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Notre Dame-Michigan is new in big picture but nearly unmatched

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND AUG. 17-18 - FILE - In this Sept. 22 2012 file phoNotre Dame's Tommy Rees (11) is

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND, AUG. 17-18 - FILE - In this Sept. 22, 2012, file photo, Notre Dame's Tommy Rees (11) is congratulated by Robby Toma (9) after Rees scored on a 2-yard touchdown run against Michigan in an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind. The 6-2, 215-pound senior heads into the season as possibly the biggest question mark facing a Notre Dame squad eager to show last year's 12-0 regular season wasn't a fluke. Rees showed last season he could come in when Everett Golson was struggling or injured and provide a spark. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File) ORG XMIT: NY186

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Updated: October 7, 2013 12:29PM

Coach Brian Kelly got knocked around plenty this week for his comments dismissing Notre Dame-Michigan as one of the Irish’s authentic historical football rivalries. At first blush, Kelly’s remarks came off as equal parts disingenuous and out of touch. In fairness to Kelly, though, they were also partly true.

We’ll give him credit for offering a history lesson the other day. Do you remember watching the Irish and Wolverines do battle when you were a kid? Some of you just answered ‘‘yes’’ incorrectly.

The schools with the No. 1 (Michigan) and No. 2 (Notre Dame) winning percentages in college football history first played each other in 1887, but they’ve met on the field only 39 times since. Saturday in Ann Arbor will be their 30th meeting since a 35-year series hiatus that ended in 1978.

Over the last three-plus decades, Notre Dame-Michigan has grown into a rivalry as heated and legitimate as any involving either school short of Notre Dame-USC and, of course, Michigan-Ohio State. Kelly must know this. For him to implicitly categorize Michigan as less of a rival than not only USC but also Navy and Stanford — at best, just another Michigan State or Purdue — was wrong on many levels.

And yet, the first Irish-Wolverines game of Kelly’s life took place when he was a senior in high school. If you’re in your 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s, you weren’t raised on this rivalry. It didn’t exist. To an extent, that’s what Kelly was getting at a day before he backed off his controversial comments and said, OK, fine, you win, Notre Dame-Michigan is, in fact, a ‘‘great and historic rivalry.’’

Here’s something Kelly, athletic director Jack Swarbrick and the Notre Dame administration likely would be slow to admit: They’ll miss the Michigan game when it’s gone. After next season’s meeting in South Bend, the rivalry will go on hiatus for a minimum of six years as the Irish begin a limited affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Michigan, no. Duke or Wake Forest — sure, why not?

Notre Dame must be convinced it’ll scrape together a few more nickels or else it wouldn’t be in business with the ACC. That’s fine; in this age of expansion and realignment in major-college athletics, the line between self-interest and self-preservation is blurry.

But the vast changes in the college football map make a rivalry like Notre Dame-Michigan more appealing, not less. The schools are less than three hours apart. Their games have always seemed like fair fights between equals. When both teams are strong, as is the case this year, the outcome matters to fans across the country.

Historically speaking, how has Notre Dame-Stanford been better than that?

Navy has held up its end of the bargain the last six years, beating the Irish three times. And altogether, over the last 49 years? Three times.

With all due respect, we could get our fill of the Middies during the annual Army-Navy game.

Notre Dame-Michigan often has been magical. It has been so the last four years, with all four contests decided by seven points or fewer and Michigan scoring winning touchdowns in three of the games with — amazingly — 11 seconds, 27 seconds and 2 seconds, respectively, left to play.

No current rivalry in all of college football can top that.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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