Trouble Spot #5: Michigan State

O'Malley's annual "Trouble Spots" countdown continues its look at Notre Dame's toughest game situations for 2013...

Click the links below for the first three installments in our Trouble Spots series:

#12 Temple and for a full explanation of the rankings.

#11 Navy

#10 Air Force

#9 Brigham Young

#8 Purdue

#7 Pittsburgh

#6 Arizona State

Trouble Spot #5 -- Michigan State

They don't draw Ohio State, Penn State, or Wisconsin. Their only road tests are in November, back-to-back games at Nebraska and Northwestern.

And aside from Notre Dame, their non-conference schedule has just one potential land mine -- a Week Two home date with puzzling South Florida.

Michigan State is set up well for a Big 10 run this fall, taking on Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois before hosting rival Michigan to kick off November. Should the Spartans escape South Bend unscathed, an 7-1 mark is feasible before their showdown with the Wolverines. (Of this I'm certain: even with a win over Notre Dame, Michigan State will blow a game in which it should prevail.)

Why #5?

Winners of 29 games over the last there seasons (one more than Notre Dame), the Spartans look to take the final, far more difficult step in Year Seven of the Mark Dantonio era -- an outright Big 10 title and BCS Bowl berth. Separate from that season goal, it's become accepted over the last decade-plus that Notre Dame and Michigan State will annually engage in a head-knocking, evenly matched, and often wild football game.

Though Notre Dame has won two straight, both in decisive fashion, and with wins in three of the last four, the Spartans have taken four of the last eight, and five of the last 11 -- that after dominating yearly for a five-game, five-season span between 1997 and 2001.

Despite the one-sided outcomes of the Lou Holtz era and the Hall of Fame coach's 8-1 record (including eight straight) vs. the Spartans, Michigan State has still managed a respectable number of victories over the Irish in the programs' last 25 meetings, trailing just 14-11 to the oft-favored Golden Domers in that span.

The Spartans will come to play, to hit, and -- per usual -- to receive their first litmus test of the season, facing Western Michigan, South Florida, and Youngstown State before traveling to South Bend.

Michigan State returns nine offensive starters including 80 percent of its offensive line and seven on the defensive side of scrimmage. The Spartans are roughly the fifth or sixth most talented team the Irish will face in 2013. I've slotted them as the fifth "Trouble Spot" because the four placed in front are precarious due to both game slotting and developed, explosive talent.

Crucial Components

A look at the ancillary factors surrounding Notre Dame's matchup with the Spartans:

Fast Fact: Brian Kelly's first three quarters vs. Mark Dantonio's Michigan State program saw Kelly's Irish yield 203 rushing yards to the physical Spartans. In the nine quarters and overtime session played since, Kelly and coordinator Bob Diaco's Notre Dame defense have surrendered an aggregate 78 rushing yards -- on 60 carries -- over a nine-plus quarter span.

Look-Ahead Factor? Notre Dame's highest profile game follows the Spartans visit, with Oklahoma coming to South Bend for the first time since 1999. The Irish should be focused for Michigan State's trip south: it's a de facto "home opener" for the fans and alumni with featherweight Temple technically occupying the first game slot in the House that Rockne Built this fall.

If this were Purdue, or Pittsburgh, the Irish could be caught peeking ahead -- but not against the rival Spartans.

Puncher's Chance? Michigan State won six straight in Notre Dame Stadium with three different coaches (the streak kicked off by Nick Saban in 1997). So yeah, they have more than a puncher's chance. Their last win was in 2007 (the Irish are 2-0 at home vs. MSU since), suffering South Bend losses of 33-30 (OT) to Charlie Weis and 31-13 to Kelly & Co. in 2011.

Likelihood of an Irish defeat: If undefeated -- or if they merely drop a typical classic to Michigan -- expect Notre Dame to enter this late-September contest as an 8.5-point favorite to what will surely be a 3-0/2-1 Spartans squad.

Prior to 2012, Notre Dame lost often as home favorites of more than a touchdown, dropping decisions to USC, South Florida, and Tulsa in the Kelly era, and to Connecticut and Navy in the final season of Charlie Weis' run.

Michigan State "upsetting" Notre Dame is a misnomer in this era, they're fully capable of winning though Kelly has seen his Irish prevail by a combined 51-16 margin in the last two seasons thanks to defensive dominance up front. Still, if this game isn't close it means Notre Dame is again headed for a special season.

But I don't expect a home loss, either -- look for the Irish to prevail in their 10th straight at home on September 21.

Introduction to the Series

For the last, oh, 32 seasons, I've been off. Off by at least one, usually two and often three games in a comparison of my pre-season prediction for Notre Dame's end-season record and the actual mark. And then there was 2007 when I missed by five, but hey, who's counting?

But if you need someone to identify a trap game on the Irish schedule, one in which the South Benders will inexplicably struggle, then this is the column for you.

In 2009 this annual summer series pegged Purdue (a last-second Irish win). 2010 identified Tulsa (straining to pat myself on the back). 2011 it was Air Force (way off, 59-33 ND) and Wake Forest (a fourth-quarter Irish win, 24-17). 2012? Both Brigham Young and Pittsburgh, two games in which the Irish prevailed by a total of six points with three overtimes included.

Why does Notre Dame -- and for that matter, nearly every other college and pro football program -- struggle vs. lesser teams? Its a game played by humans. The ebb and flow of a season is often overlooked as fans and media attempt to predict outcomes.

But not here -- we have you covered.

I can't tell you if Notre Dame will win 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, or 8 games next season, but I can rank, from #12 through #1, the biggest Trouble Spots on the Irish schedule.

Taking into account the game's timing on the schedule (Is it a trap? Does the dreaded "sandwich" game apply?). Projecting the home crowd for Notre Dame (predictably dead vs. both BYU and Pitt last year), and of course considering the location of the contest and ability of each opponent, we present the fifth annual Trouble Spots for 2013.

Consider yourself warned.


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