College Football Nation: Struggling Wolverines, Irish clash

Eric Avidon

They're the two winningest programs in the history of college football, but Michigan and Notre Dame are both 0-2 to start the season, so naturally, as they ready to play one another tomorrow in Ann Arbor, they're being lumped together.

Never before have the teams met when winless, unless it was the opening game of the season, and they've met 34 times in the past. The last time both were unranked at the time they squared off was 1909. Michigan, going back to last year, has lost four straight games, its longest streak since 1967, and allowed more than 30 points in every one. Notre Dame has also lost four straight, all by more than 20 points.

So Michigan and Notre Dame are pretty much in the same boat, right?

Not even close.

One wasn't expected to be particularly good, was thought to be in a rebuilding year after losing a lot of senior talent. It didn't recruit particularly well for a few years - Rivals.com ranked its 2004 and 2005 classes 32nd and 40th, respectively. And it's played two teams that are ranked in the top 15. Meanwhile, though it looked awful in both losses, it showed some improvement in Week 2.

That'd be Notre Dame.

``I think that starting with the defense, I thought our rush defense was much better this week than last week,'' coach Charlie Weis said at his weekly press conference. He added, ``Offensively, I think the most encouraging thing I have to talk about is the play at quarterback (where true freshman Jimmy Clausen made his first start). ... We all know he had obvious talent, but I think he never got rattled.

``I think he showed great poise for a first-year guy.''

Michigan, on the other hand, was a preseason top 5 pick, a team expected to contend for the national championship. The Wolverines apparently recruited well, with classes ranked fifth and sixth by Rivals.com in 2004 and 2005, and Nos. 13 and 12 the past two years.

After losing significant defensive talent to early entry into the NFL, clearly the Wolverines were overrated.

But if anything, after getting beaten by Appalachian State on Sept. 1 and becoming the first ranked Div. I-A team to ever to lose to a Div. I-AA opponent, Michigan regressed in a horrific loss to Oregon.

``I think we are where we are,'' said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. ``What I've done all throughout my career every week is try to address where we are, the reality. ... The reality is that we very much would like to change to become the team that we're capable of being.''

In both losses, the Wolverines showed that despite years facing teams that run spread offenses and have mobile quarterbacks, they've figured out nothing. Zak Kustok and Northwestern burned the Michigan defense for 54 points late on a Saturday afternoon in 2000, making the Wolverines look like they were stuck in molasses. It didn't change when they gave up 38 to Vince Young and Texas in the 2005 Rose Bowl at the end of the 2004 season, or any of the three times Troy Smith and Ohio State made Michigan look a step, or three, slow.

Now Oregon's Dennis Dixon and Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards have continued the tradition.

Run the ball and have a conventional quarterback and the Michigan defense looks brilliant, as it did through 11 games last year, before the Buckeyes put up 42. But run a mobile quarterback out there and suddenly that defense, replete with NFL talent, is clueless.

But as alarming as Michigan's unwillingness or inability to adapt on defense is, just as disappointing has been an offense that is loaded with star talent - running back Mike Hart, quarterback Chad Henne, left tackle Jake Long, and receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington.

``What we will attempt to do (this week) is become a better tackling team, which means keeping the ball inside the defense, and preventing big plays,'' said Carr.

Even though it's Notre Dame that's playing to its talent and Michigan that's underachieved through two weeks, it's the Wolverines who will likely wind up with a significantly better record the rest of the way.

The talent just isn't there for the Irish. It's a team that could be an underdog in each of its first eight games, until it plays Navy on Nov. 3. Meanwhile, Michigan won't face a spread offense the rest of the way, at least until its bowl game. And that starts tomorrow with Notre Dame.

Assuming the Wolverines haven't given up on their season amid the humiliation of their two losses, they could still run the table. It's been done before. Florida State in the fall of 1989 is a prime example, when the Deoin Sanders-led Seminoles lost to Southern Mississippi and Clemson to open the season and didn't lose again.

In fact, Michigan almost did it once. In 1998 the Wolverines lost to Notre Dame and Syracuse out of the gate, won eight straight and then lost to Ohio State.

``The measure, the test I guess,'' said Carr, ``of any athlete, any player, any team, any coach, is how you respond when things aren't going well because that's when I think you get your greatest challenge.''

Carr deserves to keep his job. He's earned the right to try and rectify the problem, try to recover the season.

It's Carr, after all, who delivered Michigan its first national championship since the 1940s when he led the 1997 team to an undefeated season. But whether Michigan recovers or not, whether the Wolverines respond to the challenge of their current lot, they're the 0-2 team that's underachieved to date, not Notre Dame.

The records are the same, but lumping the traditional powerhouses together is a mistake.

WHAT WE LEARNED

The Big East has a Big Three - West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers - and after that a bunch of teams figured to be mediocre and lousy.

Just a few years ago after its old Big Three of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left to join the Atlantic Coact Conference, the Big East seemed on the brink of irrelevance. But now, it turns out the conference has a lot of depth and is significantly stronger this season than a couple of others in the BCS fraternity.

Last weekend, there was one upset that caught everyone's attention - South Florida winning at Auburn. That would be South Florida of the Big East, one of the teams outside the Big Three that were supposed to be all the Big East had to offer, beating one of the better teams in the Southeastern Conference, which is likely the best of them all.

``It's a big win beating Elon. It's a big win beating Auburn. We're 2-0,'' said South Florida coach Jim Leavitt. ``We haven't even got into the Big East race yet.''

He added, ``They (Auburn) don't lose at home. You go in somebody's place and win a game, and it's on national television (and you get attention).''

But the depth of the Big East goes beyond just South Florida.

Cincinnati put a 34-3 whupping on Oregon State last Thursday night. That would be Cincinnati of the Big East, croaking a team from the Pac 10, likely the second-best conference of them all.

There are only eight teams in the Big East. Five of them are dangerous.

Each of the Big Three were unimpressive in victory last week, all struggling against inferior teams. West Virginia allowed 23 points to Marshall and has given up 47 in two games. Despite having an offense that may be unstoppable, the Mountaineers are suspect because of their defense. The same goes for Louisville, which inexplicably allowed 42 points to Middle Tennessee State. Rutgers, meanwhile, only pulled away from Navy late in a 41-24 win.

It's likely the conference doesn't have any team the caliber of the best from the Pac 10 (USC), SEC (LSU) and Big 12 (Oklahoma). But with five of eight teams dangerous on any given day, the conference has developed the kind of depth that makes it intriguing. That also makes the schedules of West Virginia, Lousiville and Rutgers a lot stronger than they looked at the start of the season, which will only help if one of the three manages to run the table.

Ironically, the conference Miami, Virginia Tech and BC jumped ship to join - the ACC - may be the worst of the six BCS conferences.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Last week, LSU and Oklahoma had signature wins. The Tigers beat Virginia Tech, then ranked No. 9, 48-7. The Sooners, meanwhile, won 51-13 over Miami.

The two are ranked second and third in the AP and USA Today polls, respectively. No. 1 is USC, which was idle.

The Trojans have a tough game this week, however, one on par with the games played by LSU and Oklahoma, maybe even tougher. They travel to Nebraska, ranked 14th in both polls. In a sense, rankings at this point in the season are utterly meaningless, merely fodder for fun discussion. But they do mean something as the season progresses, playing an integral role in determining who gets to play for the national championship.

Well, if USC wants to maintain its stronghold on No. 1, it will need to look impressive in victory against a quality opponent the same way the Tigers and Sooners did.

If they don't win big, they could lose some votes to LSU and Oklahoma, and if the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is small as the season progresses, USC could eventually fall from the No. 1 spot even without losing if the other teams continue to win impressively. And if all three wind up undefeated - not likely, but possible - well, only two get to play for the national championship.

``Why wouldn't you take the challenges on and see how long you can hold the high level of play that you need?'' said USC coach Pete Caroll. ``I think it makes us tougher and stronger and mentally more likely to handle the rigors of the schedule.''

He added, ``There's something to (home field advantage). We've dealt with some extraordinary places in our conference year in and year out and on the road out of conference - Arkansas, Auburn, Virginia Tech have been fantastically difficult places to play. You just have to take this step and manage it and do well with it. ... This is a great challenge for us, and if we can get this done and come out with a win we know we can go anywhere.''

Nebraska, meanwhile, isn't thinking much about a championship, but this is a season when it has a chance to climb back into the national consciousness after disappearing for a while. It's coach Bill Callahan's fourth year at the helm, and he finally has a quarterback to fit his pro-style offense in Sam Keller, a transfer from Arizona State.

If the Cornhuskers can even hang close to the Trojans it'll show that they're on their way back. If they get demolished, however, it'll show that there's still a long way to go.

``I think this is a great competitive challenge for our football team,'' said Callahan. ``We've played the Michigans and the Auburns and the Oklahomas and the Texases and this is the next big game on our schedule. We're excited about it. It's just a way for us to get better. That's all we're into, trying to find ways to improve and become a more consistent football team.''

IF I HAD A BALLOT

1. USC (1-0) - Big game this weekend at Nebraska.

2. LSU (2-0) - The best team to date.

3. Oklahoma (2-0) - Shockingly good in win over Miami, but let's see what happens against Texas.

4. West Virginia (2-0) - Have given up 47 points in two games ... against Western Michigan and Marshall. They'll need to be better.

5. Florida (2-0) - Tennessee tomorrow will be the first test for the defending champs.

6. Texas (2-0) - In the second half against TCU, the Longhorns finally looked like a top 10 team.

7. Wisconsin (2-0) - Struggling against UNLV is not the way to title contention.

8. California (2-0) - A bit of a letdown against Colorado State after an emotional win over Tennessee isn't surprising, so they get a pass for a 6-point win.

9. Louisville (2-0) - Cardinals allowed 42 points to Middle Tennessee State. The defense has to get better.

10. Penn State (2-0) - Perhaps the eventual Big Ten champs.

Eric Avidon is a MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at eavidon@cnc.com or 508-626-3809.