It was late April, 2006. I remember my upstairs neighbor, a proud Notre Dame graduate, glowingly asking me, "Did you hear we got our quarterback?" In a similar tone, I replied, "Yep. Did you hear we got ours?" My how things have changed.
When I started my trip last year, I chose Notre Dame for three reasons. 1) They had one of only two compelling home games across the nation to start their season. 2) It was close to home, so last-minute arrangements would be easy. 3) I had a feeling they were in for a down year, and I wanted to catch them when things were still cheery. But I don't think I or anyone else believed that the wheels would fall off quite so dramatically. Every week. In the weeks leading up to the debacle versus Georgia Tech, Domers were cheery as anyone. At the tailgates, they were all certain of victory, and to a man, they all had immense faith in Charlie Weis. I can't imagine that South Bend will be quite so sunny this Saturday morning. The cloud now looming is not merely threatening; it is dark enough to block one of the most successful programs in history from view completely.
Michigan, on the other hand, was to accomplish great things last season. We all know what happened starting that very day. Let's not dwell on it, OK? After all the events of last season, the approach for Michigan fans is an new and bewildering one. Nobody was very surprised when we lost to Utah. We're clinging to hopes of making a bowl game to keep the streak alive, and have real fears that we're going to suffer the same fate as the Irish last season. And our Golden Boy tasked with taking the program into the next era skipped town. (The saga of Ryan Mallet isn't the only reason I removed myself from the yearly recruiting chatter, but it certainly played a role.)
Hardly the clash of titans we expect when the two winningest programs in college football face off, the game is being openly derided in the media. Perhaps it should. Certainly, neither of these teams is going to win the national championship this season. However, in the context of college football, this game is immensely important. If Notre Dame loses this game, their situation becomes quite hopeless. Despite his outrageous contract extension, Weis has to be fired. Retaining him essentially proves the accusations of racism levied at the school, regardless of Willingham's failures at U-Dub. After a 3-9 season, if he can't beat this Michigan team, what possible argument can he make to continue as head coach?
Michigan, on the other hand, is staring that 3-9 possibility in the face. Excuses abound. No offensive linemen, no quarterback, and a new regime are all somewhat fair reasons for failure. To lose this game is somewhat expected. But winning this game will give the team the same boost Notre Dame got in 2005. That game is probably the biggest reason that the school and its fans showed such confidence in Weis. It was a sign that brighter days were ahead. That the sign turned out to be connivingly false shouldn't bother Michigan at all if we pull this game out. What a boost it would be for the rest of the season.
I find myself in a weird position this time around. I grew up despising Notre Dame, and attending Michigan only steeled my hatred. I've long said that the world of college football is a better place when the Irish are doing well, even though I had no love for them. But a funny thing happend to me last year. I spent enough time with the Domers that I began to understand them a bit. Even worse, I realized I actually liked them. I know. Gross, right? It was a bit like making out with your sister. It affected me to the point that when Michigan won last year's battle of 0-2 juggernauts 38-0, I really felt sorry for the folks in South Bend.
So what of this week's game? I have my viewing location staked out in Buenos Aires. They promise me the game will be on. Does my soft heart coupled with the fact that Notre Dame needs this game so much more than we do affect my mindset at all? Of course not. I hope we win 39-0! That is wholly impossible, and I will take a win under any circumstances. At this point, I'd still take some solace in being called tallest midget as opposed to the dumbest imbecile. In the long run, it might actually matter a lot.
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