Another week passes and now all of the football world is cranked up and running at full speed, with a full slate of college and pro football on the docket this weekend. While the weekend features many good games, one stands above the rest, as two teams – two programs – have a lot to prove when they take the field in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Saturday afternoon.
Both Michigan and Notre Dame have a lot of in common, and a lot to prove. Both programs are searching for redemption, hoping to restore their once glorious status as the country’s elite college football programs. They are first and second all time in winning percentage. They have a litany of rivals and a long history. Each head coach, the Wolverines’ Rich Rodriguez and the Fighting Irish’s Charlie Weis, are sharing what must be a roomy hot seat, too.
While the 35-3 drubbing of Western Michigan in week one of the college football season has probably has earned Rodriguez a shaky level of comfort for the time being, he knows Michigan has to turn itself around – and fast. The program is coming off a 3-9 disastrous 2008 season – the worst in the storied program’s history – and Rodriguez is shouldering the majority of the blame. Michigan is playing for their coach’s job security, the program’s ability to recruit, the program’s short and long term perception… oh, and an important win in the 2009 season. No pressure.
Notre Dame is faced with similar pressure for similar reasons. Sure, they whooped up on a surprisingly weak Nevada program in week one and their junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen seems to be living up to the some of the hype that accompanied his trip to South Bend three years ago, but Notre Dame, as a program, still has a tremendous amount to prove. Notre Dame has powerful boosters, which it has demonstrated on more than one occasion (just ask Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie). Weis must appease them.
The winner has a lot to gain, for sure. But, the loser may have more to lose. Losing this game launches one of the two programs back into the discussion about mediocrity and opens the door for coaching scrutiny and renewed insecurity. A loss for Michigan at the Big House hamstrings recruiting again (and Michigan State will continue to take advantage of that reality). A loss for Notre Dame calls into question the program’s ability to rebuild under Weis if a 3-9 team from a year ago can win, even though it was on the road.
Neither program has the luxury of relying on their history any longer. Both must prove they are relevant, and this game gives them an opportunity to do that. A loss could easily spell the beginning of the end for one coach and trigger a transition, while a win for one could immediately launch them into the discussion for the national championship (whether the team is worthy or not).
Even more than Ohio State and Southern Cal, these two storied programs are playing for survival and relevance. The loser of the game in Columbus will not lose recruits, will not destroy their coach’s future, etc. They simply have made their march toward a possible BCS championship game appearance more challenging. For Michigan and Notre Dame, it is a battle for survival, gridiron style. Which team can survive and thrive under the pressure? We will know by the time the game kicks off in Columbus on Saturday night.