Friday, August 5, 2011

ESPN College Gameday to Showcase Michigan vs. Notre Dame

Michigan Stadium's first night game will receive even more attention as ESPN features the event for College Gameday, reported Michigan's athletic department today. This comes in part from comments made by former Michigan wide receiver and Heisman trophy winner, Desmond Howard, who is currently a college football analyst and commentator on ESPN. When Howard was asked if College Gameday should go to Ann Arbor for the Notre Dame game, he said, "I think it makes perfect sense for us to go there."

College Gameday is ESPN's weekly coverage of a particular game that is presumed to show a promising match-up typically between two closely ranked teams. It also gives ESPN a chance to show some of the college's game day atmosphere, such as crowds of cheering fans and tailgating. The decision to showcase a certain match-up is usually very quick and last minute because college football rankings change from week to week. However, in the case of Michigan vs. Notre Dame, the game has already received a large amount of hype, as the game itself is early in the season and the two teams are in rebuilding stages, with Brian Kelly trying to make Notre Dame relevant to the BCS for the first time since 1988, and with Brady Hoke trying to reestablish Michigan's dominance in the Big Ten and nationally.

Plenty of people on both sides are predicting a win. Notre Dame fans claim that the Fighting Irish will be considerably better (and possibly a National Championship dark horse contender) because it is Brian Kelly's second year, and Kelly has been successful everywhere he has coached before. Similarly, Michigan fans maintain that Hoke and his staff will utilize quarterback Denard Robinson's spectacular ability to run while developing his ability to pass, and though strides are being made on the defensive side of the ball, the Wolverine faithful are confident that Michigan can bring home the win.

Howard's comments that College Gameday should go to Ann Arbor were not prompted by Michigan's athletic department, and he is not a spokesman for them. His comments actually came from an article written by Pete Sampson in Irish Illustrated, a Notre Dame sports magazine in print and on the web, where Howard apparently "didn't buy into the hype" that Notre Dame had a legitimate shot at a National Title this year.

"Aside from Notre Dame creating enough buzz to warrant a visit by ESPN's College Gameday to Ann Arbor on September 10 for the night game at Michigan Stadium, Howard didn't seem to think much of Irish prospects for a major step forward in Brian Kelly's encore season," wrote Sampson.

He claims Howard "sat stunned" when told that Notre Dame was listed as a Top Ten ranked program in "a couple major publications." Presumably, these publications include Phil Steele's College Football Preview Magazine, which ranks the Irish at No. 7, and Athlon Sports, which ranks them at No. 6.

Howard responded: "Really? Really? Ask Athlon what's that projection if Michael Floyd doesn't play. Tell me that projection." Floyd is the Irish's star wide receiver, but questions arose about his situation when he was arrested for a DUI in March. Originally Brian Kelly suspended Floyd indefinitely but has recently reinstated him.

Sampson further writes that Howard has "downplayed" Notre Dame's victories over Utah, Army, USC, and Miami in a bowl game, which allowed the Irish to close out the season on a positive note. "Who'd they beat?" Howard asked. "Without Michael Floyd, I don't see them up there being ranked anywhere in the Top Ten and maybe even with him in the offense because you've still got a big question mark at quarterback. That's huge."

Somewhat reluctantly, Sampson finds validity in Howard's point. "It's tough to argue with a player who scored 37 touchdowns in three seasons, won three Big Ten titles, took home one Heisman Trophy and went fourth overall in the NFL draft," he wrote. "With Notre Dame facing an open quarterback competition entering fall camp between Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, the Irish do have major questions in the shotgun." Sampson was quick, however, to point out Howard's apparent bias towards Michigan and that he "appeared much more optimistic about his alma mater despite the fact incoming head coach Brady Hoke has a career losing record and must rebuild Michigan in the wake of Rich Rodriguez."

First off, is anyone really surprised by Desmond Howard's "homerism" (i.e. picking your alma mater or home team to win)? We're all guilty of it at times, and the fact that Howard always picks Michigan even when the odds are horribly stacked against them means that, yes, he is certainly a homer. Does he really pretend to act otherwise? No. He fully admits his love for Michigan, and even if he didn't, the evidence of homerism is overwhelming: Howard always makes a point to come to Michigan's spring game. Couple that with several media appearances and picking Michigan to win for every game and you've got a case of homerism that's off the charts. But hey, that's okay. Lou Holtz thinks Notre Dame will go undefeated this year too.

When it comes to college sports teams, we all have bias. (The ironic exception appears to be Kirk Herbstreit, who even Buckeye fans say doesn't give Ohio State the benefit of the doubt enough times. In fact, despite his Ohio State roots, Herbstreit stands as one of the most objective college football analysts I've ever seen.) The point is to not hold it against them; they're just commentators. They're on television because of their personality and entertainment value. 

So when it comes to Howard not agreeing that Michigan will smacked silly by an "unstoppable" Notre Dame team this year, can we really blame him? Who's to say Michigan won't smack around the Irish?

I'll be the first to admit that Notre Dame will likely be the most formidable non-conference opponent Michigan faces this year, but the Irish are hardly invincible. When we did a run-down of the expectations for Brady's Hoke's first year, beating Notre Dame was low on scale because Michigan has garnered enough recent victories to not make it a huge priority that keeps the Wolverines up at night. It's expected that Michigan will still prepare aptly for the game anyway. Both teams are facing issues. The biggest one for the Irish is the one that plagues them every year: overconfidence. Jim Weber on Lost Lettermen does a fantastic piece on how Notre Dame's fans constantly set themselves up for disappointment.

"Of course, nothing shows how overhyped Notre Dame is on an annual basis than the blind, mindless praise for the Irish's starting quarterback," writes Weber. "Remember when [Beano] Cook once said Ron Powlus would win two Heisman Trophies while at Notre Dame and Mel Kiper Jr. said Jimmy Clausen should be the top overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft? Well, now it's [Dayne Crist's] turn to be deified. He is being named to multiple national watch lists (i.e. Maxwell, Davey O'Brien) without even winning the starting job over Tommy Rees yet. The sports gambling site has Crist at 75-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy, tied with Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez and ahead of South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery and Wisconsin RB Montee Ball. This is all based off nine career starts in which his team has gone 4-5?"

Crist's severe knee injury in the second half of Notre Dame's season prompted Kelly to play freshman (now a sophomore) Tommy Rees, who finished the season leading the team to three straight victories and a bowl win. The Irish certainly have two capable quarterbacks who will have to battle it out amongst themselves, but are they good enough to beat Michigan and go undefeated? Like anything else, that remains to be seen.

Pete Sampson and Desmond Howard got to the subject of College Gameday (when it was a possibility) because of the rivalry between Michigan and Notre Dame and the intensity bred between two immensely storied programs. Sampson writes:
Howard played in three Notre Dame-Michigan games. He lost as a freshman and sophomore, both times falling to a No. 1-ranked Irish squad with the Wolverines in the top five. In Howard's junior season No. 3 Michigan beat No. 7 Notre Dame in Ann Arbor. This year won't have those same rankings, but Howard hopes the night game creates enough electricity to draw ESPN to Michigan. To make his point, Howard pointed to his sophomore year in 1990, the last time Notre Dame hosted a night game.

"The atmosphere was like a bowl game, it was just unbelievable," Howard said. "We didn't win the game but I had two touchdowns. I scored one touchdown, when I went into the end zone I just disappeared into a crowd of people. I promise you, pull the footage. My teammates had to go in there and pull me out of the crowd because it was just that many people, standing room only, and we were going back and forth, head to head, toe to toe with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and it was just wonderful. It was everything you could ask for and more for a regular season college game."
Now Notre Dame will play Michigan in the Big House's first ever night game, and with ESPN now officially having decided to showcase it, Howard and Sampson's wish has come true. It will be the first time College Gameday has been hosted in Ann Arbor since Michigan played Ohio State in 2007. Interestingly enough, Michigan is supposed to play Ohio State at home this year, but because we're still in the preseason, some people are not quite as excited about that yet. So, Michigan's first night game takes precedence.

But there's something else. With the addition of College Gameday, let me just say that this game is receiving way too much hype. Not only is this Michigan's first night game, but both teams have prepared special throwback uniforms for it, which alone would be enough to get people excited. That, along with the anticipation that comes with a new coaching staff, makes Michigan eager to eek out a win. I actually had a safe bet that Michigan would lose to Notre Dame in a close one here because the priority was higher for Kelly than it was for Hoke. Now it seems like the pressure is more on Michigan again. Oy, college football.

The problem that Michigan has faced in the past is starting well and finishing poorly (see: 2009 and 2010). I'd rather have Michigan lose to Notre Dame than to Michigan State, but not if the damn Irish go to a National Championship this year! I mean, good for Kelly, but that puts more pressure on the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry. As far I'm concerned, the pressure's off and we should focus a little more on MSU and OSU.

Maybe we should take it all in stride. See what happens. I'd caution Michigan fans not to get too excited about this one, but it certainly doesn't help when Desmond Howard says something like, "This is as exciting as its going to get during the regular season."

Howard will also be honored at the event—likely due to his achievements when he played Notre Dame in 1991—and that's going to cause even more excitement. That's the way it is in college football: there can never be enough pageantry. So, as we approach the game on September 10, after we play Western Michigan in the season opener, let's try to stay objective. Then again, it's a good reminder that college football is fun as hell to watch.

After all, it is Michigan's first night game, so anything can happen.

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