Freshman year, fall of 1999. On Sept. 4 my life as a Michigan football fan commenced with a game that will be remembered by students of our generation as one of the greatest in the history of Michigan Stadium. Michigan’s 26-22 victory over Bob Davie’s Notre Dame team was my first ever game at the Stadium, and made an imprint so great that nothing I’ve seen over the last four years has displaced it as my finest memory of Michigan football. Six lead changes. Late-game heroics by David Terrell, Anthony Thomas, Tom Brady and Dhani Jones. A then-record 111,523 fans.
I was not just a freshman, but an out-of-stater. I was drawn to Michigan in no small part by the mystique of Michigan football, but didn’t really grasp the nature of that mystique until the clock ticked away on the Irish on that hot September day. I sat by myself – the ticket office was putting freshmen in the south endzone that year – directly behind an enthusiastically inebriated assemblage of Irish hooligans. It was the first and last time I ever sat alone for a Michigan game, and although at the time I felt like an extraordinary loser, in retrospect I’ll argue that the experience was all the more special – I am tempted to use the word spiritual – as a result.
This Saturday in South Bend, things come full circle. The supremacy of that game above all other games was seriously challenged two week’s ago in Michigan’s last-second defeat of Washington. This year’s version of Michigan-Notre Dame may or may not outshine that Washington game, but it’s the kind of game that could.
Michigan-Notre Dame: A war that has seen 29 battles over 115 years. It is something that, as coach Lloyd Carr said yesterday, “everybody that loves college football will watch, want to watch, or want to know what the score is.”
This game and games like it are the reason Michigan schedules the way it does. Michigan-Notre Dame will remain on the docket for at least another 10 years, but Carr believes that Michigan’s current schedule – which includes nonconference games against two ranked teams (Notre Dame and Washington), as well as a difficult matchup against a WAC power (Utah) – is not the kind of schedule that makes a national title bid easy. Nevermind the regular trials of the Big Ten season; Michigan plays 12 games, some of them more difficult than they need to be. There is a school of thought that to best take advantage of the BCS, a team need not schedule difficult nonconference games. If a team is serious about being a national contender, it should avoid early season losses in unnecessary games.
“When by scheduling you put them at a disadvantage as compared to the people you’re competing against, then you have to wake up,” Carr said.
When Carr began discussing his dissatisfaction with the Michigan schedule, I at first objected. I thought of three things: How unbelievably incredible is to witness games like Notre Dame in 1999 and Washington two weeks ago, how uninterested I would be if there was nothing but Western Michigans on the nonconference schedule and how illegitimate a national title claim would be without a few difficult nonconference games to booster the Michigan resume.
The reality, though, is that Carr is absolutely right. To study the BCS mathematics is to study a system so flawed that if it wasn’t for schools’ incentive to schedule games that will entice people to buy tickets (Florida-Miami being a prime example) or entice television networks to broadcast games, there would be nothing but Western Michigans on everyone’s schedules. Indeed, some teams in the Big Ten have already run that route, and if Carr gets his way, Michigan may eventually do that as well.
Please don’t, coach. Schedule the Notre Dames. Schedule the Washingtons. Schedule the Oregons or the Virginia Techs or the UCLAs. That game freshman year made me a real fan, and the game two weeks ago probably made some freshman sitting in the stratosphere behind the south end zone a fan too. Notre Dame will remain on our schedule for years, but the opportunity to develop new rivalries – such as the one developing with the Huskies – should not be lost in an attempt to “beat” the system of the BCS.
The BCS needs to be reformed, to be sure. But we’re Michigan; and we should be afraid of no one. We should challenge our team and not leave any questions when the pieces finally come together in a national championship season. And as long as I watch Michigan football – in the Big House or on television – I will be watching for games like my first.
David Horn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.