ESPN's Desmond Howard explains why he thinks Michigan will win the national championship this season. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
South Bend, Ind. – When Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard boldly predicted last week during ESPN’s GameDay college football preview show that Michigan would win the national championship, that was shortly before the Wolverines’ lost receiver Tarik Black to a broken foot.
But even now, with Black sidelined for an undetermined length of time, Howard is confident the Wolverines have what it takes to be among the national playoff teams at the end of the season. Howard, an ESPN college football analyst, stood not far from the Hesburgh Library featuring “Touchdown Jesus” (real name: “The Word of Life” mural) on the Notre Dame campus, to chat about Saturday’s Michigan-Notre Dame season opener.
GameDay is on site just outside Notre Dame Stadium and will broadcast from there Saturday. The 7:30 primetime game will be carried by NBC.
“I don’t want to be the typical guy, ‘Hey! Alabama. Hey! Clemson,’ so I kind of look for ways where things may change,” Howard said Friday, explaining why he picked his alma mater to win it all. “I’ve been doing that for years. I don’t even think I’ve picked Michigan to win the Big Ten in years, so it’s not a homer pick.
“It’s based on, first of all, we think defense wins championships. We agree with that, and they have one of the top defenses in the nation. (Defensive coordinator) Don Brown has done an outstanding job since he’s been there, and then you add (quarterback) Shea Patterson to the mix. I think the offense has been the issue for the last couple of years because they haven’t really had a quarterback that can go out there and be a difference-maker.”
But the Wolverines will be without a potential difference-maker in Black.
“Full strength, when I saw at that time, I thought this was a team that could make it to the College Football Playoff, and then anything can happen once you get to the College Football Playoff,” Howard said. “Someone is going to have to step up now because Tarik Black is going to be gone for who knows how many weeks.”
Like Howard, GameDay analyst Lee Corso said defense will be the biggest factor in the Michigan-Notre Dame game.
“The advantage Notre Dame has – at night, at home, the great atmosphere and the Irish fans, I think that’s an advantage,” Corso said. “If they play good enough on defense and can force some turnovers, I think the Irish have a great chance of winning.”
ESPN's Lee Corso talks about the pressure facing Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh this season Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
But the Wolverines’ defense, ranked No. 3 nationally after ranking No. 1 in 2016, is the fastest Brown has coached, the UM defensive coordinator has said this preseason.
“That Bush kid is sensational and coach Brown is a great coach,” Corso said, referring to linebacker Devin Bush. “That’s why I said, the only way Notre Dame has a chance to win this game is to match the intensity of the Michigan defense, because they’re terrific. Fast. Intense. Well-coached. I think it’s going to be a defensive game.”
It will be Patterson’s debut at quarterback for Michigan. He started 10 games at Ole Miss before transferring last December. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh broke from tradition in his fourth season and named his starting quarterback nearly two weeks ahead of the opener.
“He’s a guy, like a lot of quarterbacks we see now in college football, who can extend plays, so even if things break down, he’s just not going to sit back there and take a sack,” Howard said. “With that being said, the receivers and tight ends and the running backs, they always know they have to stay alive because the play will be extended because of his ability to be mobile in the pocket.”
Harbaugh and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly both want to get their seasons jumpstarted with a win on a big stage, but Corso said a loss won’t be a deal-breaker for either program.
Still, he said, Harbaugh, with his record against annual rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, needs to get this big road win, which would be Michigan’s first on the road against a top-25 team in 12 years.
“Jim Harbaugh is unique; he does things different,” Corso said. “You open yourself up for criticism the more different things you do. I tell you what, his (1-5) record against Ohio State and Michigan State – and they lost two bowl games in a row – he’d better start winning. People are going to get sick and tired of games off the field and demand he win more.
“(Harbaugh and Kelly are) not on a hot seat. They’ll be around for a long time, but the fans are going to make it unpleasant for them. Make it a lukewarm seat. The loser of this game, one thing about it, it’s possible to lose this game and win the national championship.”
Corso and Howard believe Michigan and Notre Dame should meet every year. They have not played since 2014 and will meet at Michigan Stadium next season.
“They should play every year,” Howard said. “It’s a great rivalry. To me it’s what college football needs. There are college fans who don’t really care about Notre Dame, they don’t really care about Michigan, but this is the game they’ll watch because they’re college football fans. The more games like that, the better for the sport.”