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Notre Dame-Michigan State: Program Versus Team Aspects

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Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish have won three straight against Mark Dantonio’s Spartans. (Photo By Bill Panzica)

This week’s clash between No. 12 Michigan State and No. 18 Notre Dame, with the Fighting Irish installed as six- to seven-point favorites, provides an interesting storyline.

Beginning with the 2010 football season when Brian Kelly took over at Notre Dame, Michigan State has been a remarkable 66-16 (.805 winning percentage). Meanwhile, Notre Dame is 56-24 (.700). Yet it would be inaccurate to say that Michigan State is superior to Notre Dame in football.

In recruiting, for whatever star rankings and the like are worth, Notre Dame will rank ahead of Michigan State generally 19 years out of 20. For example, the Rivals.com class rankings for Notre Dame from 2012-16 were 16, 3, 11, 11 and 12, whereas for the Spartans they were 41, 40, 22, 22 and 20.

More importantly, on the field, since losing in overtime at Michigan State in 2010 (34-31), Notre Dame has vanquished the Spartans three straight: 31-13 (2011), 20-3 (2012) and 17-13 (2013, the lone defeat for 13-1 MSU that year).

The main difference for now is that Michigan State has become a “program” under head coach Mark Dantonio. Under Kelly, the Fighting Irish have been right on the cusp of becoming a program but have not been able to string together three straight 10- to 13-win seasons, thereby remaining just a “team.”

How is Michigan State a “program” while Notre Dame is just a ‘team” at present? Because of the recruiting history between the two, Michigan State has developed a reputation of overachieving over the past decade while Notre Dame has been perceived more as an underachiever in football for just over a couple of decades.

• MSU’s 65 wins from 2010-15 were tied for fifth most in the Football Bowl Subdivision, while its 36 victories since 2013 are the fourth most.

• The 2015 Spartans finished ranked in the Associated Press top 10 for the third year in a row (No. 3 in 2013, No. 5 in 2014 and No. 6 in 2015), a first for the program since 1955-57. They are the lone program in the FBS to finish in the top six of the last three AP polls. The last time Notre Dame achieved the feat was 1988-90.

• Michigan State, which has posted a 36-5 record since 2013, is one of only four schools in the nation to play in a Bowl Championship Series Game (2014 Rose Bowl), a New Year’s Six game (2015 Cotton Bowl) and the College Football Playoff (2015 CFP Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl) in the last three seasons (Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State are the others). It also won four straight bowls, including Rose and Cotton, before losing in the College Football Playoff last year.

• The Spartans have won seven of their last eight against Michigan, and are 2-1 in the last three contests versus Urban Meyer’s mighty Ohio State Buckeyes. That pendulum might be ready to swing back the other way.

• The Spartans are 7-2 in their last nine games against opposition ranked in the AP top 10.

When Notre Dame can start putting together such figures, it too can be deemed a “program.”

With all the top-flight personnel it must replace this season, Michigan State might be in for a dip after averaging 11 wins over the past six — with a 7-6 mark in 2012 the outlier. A 9-3 or even 8-4 regular season ledger might be more in the cards this year, although the Spartans do have Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan at home.

Either way, it would be a quality win this September for Notre Dame while still aspiring to become a more consistent program year after year the way Michigan State has since 2010.

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