Let me begin by apologizing to James Schulte.

For those who don’t know my former co-Sports Editor here at the News, Schulte is a great guy. Belligerent, perhaps, but there are worse things in life.

More pertinent to this column, Schulte is a Notre Dame football fan. “Diehard” might be a more apt term, actually. Let me put it this way: If you’ve heard crying and screaming emanating from Davenport any given Saturday this fall, be happy in the knowledge that it’s not child abuse. Even Davenport hasn’t sunk that low.

So I’m sorry, Schulte, but Notre Dame has sucked it up this season. And USC’s win last Saturday does not merit a showdown with Ohio State for the national championship.

The Irish have one quality win this year, a 41-17 romp over then-No. 19 Penn State. And Brady Quinn will make the Detroit Lions happy for a long time. But consider the rest of Notre Dame’s season: close wins over one-dimensional Georgia Tech and mediocre UCLA. The 19-point fourth-quarter comeback needed to beat Michigan State, finally done with its abysmal 4-8 season.

And that defense … oh wow, that defense.

I had not seen the Irish play since the UCLA game back in October, so I was willing to believe what the Notre Dame players and coaches were saying all last week, that the defense had improved and was shouldered with an undeserved bad rep.

Then I saw the game. Ninety percent of the time, John David Booty was an untouchable man, with Derek Landri and company failing to get consistent pressure against the USC line. And the secondary was pitiful. Granted, starting safety Chinedum Ndukwe had to leave the game with an injury. But the busted coverage on the third and final Dwayne Jarrett touchdown was just pathetic, with the backup safety running into the cornerback. It’s hard to keep up with Jarrett even when you’re not doing your best Three Stooges impression.

Yet Booty was clearly flummoxed by the Irish defense. The junior looked like a deer in headlights for a big chunk of the first half, throwing two stupid interceptions.

You have problems when your quarterback feels intimidated by the Notre Dame defense. Ohio State’s front seven would have a field day. If I were John David Booty, I’d be having nightmares about DT Quinn Pitcock (6’3”, 295 pounds, eight sacks, 11 tackles for loss) right about now.

To be fair, USC isn’t half bad. While I like Calvin Johnson better as a prospect, Dwayne Jarrett is right up there with him, and will make a team that isn’t the Lions happy for a long time (paging Mike Williams…). The defense is really fast. And Booty looks pretty good.

But this is not a national championship-caliber team. The big win at Arkansas was impressive, but it came before the young Razorbacks had really found their identity. The loss at Oregon State wasn’t an aberration; it came after three straight close wins, over Washington State, Washington and Arizona State, a troika with a combined record of 11-16. Solid wins over Oregon and Cal, but neither of those squads has been anything special this season … neglecting special officiating in the case of Oregon.

Now consider Michigan. Ball State wasn’t pretty, but good teams win the ugly games. Two high-quality wins, at Penn State and against one-loss Wisconsin. The Wolverines never won by fewer than seven points, and nine of 11 wins came by at least 14.

Michigan is a complete team. The Wolverines have a ravenous defense, led by the best cover corner in college football (Leon Hall), a monster at defensive tackle (Alan Branch), and my pick for Most Underrated College Football Player of 2006, LaMarr Woodley. Chad Henne’s numbers may not be up over last year, but he’s been solid, and a healthy Mike Hart has been fun to watch. Wide receiver Mario Manningham has a ways to go before he really fulfills his potential, but he’s shown some pretty exciting flashes.

Was the first game perfect? Of course not. Two defenses that had been stifling all season were torn apart, and both teams had their share of miscues. My personal favorite was Branch’s interception of a deflected Troy Smith pass. There’s something beautiful about a six-foot-six, 331-pound man diving for a football.

But when push came to shove, both teams played up to the occasion. Ohio State held the lead from the early second quarter on, but Henne and the Wolverines were still alive until Ted Ginn scooped up the onside kick attempt with two minutes left.

And for those of you who think you need to win your conference to play for the national championship, I give you a more important criterion. The national championship should come down to the two best teams in college football.

I will never forget Texas-USC last year. That’s partially because I had to watch it out of the corner of my left eye while singing a concert in Hawaii with my a cappella group on a too-small artificial rock island in the middle of a fountain. (By the way, if you think you’re a college football fan, talk to Jenny McClain, who had UT shirts tied around her thighs under her dress at that concert.) But I remember that game mostly because it was a great contest between the two best teams in the country. Ohio State would destroy USC, and anyone who wants a Michigan-Notre Dame rematch at the Rose Bowl is insane. I’d rather watch a WNBA game. Or at least the Knicks.

Michigan is the second-best team in college football. The Wolverines deserve to play Ohio State again for the national title.

Dan Adler is a senior in Pierson College and a former Sports Editor for the News. His column runs on Thursdays.