Despite coming off a winning season and a victory in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, Central Michigan, Michigan's opening game opponent, couldn't physically challenge the Wolverines. That won't be the case when Notre Dame visits the Big House this weekend. The Irish will present a major challenge in a game that, like most years, will go a long way in defining both teams' seasons.
Last year's Fighting Irish were an interesting team. Not as good as many argued (not one of the nation's top two teams) but not as bad as others countered (give the Irish their due, they navigated a challenging regular season schedule without absorbing a loss). Despite playing in last season's BCS Championship game and returning many key performers, as is the case with most teams not named Alabama, there are a number of questions surrounding this year's Notre Dame team. Chief among these questions are how much they'll miss Manti Te'o and how successful they'll be with Tommy Rees at quarterback. One thing that is not in question, however, is Notre Dame's defensive front, which is as big, as physical and as talented as any in the nation. In this respect, Notre Dame will challenge Michigan in a way that Central Michigan could not.
Michigan can win Saturday's game without winning the battle in the trenches. Despite a dominating performance by Notre Dame's front seven and a sloppy performance by Michigan's offense, in which it turned the ball over six times, the Wolverines were still in position to win last year's game in South Bend. If Michigan can take better care of the ball, it could defeat the Irish even if Notre Dame again controls the line of scrimmage. But Michigan is looking to do more just beat the Irish in Saturday's primetime showdown, the Wolverines want to prove that they can stand up to tough, physical teams.
Michigan enters the season with a new look offensive line and an old look offensive philosophy, with designs on dominating the line of scrimmage. Given the youth of Michigan's offensive line, it likely won't be the force Brady Hoke envisions for at least another year. But how close are the Wolverines to being that force? Or more specifically, will Michigan be able to mount an effective running game against the stout Irish defense? And will the Wolverines be able to impose their will and grind out first downs to extend drives when needed? The answer to these questions may prove even more telling than the final score when measuring Michigan's development and identity as a football team.
Michigan desperately wants to beat the Irish, both to avenge last season's loss and to start the Big Ten season with an unblemished record. But it also wants to prove that it can consistently control the line of scrimmage. By facing one of the nation's toughest defensive fronts in week two, that answer will come in a hurry.