- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Colleague Adam Rittenberg over at the Big Ten blog took a look this week at games from the first half of the season that could help shape the perception of each team in the conference.
With Notre Dame facing three different Big Ten opponents in the season's first month, it is no surprise to see that the Irish contest will loom large as each team looks to establish itself heading into conference play.
MICHIGAN: Sept. 7 vs. Notre Dame
The Wolverines have beaten Notre Dame in recent years without getting much of a perception boost, but the Irish are coming off of a perfect regular season and a national runner-up finish. This is a big moment for Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, who looks for a signature win early in his first full season as a starter. Michigan remains a talented but young team that will need to grow up in a hurry to contend for big things in 2013. The Notre Dame game provides a great chance to do so.
MICHIGAN STATE: Sept. 21 at Notre Dame
The Spartans look for a bounce-back season and need a validating win early on to boost their perception after falling short of expectations in 2012. Notre Dame provides by far the biggest challenge for Michigan State in non-league play, and Mark Dantonio's team tries to end a two-game slide against the Irish after winning three of the previous four under Dantonio. It's a huge opportunity for quarterback [fill in the blank] and a Spartans offense that managed only three points and 237 yards against Notre Dame last season.
There's no denying the importance of these two games from either side of things. Notre Dame's previous three losses to Michigan all were signs of things to come, with the Irish finishing no better than 8-5 in those years. The Wolverines, meanwhile, used a dramatic win in 2011 to propel them to an 11-2, Sugar Bowl-winning season in Year 1 under Brady Hoke. Likewise, last year's Irish win to close September capped a perfect month, led to a perfect regular season and drove Michigan to a disappointing 8-5 campaign of its own.
Last year's Notre Dame-Michigan State game ended up being the biggest loss of the Spartans' season in a sub-par 7-6 campaign and the first of several big road night wins for the Irish. Of course, two years earlier, MSU rode the momentum of a game-winning fake field goal in overtime to an 11-2 campaign.
The one Big Ten team not on this list? Purdue, which has quite the nonconfrence slate on-deck in facing Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Northern Illinois. Rittenberg tabs the opener at Cincinnati as the biggest chance for Darrell Hazell to announce his arrival to the conference in Year 1 with the Boilermakers.
Who knows? If not for Brian Kelly's insertion of Tommy Rees for the two-minute drill — and a pair of third-down conversions from Rees on that final drive — maybe Purdue could have stolen one in South Bend in Week 2, derailing the Irish's perfect season practically before it even began and gaining a much-needed jolt in what was Danny Hope's final year in West Lafayette.