By TOM COYNE
AP Sports Writer
SOUTH BEND -- Before Notre Dame plays Michigan on Saturday, the Fighting Irish will honor their last national championship team -- the 1988 squad coached by Lou Holtz -- and remind everybody about how important this rivalry used to be.
The Michigan-Notre Dame game has launched and dashed national championship runs and Heisman Trophy hopes. From 1986-2006, every time the teams met at least one was ranked in the top 10. From 1989-94, both were in the top 11 each game. Twice the Fighting Irish and Wolverines were ranked 1-2 when they played.
The games have featured Hall of Fame coaches, superstar players and thrilling finishes. In 18 games from 1979-2002, 13 were decided by a touchdown or less. For most of its history, the Michigan-Notre Dame game was one every college football fan wanted to see.
Until last year.
That's when both teams entered the annual early season matchup 0-2 and looked so pathetic that late night TV comedians poked fun at them. Now, for the second straight season, the two winningest teams in college history enter the game unranked.
Maybe just as distressing, the game everyone is focusing on this weekend involves the schools' two biggest rivals, Ohio State at USC.
Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis isn't worried about which game everyone wants to see.
"We've got enough concerns just trying to beat Michigan," he said. "I can't worry about what's happening with Buckeyes and the Trojans. Let everyone else worry about them."
The concern for the Irish (1-0) on Saturday is losing a third straight game to the Wolverines (1-1) for the first time since Michigan won the first eight games in the series during 1887-1908. Just as worrisome, the Irish have been blown out in the last two -- losing 47-21 and 38-0. The 38-0 loss ties for the eighth-worst loss in Notre Dame history.
Last year's game proved pivotal for both teams. Michigan's big victory turned its season around, as the Wolverines ran off eight straight wins en route to a 9-4 record. The loss sent the Irish spiraling to a 3-9 finish.
Although neither the Irish nor the Wolverines are in as bad shape as last season, both appear fragile. The Wolverines have struggled to grasp the spread offense of new coach Rich Rodriguez and likely will have to depend heavily on their defense to win.
For the third straight game, Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan, whose father was an Irish assistant in 2001, will share quarterback duties. Weis also expects to see tailback Carlos Brown play some quarterback. Brown didn't play last week after injuring his shoulder against Utah, but is expected to play.
Rodriguez is waiting for one quarterback to emerge so the offense will begin working more in unison.
"There's no question we have to do more offensively, but we have to balance that with what we can execute. We're trying to slowly put that in," Rodriguez said. "We won't get our entire package in at all this year. I mean, there's just no way."
The Irish last week looked as though they were waiting for something bad to happen as they eked out a 21-13 win over San Diego State. Weis wants to see whether the Irish will play like the team that played inconsistently for three quarters against San Diego State or click like they did when Jimmy Clausen rallied them to a fourth-quarter comeback.
"I've been talking to them all week. I said, 'Which team are we going to be? Are we going to go back to the fourth quarter again or are we going to pick up from the fourth quarter?"' Weis said. "So I think we'll have more answers, we might not have all the answers, but we'll have a better idea of the direction after Saturday."
For Weis' sake, it better be a better direction than after last season's Michigan game. Some Irish players this week tried to play down last year's lopsided loss, saying it meant no more than any other loss. Others, though, admitted it added another element to the rivalry.
"We've got a lot of guys on our team who played last year," defensive end Pat Kuntz said. "I know it's in the back of our minds. We definitely haven't forgotten it."
Before the game a statue of Holtz will be dedicated.