After a three-year hiatus, Michigan and Notre Dame meet in South Bend on Saturday night for one of the top matchups from Week 1 in the 2018 college football season. The stakes couldn’t be higher for both teams. This trip to South Bend is the start of a challenging slate for the Wolverines and a win here would certainly quiet some of coach Jim Harbaugh's critics after an 8-5 record last season. The Fighting Irish were in the mix for a playoff spot last year but lost two out of their last three regular season matchups to slip to the Citrus Bowl. Coach Brian Kelly's team is looking to build off that momentum with another year of double-digit victories and a spot in a New Year's Six bowl (or better) this fall.
Harbaugh isn’t on the hot seat at Michigan, but the former Wolverine quarterback enters a critical 2018 season. After back-to-back 10-win seasons, Michigan slipped to 8-5 last fall. Additionally, Harbaugh is 1-2 versus Michigan State and 0-3 against Ohio State. While last year’s eight wins and records against rivals are certainly numbers to criticize, the Wolverines have made considerable progress under Harbaugh’s watch. After all, this program went 5-7 in the year prior to his arrival. Michigan’s defense ranks as one of the best in the nation once again and is the strength of this team. Harbaugh is searching for the right mix on offense, but there’s optimism Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson is the answer under center, and the line is poised to take a step forward under new assistant Ed Warinner.
Notre Dame’s disappointing 2016 season prompted changes by coach Brian Kelly. After a 4-8 mark, Kelly hired new coordinators on both sides of the ball and overhauled the program to prevent another losing record. Kelly’s revamp worked out well for the Fighting Irish in 2017. This team started 8-1, picking up victories against Michigan State, USC and NC State prior to November. However, Notre Dame stumbled late, losing at Miami 41-8 and at Stanford 38-20 before the bowl. Despite falling out of the mix for a playoff bid, the 10-win season was a step forward for Kelly’s program.
Michigan holds a 24-17-1 series edge over Notre Dame. The Wolverines have won four out of the last six meetings against the Fighting Irish.
Michigan at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Notre Dame - 1
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan’s Offense
Michigan’s hopes of a Big Ten title and CFB Playoff bid will rest on how far this unit improves throughout the course of the 2018 season. After leading the Big Ten by averaging 40.3 points a game in 2016, Harbaugh’s offense regressed to 25.3 points a contest. Quarterback injuries and overall inconsistent play under center, youth at receiver and a shaky offensive line all contributed to the regression last fall.
Although question marks remain on the offensive line, there’s optimism for marked improvement by Michigan’s offense. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson ranked as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2016 signing class and possesses all of the tools needed to rank as one of the Big Ten’s top signal-callers by the end of the year. Patterson threw for 2,259 yards and 17 scores before suffering a season-ending knee injury with the Rebels in 2017. In addition to his passing ability, Patterson’s mobility will be an asset with the uncertainty in the trenches.
Patterson’s top target was expected to be receiver Tarik Black, but he’s out indefinitely due to a foot injury. With Black sidelined, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins are expected assume the go-to roles at receiver. Additionally, Michigan has one of the deepest groups of tight ends in college football. Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon should get plenty of looks from Patterson on Saturday night. While the offensive line has to take a step forward, there’s plenty to like at running back. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans combined for 1,679 yards and 17 rushing scores last fall.
Just like Michigan’s offense, Notre Dame’s defense is also surrounded in optimism. Under Mike Elko’s direction last fall, the Fighting Irish cut their yards per play allowed from 5.4 in 2017 to 5.05 in ’18. This group also held opponents to 21.5 points a contest – a significant improvement after allowing 27.8 in 2016. Elko departed for Texas A&M, but Clark Lea was promoted from linebackers coach and is expected to build off last season. Notre Dame brings back nine starters, including All-America candidates at linebacker in Te’von Coney and cornerback in Julian Love. The Fighting Irish’s deep defensive line is headlined by tackle Jerry Tillery, and this unit figures to give a rebuilding Michigan front some trouble on Saturday night.
Harbaugh and Michigan’s offense is eager to showcase last year’s struggles are clearly behind them. Notre Dame’s defense hopes to show last season’s improvement was just the first step in transforming this unit into one of the best in the nation.
Which side will win out? And how much will Patterson’s arrival transform the Michigan offense?
2. Michigan’s Defensive Line Against Notre Dame’s Offensive Line
It’s strength versus strength when these two units face off on Saturday night.
Michigan’s defensive line ranks as one of the top groups in college football after holding opponents to just 3.5 yards a carry and generating 42 sacks over 13 contests. Standout tackle Maurice Hurst departed Ann Arbor for the NFL, but coordinator Don Brown already has a strong foundation in place. Ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary combined for 14 sacks last season and will be joined on the interior by Aubrey Solomon, Bryan Mone and Michael Dwumfour. This unit has a good mix of edge rushers, along with tackles capable of clogging up the middle and allowing linebackers Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush to make plays around the line of scrimmage.
On the other side of the line, Notre Dame’s front five had to retool a bit from last season. Two All-Americans – Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey – finished their eligibility, and line coach Harry Hiestand took a job with the Bears. Kelly promoted veteran assistant and former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn to Hiestand’s old job, ensuring there was continuity for 2018. The Fighting Irish will lean on center Sam Mustipher and guard Alex Bars to anchor this unit, and there’s enough returning talent and experience to limit the drop off. However, there’s little doubt Nelson and McGlinchey will be missed.
How will Notre Dame’s line hold up against Michigan’s standout front? Will the Fighting Irish keep Gary and Winovich away from the quarterback and open up holes for the ground attack? Or will Gary, Winovich and Solomon dominate at the point of attack and keep Notre Dame’s offense behind schedule all night?
3. Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush
It’s not hyperbole to suggest Notre Dame’s playoff hopes hinge on how far quarterback Brandon Wimbush improves in his second year under center.
In his first season as the starter, Wimbush threw for 1,870 yards and 16 touchdowns to six picks. He also ranked second on the team with 803 rushing yards and paced the offense with 14 scores on the ground. Wimbush’s ability to impact a game with his legs isn’t in question, but the junior has to improve his passing ability for Notre Dame’s offense to take the next step. Wimbush connected on just 49.5 percent of his throws last season and had only one game of more than 250 passing yards. Even if Wimbush takes a step forward in his development, it may not be evident on Saturday night. That’s due to a Michigan secondary that’s loaded with talent, including two All-America candidates at quarterback in David Long and Lavert Hill. The Wolverines allowed only 11 passing scores and held opponents to a completion percentage of 48.8 last year.
In addition to the uncertainty surrounding Wimbush’s play, Notre Dame has some question marks at the skill spots. Running back Josh Adams left for the NFL, and there’s doubt surrounding the status of Dexter Williams. Additionally, two of last year’s top receivers – Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson – are no longer on the roster.
This game is likely to come down to one factor: Which offense is able to consistently generate enough drives to get into scoring position? Assuming that plays out, you have to like Michigan’s odds. Patterson will give the passing game a spark, plus his mobility helps the offensive line in a tough environment. The Wolverines are also loaded up front and in the secondary, which isn’t an easy matchup for Notre Dame’s offense. Wimbush will have to make plays with his legs, but the Fighting Irish will struggle to move the ball without consistent production out of the passing game. Michigan goes into South Bend and picks up a big victory.