Trouble Spot #2 – Michigan State

A Week Three date with the program's post-Holtz era foil, Michigan State Spartans, ranks as our second-toughest game situation for 2011.

#12 Wake Forest

#11 Maryland

#10 Navy

#9 South Florida

#8 Purdue

#7 Boston College

#6 Pittsburgh

#5 Air Force

#4 Michigan

#3 USC

Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the rankings.

Trouble Spot No. 2 – Michigan State

Notre Dame's 4-10 mark vs. the Spartans since Lou Holtz left campus serves as a microcosm for the program's struggles during that same span (Holtz was 8-1 vs. MSU, winning 8 straight from 1987 through 1994.)

While the Irish own a decisive edge in the series, five of the program's last seven head coaches, including Holtz in 1986, dropped their first matchup with the Spartans: Dan Devine (1975), Bob Davie (1997), and Charlie Weis (2005), with Brian Kelly following suit last year. Only Gerry Faust (1981) and Tyrone Willingham, 2002, won in their first battles vs. the tormentors from the north.

Situation (date, time, location): Saturday, September 17, in South Bend. Kick-off is set for 3:30 ET

Michigan State/Irish Game Slot: The Spartans entertain typical out-of-conference tomato cans with home dates against FCS school Youngstown State and Sun Belt cellar dweller, Florida Atlantic, prior to traveling to South Bend. Michigan State hosts in-state rival Central Michigan after battling the Irish.

Notre Dame returns home to face Michigan State following one of its signature games of the season, a prime time battle at Michigan. The Irish then hit the road for two games: at Pittsburgh and at Purdue, following their annual tussle with Sparty.

The game slotting greatly favors the Spartans, as is the norm during the teams' annual September matchup.

National View of Michigan State

Athlon projects the Spartans second in the Big 10 "Legends" division, but 22nd nationally while Lindy's has MSU fourth overall in the Big 10 (wisely ignoring the divisional format) and also #22 in the nation. Phil Steele slots the Spartans at #28, but calls the Spartans "Dantonio's best team yet." The Sporting News has MSU third in the Legends division (behind Nebraska and Northwestern) but at No. 17 overall – one spot ahead of the Irish.

My View of the Spartans: Nowhere near as good as their 11-1 regular season record from 2010 suggests…but nowhere near as bad as the overmatched Spartans appeared in a 49-7 Capital One Bowl bloodletting at the hands of Alabama last January.

The offense could be explosive, with nearly every relevant skill position player returning from 2010 (and '09) but the defense will be without Greg Jones and Eric Gordon at linebacker, its two best players of the last two seasons, and needs help in the secondary.

Coaching Element

Reigning Big 10 Coach of the Year Mark Dantonio is on the short list of the best coaches the Irish will face this season, or have faced since he took the helm in East Lansing in 2007.

The Spartans took an unexpected dip in 2009, winning just six games (after 9 in '08) but rebounded with a program-best 11 victories last autumn and a share of the Big 10 Title for the first time since 1990. Dantonio has stabilized one of the most underachieving programs of the decade with quality line play, toughness, and player development. Still, a regression and 3-or 4-loss season is likely for the talented group, with Michigan State traveling to South Bend, Columbus, Lincoln, Iowa City, and Evanston (while hosting UM and Wisconsin), but the program is in good hands with Dantonio at the helm.

Michigan State's explosive offense has a new coordinator, Dan Roushar, who takes over for Don Treadwell, new head coach at Miami, Ohio. It's Roushar's first coordinator gig since 2004 (Illinois), though he's been part of the Spartans staff since '07 and was with Dantonio previously in '05 and '06.

Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi returns for his fifth season in the position; his eighth with Dantonio.

Trap Game Potential

None, but the matchup with Michigan State will be the third straight emotional, physical battle for the Irish in as many weeks. A mild practice week letdown – not to mention the season's first injury challenges – are both likely in preparation for the Spartans whether the Irish win or lose, the previous week in Ann Arbor.

But there's not a player or coach on the Irish staff that doesn't believe the Spartans stole one from them last September. This Week Three contest should have their full attention, mentally. The challenge is physical, as the Irish need to answer the bell vs. a fresh Michigan State squad that encounters nothing more than a pair of tune-ups prior to its mid-September trip south.

Key elements to the Spartans' Defense/Offense

Gone is former Big 10 Player of the Year and defensive leader Greg Jones. His underrated linebacker compliment – Eric Gordon – has also moved on, leaving the Spartans with troubling holes, both between the lines and in the locker room/huddle, entering 2011.

Fortunately the defensive front should be stout, returning three key pieces – while adding a potentially explosive fourth in sophomore DE William Gholston – to ease the transition of the post-Greg Jones era. The Spartans 4-3 look will once again have a Bullough anchoring the middle – Max, nephew of early 90s middle ‘backer, Chuck, and son of mid-80s ‘backer, Shane, who steps in as a sophomore starter.

The offense could be among the most efficient and explosive in college football, with five key returning perimeter weapons including quarterback Kirk Cousins, who enters his third season as a starter. The Spartans return a 100-yard rusher (Le'Veon Bell), a 90-yard rusher (Edwin Baker), a 100-yard receiver (B.J. Cunningham), and a 90-yard receiver (Keshawn Martin) from last year's win vs. the Irish.

Advantage Irish? Notre Dame's rush defense first showed signs of life in the 4th Quarter/overtime vs. Michigan State last fall, limiting the Spartans to minus 6 rushing yards during that critical span. Quarterback Dayne Crist threw for a career-best 369 yards and three TD in the contest and Michigan State's defense will not yet have faced an offense with a pulse when it enters South Bend for the Week Three contest.

Relevant Storylines

It's Dantonio/Kelly II, with Dantonio taking Round One thanks to the infamous "Little Giants" play-call and faked field goal touchdown that shook Notre Dame's season, and served as a Top 10 highlight of the college football year.

More important than the personal rivalry between the two former Cincinnati coaches (and staffs) are these seasons: 1993, 2002 – the only two in which Notre Dame has begun a season at 3-0 since the #1 Irish did so in 1990 (a pair of comeback, last-minute victories vs. the Wolverines and Spartans highlighted those '90 battles).

A likely 2-1 start would set up the Irish for a challenging run to BCS bowl consideration (they'd need an 8-1 finish). But a 3-0 start with wins vs. three solid bowl teams (South Florida, and UM/MSU back-to-back) would be the first at the school since '02, and vault the Irish into Top 10 status at the season's quarter-point.

Puncher's Chance for an upset? N/A – Notre Dame could be favored by as many as seven points (the current line available as of June 30), but that's immaterial (and ridiculous): Michigan State has lost just once in South Bend since 1993 (their last visit, a 33-30 defeat in '09 in which they entered as double-digit underdogs) and has five times beaten the Irish by double digits in Notre Dame Stadium during that span – while winning 10 of 14 matchups overall since 1997. Yet they've been favored just once in their last seven trips to South Bend (6-1 overall).

Final Verdict/Prediction

I've forecaste a home loss, and I've separately offered the Irish will once again lose in September.

Should the Notre Dame win at Michigan in Week Two, smart money would point toward the Spartans fulfilling both of those unfortunate predictions with a Week Three upset of the undefeated Irish …but if Notre Dame loses its prime time battle in Ann Arbor one week prior, look for a huge bounce back effort by Brian Kelly's crew vs. Michigan State in South Bend.

I have little doubt that Notre Dame will win more games than Michigan State in 2011 – it's the September 17 matchup between the two that presents a greater concern.


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