Big Game Hunting: Notre Dame-Michigan is the perfect way to start the season
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They played each other eight times in the 1980s, eight times in the 1990s and every year from 2002 to 2014. Two history-writing programs. Two icons of college football.
It’s mighty fine to see No. 14 Michigan at No. 12 Notre Dame (6:30 p.m., Ch. 5, AM-1000) on the schedule for the opening Saturday of the season.
“I feel good about renewing the rivalry,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It makes a lot of sense. We’ll get on the bus, we’ll go to South Bend and make a 2½-hour drive. They can do the same when they come here [in 2019]. It makes a lot of sense.”
It will for two seasons, anyway, before the rivalry is interrupted again. For now, that will have to do.
This game is a pick ’em — perfect for an opener, isn’t it? — with each team starting on the outskirts of the long race for the playoff. All eyes will be on the quarterbacks, Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson for the Wolverines and returning starter Brandon Wimbush for the Irish.
Patterson, who played at three high schools in as many states, once was the No. 1-ranked pro-style recruit in the land. The buzz out of Ann Arbor is that the junior brings instant best-in-the-Big Ten potential to the mix.
“He’s been really good,” Harbaugh said. “His level of focus and intensity during practice and execution has been really good. I felt like he was one who was playing the best and gives our team the best chance to win.”
Wimbush, a senior, completed fewer than half his throws in 2017. He has receivers and tight ends who can make his job easy — but also a purer thrower, Ian Book, breathing down his neck.
“He attacked it in the offseason,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of Wimbush. “He attacked his weaknesses and continued to sharpen his strengths. What I love the most about him is that he’s a humble leader. He took the time to work on any of the things he felt like he needed to work on, as well as became more of a vocal leader for us.”
The last times these teams met, four years ago in South Bend, the Irish romped 31-0. Michigan staggered on to a 5-7 finish that got Brady Hoke fired and paved the way for Harbaugh’s return to his alma mater. Kelly’s squad started 6-0 and rose into the top five in the polls before cratering, losing five times from there.
Nobody’s getting shut out this time, although both defenses are packed to the gills with returning starters. And neither team’s season is an implosion waiting to happen; the quality on each side is simply too high. Irish in a ferocious affair by a score of 23-20.
Saturday’s highest-profile other two matchups are on neutral fields: No. 9 Auburn vs. No. 6 Washington (2:30 p.m., Ch.7) in Atlanta and No. 1 Alabama vs. Louisville (7 p.m., Ch. 7) in Orlando.
The first of those clashes isn’t very “neutral” at all, with the Tigers only about 100 miles from home. But I’m reminded of witnessing a 2011 opener in which Washington coach Chris Petersen, then leading Boise State, took an underdog into Atlanta and blasted Georgia before a hugely partisan crowd. Can Coach Pete do it again?
The Huskies are the best team — on both sides of the ball — in the Pac-12. Auburn has a wicked defense and plenty of speed on offense, but give me the 1½-point ’dogs from way out in Seattle.
Meanwhile, it’s amazing to consider that Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts — 26-2 as a starter — could be holding a clipboard as upstart Tua Tagovailoa, the hero of last season’s national-title game, runs the Crimson Tide offense. Whoever plays, I like the lightly regarded Cardinals to cover the 24½-point spread. A score of 31-14 sounds about right.
My favorite favorite: No. 8 Miami -3½ vs. No. 25 LSU (Sunday, 6:30 p.m., Ch. 7) in Arlington, Texas. The Hurricanes have a big edge in experience, and the Tigers have too big of a question mark at quarterback.
My favorite underdog: No. 20 Virginia Tech +7½ at No. 19 Florida State (Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN). The Hokies are ready for this one in Tallahassee, where new coach Willie Taggart will get it going — just not yet. Upset alert.
Kent State at Illinois
The facts: 11 a.m., BTN, AM-670.
The records: Kent State 0-0, Illini 0-0.
The story line: The Golden Flashes will play at a high tempo offensively if they can, but they’ll be as outmanned as a low-end MAC team should be in this one. The Illini defense will get its bearings early and eat from there, and the offense should be able to do mostly what it wants. That means a good day on the ground and a good breaking-in for new quarterback A.J. Bush, who’ll find receivers running open as well as running creases to stretch his own legs. It won’t often be this easy for the Illini, but this ought to be a fun few hours.
The line: Illini by 16½.
Greenberg’s pick: Illinois, 38-7.
Northern Illinois at Iowa
The facts: 2:30 p.m., BTN, AM-560.
The records: NIU 0-0, Iowa 0-0.
The story line: Huskies coach Rod Carey summed it up by calling Iowa, well, Iowa. “And for those inside college football,” he said, “that’s all you need to say about Iowa, is it’s Iowa.” That doesn’t mean the Huskies — with quarterback Marcus Childers operating behind an experienced offensive line — don’t have a chance to do some damage and stay in the game. It’ll be close into the second half, but the Hawkeyes should separate late behind quarterback Nate Stanley and a talented group of receivers.
The line: Hawkeyes by 10½.
Greenberg’s pick: Iowa, 31-17.