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Should the Bulldogs Have Michigan on Their Minds?

There may be life left in The Movement yet.

It has been a while since I raised the subject of scheduling a home and home football series between Georgia and Michigan, but my enthusiasm for such a prospect has not waned since I began pushing for such a series nearly a year and a half ago.

Copiously decorated Michigan weblogger Brian Cook of MGoBlog, who grouses about the Wolverines' schedule whenever he is not defending the Maize and Blue from my criticisms of Michigan and Big Ten scheduling, notes cogently that U.M. athletic director Bill Martin indicated his desire to see the Wolverines' out-of-conference series with Notre Dame continued in this passage:

If Michigan athletic director Bill Martin had his druthers, Ohio State and Notre Dame would not play at Michigan Stadium in the same season.

But it appears Notre Dame is unable to accommodate a move like that for similar reasons of its own.

"They don't want to have at home the same year Southern Cal and Michigan, because those are their two premier games," Martin said. "If they moved to accommodate us, then they're stuck with Southern Cal and Michigan at home the same year, so I'm not sure how it's going to get resolved. That's a challenge."

The Michigan-Notre Dame series goes through the 2011 season. Martin said he has been talking about a series renewal with Irish athletic department officials for the last three or four years.

"We've been talking about taking off an odd number of years so we can accomplish that (schedule maneuvering), but then that doesn't do what they want," Martin said.

It does not appear there has been any talk of dropping the series.

"It's the highest-rated television preseason game in college football," Martin said. "Those are the two winningest programs in college football history. It's the game that all of our fans want and all of the Notre Dame fans want. It's hard to drop that series. They don't want to drop it, I don't want to drop it; I want to simply fine-tune it a little bit."

Fighting Irish fans are skeptical, although they appear to be straining particularly hard to read between the lines of Martin's remarks. Brian is right . . . all Martin seems to be saying is that he wants to stagger the Notre Dame and Ohio State games so that one of them is in Ann Arbor each autumn. This would ensure at least one marquee game in the Big House on an annual basis and spare the Maize and Blue from having to play both major rivals on the road in the same season.

Under the present arrangement, Michigan plays both the Buckeyes and the Fighting Irish at home in odd-numbered years and on the road in even-numbered years. Notre Dame will not budge because that would mean facing the Wolverines in Ann Arbor and the Trojans in Los Angeles in even-numbered seasons.

Since the Fighting Irish would find this situation as unappealing as the Maize and Blue understandably regard their present circumstances, the Golden Domers would need to flip-flop their current arrangement, hosting U.S.C. in South Bend in even-numbered autumns while bringing the Wolverines to campus in odd-numbered years instead of the other way around (as is the case today).

This wouldn't work for the Men of Troy, however, as Southern California presently plays crosstown rival U.C.L.A. at the Rose Bowl in even-numbered seasons. For Notre Dame to make the switch that would be necessary to accommodate the switch Michigan needs to make, U.S.C. would have to agree to play away games against the Bruins and the Fighting Irish in the same season.

The Trojans most likely would be unwilling to do this. Because of the weather, the Notre Dame-Southern California game takes place in mid-October when it is played in northern Indiana but in late November when it is played in southern California. Shifting the schedule would require the Men of Troy to close out every other year with back-to-back road games against their two biggest rivals. (Anyone who thinks such a challenge would not be daunting should pause to remember that U.S.C. is 3-5 at U.C.L.A. since 1992.)

All this will need to be sorted out before the end of the 2011 season. Is such a scenario likely? Maybe, maybe not; I take Bill Martin at his word when he says he wants to see the Michigan-Notre Dame series continue, but practical realities may force him to do what the recently departed Bo Schembechler openly advocated: namely, drop the Irish from the Wolverines' schedule.

That idea is nowhere near as eyebrow-raising as you might think. As I pointed out in January 2006:

If, however, the presence of the Irish on the Wolverines' fall slate would represent a genuine impediment to the scheduling of a series between the Red and Black and the Maize and Blue, there is a simple enough solution: schedule the contests between Georgia and Michigan in seasons in which Notre Dame does not visit Ann Arbor and the Wolverines do not visit South Bend.

To some, that suggestion may sound like sacrilege, but, in fact, an interruption of the Michigan-Notre Dame series would not constitute an aberration at all. Although the Wolverines and the Fighting Irish have been facing one another on the gridiron since 1887, interruptions of the series are not infrequent.

During the first 99 years of Michigan football (1879-1977), the Maize and Blue never faced Notre Dame in each of four consecutive seasons. The first four-year stretch during which the Wolverines took on the Fighting Irish each and every autumn came between 1978 and 1981 . . . in Bo Schembechler's 10th through 13th seasons in Ann Arbor.

Between them, Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler, and Bennie Oosterbaan led the Maize and Blue for 46 seasons, yet those three men stood on the sidelines at a Michigan-Notre Dame game a combined five times in their respective head coaching careers. Biff Lea and Gary Moeller are the only two coaches in Wolverine history to have faced the Fighting Irish in each year of their tenure.

To illustrate the point, I would ask you to imagine a fictional Wolverine fan, whom we will call . . . oh, I don't know . . . Martin. Martin was born in Dearborn, Mich., on November 7, 1909. He grew up idolizing Coach Yost and rooting for the Maize and Blue. Martin attended the University of Michigan, graduating with the class of 1931. He pursued a successful business career in the Detroit area and regularly made it back to Ann Arbor for home games. On September 22, 1978, at the age of 68, Martin passed away peacefully in his sleep.

During his lifetime, Martin would have watched the Wolverines go through eight coaching changes, attend seven Rose Bowls, and win 425 football games . . . but he would have seen Michigan play Notre Dame exactly twice. From 1910 to 1941, the Wolverines and the Fighting Irish did not meet. From 1944 to 1977, the Wolverines and the Fighting Irish did not meet.

Obviously, the intensity of a rivalry is not necessarily measured in the frequency of series meetings---as evidenced by the fact that the Alabama-Auburn series underwent a lengthy interruption between the 1907 and 1948 games---but it is clear that annual clashes between Michigan and Notre Dame are not mandated by tradition.

MGoBlog's Brian Cook already has noted "that Michigan is looking to play Notre Dame less frequently after the current contract expires in 2010 or whatever." In recent years, the teams have taken periodic breaks from scheduling one another, as the series was on hiatus in 1983 and 1984, in 1995 and 1996, and in 2000 and 2001. The Bulldogs' trip to The Big House and the Wolverines' journey to Sanford Stadium could take place during such a two-year gap between Michigan-Notre Dame contests.

As I observed earlier, the Michigan-Notre Dame series is a bit like the Georgia-Clemson series, in that both are longstanding regional rivalries between traditional non-conference opponents. Like Georgia-Clemson, Michigan-Notre Dame appears destined to become an intermittent, rather than perennial, contest.

To some in the Midwest, an autumn without a Michigan-Notre Dame game may seem like a day without sunshine. I understand that feeling; it seemed odd to me when, in my first fall quarter as a student at the University of Georgia, the Red and Black did not play Clemson. It was just the second football season of my lifetime in which the Bulldogs and the Tigers did not meet on the gridiron. Now, however, what was once unthinkable has become familiar: Georgia and Clemson have played one another just six times in the last 18 years.

The point is that an annual Michigan-Notre Dame contest is not as sacrosanct as it might appear at first. In 1985, one week prior to making their most recent trip to play a football game in the South, the Wolverines faced the Fighting Irish for just the eighth time in the previous 76 seasons. There was a break in the Michigan-Notre Dame series as recently as Mark Richt's first season in Athens and another interruption apparently is upcoming at the end of this decade.

Of course, Martin may have backed himself into a corner by taking such a firm stand in favor of continuing the series. He may have no choice but to renew the contract, even with the unfavorable scheduling implications . . . but perhaps his current (and legitimate) criticisms will lead to the implementation of Coach Schembechler's suggestion a few years down the road, when the contract is up for renewal again.

As noted by Paul Westerdawg, Georgia's major out-of-conference matchups have been scheduled through 2016. The Bulldogs will be playing at Arizona State in 2008, at Oklahoma State in 2009, at Colorado in 2010, at Louisville in 2012, at Clemson in 2013, and at Oregon in 2015. (The Red and Black will host the Cardinals in 2011, the Tigers in 2014, and the Ducks in 2016.)

Although this fact is not known to Ramblin' Wreck fans who have predicted a win over the Red and Black "in Athens" in 2007, Georgia plays Georgia Tech in Atlanta in odd-numbered years and the 'Dawgs welcome the Yellow Jackets to the Classic City in even-numbered years. In other words, the Bulldogs get the Golden Tornado at home in the years Michigan plays Ohio State on the road and the Wolverines get the Buckeyes at home in the years Georgia plays Georgia Tech on the road.

This is easy, people. Before 2011, Michigan renews the contract with Notre Dame for another six years, despite the unfortunate scheduling connotations. That deal will expire after 2017 . . . just about the time Georgia begins to have openings on its out-of-conference slate.

Shortly after agreeing to continue the series with Notre Dame, Bill Martin finally responds to Damon Evans's overtures and agrees to a home and home arrangement. The Bulldogs will travel to Ann Arbor in 2018, when Georgia has Georgia Tech at home and Michigan plays Ohio State in Columbus. The Wolverines will travel to Athens in 2019, when Michigan has Ohio State at home and Georgia plays Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

With that deal already inked, Martin has ample justification for declining to renew the contract with the Fighting Irish after it expires in 2017; after all, he can't very well agree to a football schedule that requires the Wolverines to play Georgia, Notre Dame, and Ohio State---two of them on the road---in the same season, can he?

It's a win-win situation, people. Let's make this happen.

Go 'Dawgs!