How Important Is the Michigan-Notre Dame Opener for Both Teams' Season Outlooks?

In this week's mailbag, looking at how much stock to put into Michigan and Notre Dame's Week 1 showdown, which teams have the best offensive lines heading into 2018 and thoughts on ordering in food for tailgating.
Publish date:

I often say dumb things, but this week’s first question reminded me of one of the dumbest things I’ve said in the past few years. It also provided an excellent reminder…

From Kevin:Will both Michigan and Notre Dame's seasons be defined by their opening weekend meeting?

I’m writing this now to answer Kevin’s question but also to reinforce a concept that I tend to ignore when caught up in the euphoria of college football’s return: Week one results often don’t tell us anything about either team. Our preseason projection of one or both teams is usually wrong, and it’s always better to have more data as a basis for comparison.

Here’s an example. On Sept. 5, 2016, I sat next to my friend Anwar Richardson in Charlie Strong’s postgame press conference following Texas’s 50–47 overtime win against Notre Dame. Anwar, who works for, was fairly new to the Texas beat after years spent covering multiple NFL teams. “Well,” I said, “at least you won’t have to cover a coaching search this season.”

I felt reasonably confident saying that because we all thought Notre Dame was going to be quite good, and if Notre Dame was good, that meant Texas—which had just beaten Notre Dame—also would be good. Both teams made me look very stupid. The Fighting Irish went 4–8 and Brian Kelly overhauled the bulk of his coaching staff. Texas went 5–7—including a loss at Kansas—and Strong was fired.

This year’s Michigan-Notre Dame opener is the type of game that could completely fool us. We can be reasonably certain Michigan is going to have an excellent defense, but we don’t know how the offense will look with (most likely) a new quarterback and a revamped coaching staff. If Michigan can’t move the ball or if Shea Patterson takes too many sacks and the Wolverines lose, the mood in Ann Arbor will zoom to DEFCON 1. But what if it’s just a case of an offense working out the kinks in its first game action together? (Even offensive mastermind Chip Kelly’s first Oregon team delivered a stinker at Boise State before it clicked and ultimately led the Ducks to a Pac-10 title.) All that hand-wringing would be for nothing if the Wolverines jell and then roar into Big Ten play with an offense that takes advantage of a mobile quarterback and some excellent young receivers.

Auburn fans, I see you nodding. You wanted everyone fired after your Tigers gave up 11 sacks in a week two loss at Clemson last year. But you seemed quite happy with the offense when it was rolling against Georgia and Alabama in November. Units evolve, especially when there are new pieces in place at the start of the season.


Now, what if Michigan’s offense comes out humming and the Wolverines beat the Irish? That same tonal shift that I described for Ann Arbor would take place in South Bend. Suddenly, fear of another 2016 would creep in. That fear may or may not be justified. Two years ago, that Texas offense feasted on what turned out to be a terrible Notre Dame defense. If that happened again—a weak offense scoring in bunches on an even weaker defense—then it could be a long season for the Irish. But what if Michigan’s offense has arrived fully formed? Then we could be talking about a loss to a playoff contender, which isn’t the end of the world.

The problem is we won’t know the answers to any of these questions when we wake up the morning of Sept. 2. All we’ll know is what happened in that one game. Without other data points to provide context, we may not be able to draw any accurate conclusions.

But we’ll definitely overreact anyway.

From Jonathan: Who are some of your top offensive lines going into 2018?

This will be a fun year for Big Uglies. With a bumper crop of NFL-ready defensive linemen throughout the country, offensive lines are going to be challenged this season. Fortunately, quite a few groups appear ready.

Wisconsin brings back all five starters from a group that opened holes for an average of five yards a carry last season. Right tackle David Edwards, left tackle Michael Deiter and right guard Beau Benzschawel pondered leaving early for the NFL but opted to return, and the result might be the best line Wisconsin has had during a string of double-digit win seasons that dates back to 2014. The breakout star—at least from a draftnik’s perspective—is probably Edwards, an option quarterback in high school who came to Wisconsin as a 245-pound tight end and grew into a 6-7, 319-pound tackle.

Meanwhile, the two teams that played for the national title also have reloaded on the line. Georgia lost left tackle Isaiah Wynn, but the Bulldogs might be deeper on the line this season as young players develop. Andrew Thomas, who started at right tackle as a true freshman last year, will replace Wynn on the left side. Lamont Gaillard returns at center, and Ben Cleveland seems to have locked down the right guard spot he won last November in an offensive line shakeup. At right tackle Isaiah Wilson, a five-star recruit in the class of 2017 who redshirted last season, seems to be holding off Cade Mays, a class of 2018 five-star recruit who enrolled in January. That could change by the time the Bulldogs open their season against Austin Peay. This spring, Kirby Smart predicted legitimate competition all along the line, and he wouldn’t hesitate to shuffle the group. So freshmen such as Mays and guard Trey Hill still have a chance to play their way into starting spots. And given the quality of the players they’d have to beat out to win those jobs, that competition can only make the Bulldogs better.

When Alabama beat Georgia in the national title game, then true-freshman Alex Leatherwood was filling in for Jonah Williams at left tackle after Williams went out with a sprained ankle and a ruptured deltoid in the third quarter. Williams is back now, which means Leatherwood should find a home at right tackle. Ross Pierschbacher, who has spent most of his career at left guard, has moved to center to replace graduated Bradley Bozeman. Lester Cotton has moved from right to left guard to replace Pierschbacher. Jedrick Wills, who also can play tackle if injuries force the Crimson Tide to shuffle, looks like the favorite at right guard.

New Redshirt Rule Adds Intriguing Potential Twist to Alabama's QB Competition

From Dan:Brock Berlin, Todd Marinovich and Josh McCown were all born on July 4th. Where would you like to meet them for dinner and would it be before or after you watched Independence Day?

This is quite the fascinating factoid. There’s probably a Freakonomics chapter in there somewhere. But to answer Dan’s question, I think we should meet in Berlin’s hometown of Shreveport, La., for ice box pie at Strawn’s Eat Shop. Shreveport is about a two-hour drive from McCown’s hometown of Jacksonville, Texas. We’d just have to fly in Marinovich, who likely will be the most interesting pie-eating companion. He has been many things—quarterback phenom, cautionary tale, drug addict, artist—and he would have some interesting stories to tell.

The pie would come after watching Independence Day, but probably before we all watch Born On The Fourth Of July.

From Jake: Wife and I have decided we’re gonna have food ordered in for tailgates in Gainesville this year instead of cooking. Weak or eminently practical?

Before my children were born, I would have mocked your decision to outsource your tailgating treats. Now? My advice is do whatever allows you to have the most fun in the time allotted between work and child-rearing. So if that means ordering roast pork, ropa vieja and maduros from Mi Apa Latin Cafe instead of hauling a smoker to your tailgate spot and spending four hours cooking ribs, then by all means, make that call.