineup.
“He’s doing a good job of grasping the offense and is not making nearly as many mistakes as he did last year in practice,” senior receiver Grant Perry said.
Notre Dame defensive back Shaun Crawford, expected to see lots of time as the primary nickel back, tore his left ACL in practice on Tuesday. With the senior gone, freshman Houston Griffith should get more opportunities.