Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ending The Series With Notre Dame

Michigan V Notre Dame "Under the Lights"
One minute and twelve seconds.  That's all it took to decide the first night game in Michigan Stadium history.  Fans had been forced to wait nearly one hundred years to see a night game in the Big House and the game that followed didn't disappoint.  An epic match-up of Michigan vs. Notre Dame gave fans the thrill of a lifetime.  Topped by 21 points in the final 1:12 and a game-winning touchdown by Roy Roundtree with two seconds will live in the minds of Michigan and Notre Dame fans forever.

However, there are rumors swirling that  the athletic department will be announcing tomorrow that the Michigan - Notre Dame rivalry will be put on hold, for the foreseeable future.  Obviously, nothing has been confirmed and tomorrow's announcement could regard something completely different, but I thought it would be an interesting chance to take a look back at this rivalry, especially if it ends for the foreseeable future.

Now, one may ask, why?  Why would Michigan and Notre Dame put such a well-known and beloved rivalry on hold?  Well, there's a multitude of possible reasons, but most reasonable speculations seem to focus on scheduling conflicts for Michigan.  As fans have seen this year, by having a guaranteed "home and home" rivalry with Notre Dame on a yearly basis, it becomes very difficult to schedule other legitimate non-conference opponents.  This is because college athletic departments are only allowed to schedule four games a season if they are in a conference like the Big Ten.  The four non-conference games are typically chances for the community and athletic department to make money and scheduling away games during those four games decreases the school's income significantly.

Of course, when Michigan tries to schedule games against teams like Alabama or Notre Dame, they are much less willing to schedule just a road game similar to a team like Western Michigan or Central Michigan.  This desire for home games typically leads to a "home and home." This means there are an equal number of home games for each team.  This seems fair, but it is still a challenge to the athletic department.  For instance, in the 2011 season Michigan had four home non-conference games, but because they scheduled Notre Dame and Alabama for next year, the team will have to go on the road twice (Alabama is a neutral game).  This is a major reason why a school would want to end a yearly rivalry with Notre Dame because it could allow more home games and scheduling of different difficult opponents.

Along with this, there is speculation the possible move is a result of the new Big Ten schedule that will change it from eight to nine conference games per season. This may sound like a minor change, but it only allows teams to schedule three non-conference games per year instead of four.  Since Michigan and other Big Ten teams will have to play tougher competition for another game and will be required to have more road games, having a yearly game like Notre Dame would only allow six home games bi-yearly, something the athletic department does not seem excited about.

Whether this potential change is because of Michigan's desire to schedule other good non-conference opponents or a side-effect of an expanded Big Ten schedule is up for debate, but putting this rivalry on hold is not something new.  For two rivals that first played in 1887, having only 39 games against each other is quite surprising.  In fact, it's because of athletic department disagreements that prevented that rivalry from being played on a yearly basis until 1978.

Since 1978, the teams have played 28 times.  Michigan holds a 14-13-1 record over Notre Dame during this period in a very competitive rivalry.  However, one should notice that there have been 34 seasons since 1978, not 28.  So why did the teams not play six times over this span?  This happened because the series took several "breaks" during this time.  In 1983-1984, 1995-1996, and 2000-2001, the series was put "on hold" and no games were played.  One can speculate on the reasoning for these breaks, but after further analysis, there seems to be a good reason.

In every one of the seasons where the Michigan - Notre Dame rivalry was put on hold, Michigan faced at least one non-conference opponent ranked in the top 25.  The quality of the opponent can be debated in hindsight, but nobody can debate the excitement leading up to those games.  For instance, in the 1984 season, Michigan was able to face #1 Miami and #16 Washington in non-conference play and in 2000 the team was able to face #14 UCLA.

I'm not arguing a "home and home" against a team like Oklahoma, Georgia, or Texas could replace what the Michigan - Notre Dame rivalry has become, especially with the last few games decided in the final minutes, but it certainly would generate new excitement.  I'd hate to see the rivalry be put on hold for an extended period of time, but replacing it for a two years with a "home and home" against a team like Oklahoma or Texas would be very appealing in my mind.

I find it appealing because it allows Michigan to face new and different opponents without sacrificing the special rivalry Michigan has with Notre Dame.  There's already been three two year breaks in the rivalry since 1978 and another would probably change little more than those breaks changed.  Along with this, players would still be able to play Notre Dame at home and on the road.  These players would miss out on the four year battle most players receive, but they'd get to face a different team like Oklahoma or Texas and still get the experience of playing Notre Dame in the Big House and in South Bend.

So, even though the idea of ending the Michigan - Notre Dame rivalry may seem unappealing, one cannot help but notice the breaks in the past and the chance to face a new, exciting opponent.  There's obviously no guarantee of what the athletic department's announcement will include and whether it's even about Notre Dame, but fans should not worry about the future of this rivalry as it will still be strong in the future if past history is any indication.

Photo Credit: Thomas Beindit

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