It may not be Ohio State and it may not be Michigan State, but make no mistake: The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry matters.
For anyone exposed to Michigan football media (which you presumably are, if you?re reading this), the hype for Saturday is palpable. And sure, fans are excited to watch Shea Patterson. Yes, the defense is expected to be among the nation?s best. But more than that, Michigan?s players and fans alike are excited because the Notre Dame rivalry is back.
And as it has been so often in the past, there are no shortage of reasons to get excited for Saturday, on and off the field. Whether you buy into preseason rankings or not, they mean something because reputation matters. There?s a reason Alabama sneaks into the playoff when they may not deserve it and teams like Oklahoma State and Boise State are left on the outside looking in.
So with Notre Dame ranked 12th and Michigan 14th, neither has the margin for error to lose its opening game. For the Wolverines, the biggest criticism of Harbaugh?s tenure has been his inability to win big games. Beating the Irish in his first chance wouldn?t be beating Ohio State but it would be a start Harbaugh desperately needs ? or at least wants. Off the field, Notre Dame has had bragging rights for four years since a 31-0 walloping in 2014. In two days, Michigan gets the chance to offer its rebuttal.
All of that is what Saturday means but that is not unique for this rivalry. The two schools did not play regularly until 1978 and they are not conference foes?this is a rivalry borne out of tense moments, high-stakes meetings, and thrilling conclusions. So with that said, here are the five best games that have given the rivalry its current significance.
5. 2009: Michigan 38, Notre Dame 34
2009 didn?t exactly ?lead to a national championship? like a few others on this list, with Michigan finishing the season 5-7. The game itself, though, was among the best the rivalry has ever seen, with yet another epic ending. This time, the Wolverines came out on top, with a game-winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds remaining. With 72 total points, this game also set the rivalry?s most points record.
4. 1980: Notre Dame 29, Michigan 27
We?re down to number four on the list, and are still at two-point games decided on the final possession, with many similar games not even making the top five. This time, it was decided on a made field goal, with Notre Dame kicker Harry Oliver nailing a 51-yard field goal to win. More importantly, though, the game helped usher in the modern era of the rivalry in only the third iteration after it was reinstated in 1978.
3. 1986: Michigan 24, Notre Dame 23
Another season-opener that Michigan came into with national championship aspirations and a No. 3 ranking. The Wolverines performance did not live up to their ranking, failing to force a single punt from Notre Dame in Lou Holtz?s first-ever game on the sidelines in South Bend. But thanks to some good offense (from quarterback Jim Harbaugh), a dose of good fortune, and questionable refereeing, Michigan came away with the win. On the final possession, the Irish appeared to have a game-winning touchdown before wide receiver Joel Williams was ruled out-of-bounds and John Carney missed a 45-yard field goal with the chance to win.
2. 1988: Notre Dame 19, Michigan 17
In stark contrast to 2011, this game was built on national title dreams. Michigan opened the 1988 season ranked 9th while Notre Dame was ranked 13th. After a thrilling 19-17 Irish victory, those fortunes were quickly reversed, with Notre Dame going on to claim the most recent of its 11 titles with a 12-0 season. The game itself was equally exciting, with the Irish going up 19-17 on its final possession before Michigan kicker Mike Gillette missed a 48-yard field goal for the win as time expired.
1. 2011: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31
What do I really need to say here? It may not have had the national championship implications that other meetings have had but this had everything else. Despite both teams being unranked, the hype was unreal. Michigan had won back-to-back thrillers over the Irish so Notre Dame desperately wanted to get the Wolverines back. Meanwhile, the Big House crowd was as electrifying as it has ever been in the first game under the lights. And Denard Robinson gave the maize and blue faithful everything they could have dreamed of. A thrilling, see-saw encounter looked like it had been decided on a Theo Riddick touchdown with 31 seconds to go – but it was not to be. Robinson marched the Wolverines 80 yards in 29 seconds, scoring the winning touchdown with 2 seconds on the clock. I had no relation to Michigan at the time but it?s one of those games that no one who watched it live will ever forget.
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