Michigan State appears to have one of the toughest conference schedules in the Big Ten in 2017, but one of the nonconference contests is the most intriguing game on the slate.
When Notre Dame comes to East Lansing in Week 4, it could be a critical contest for both programs beyond the typical stakes of a rivalry game. Both teams had massively disappointing 2016 seasons, and this will be an important early-season test as both teams attempt to return to respectability.
Michigan State lost nine of 10 games after beating Notre Dame last season to start 2-0. The Fighting Irish’s record in 2016 became an Internet meme.
Neither of these teams are a lock to yo-yo back to where they were in recent seasons.
Brian Kelly’s job security is tenuous, and Notre Dame lost its top two quarterbacks from last season. There is enough talent in South Bend that pundits will expect the Fighting Irish to be a top-25 type of team, but it’s far from certain.
The problems for the Spartans this offseason have been well documented. Michigan State also lost a lot of talent for the second straight season. There are plenty of questions that need to be answered on the field.
Games against Bowling Green and Western Michigan would have looked like tough tests in recent years. The Broncos might still be one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference, but coach P.J. Fleck, quarterback Zach Terrell and wide receiver Corey Davis are gone.
Early-season wins against those two teams may not provide much clarity for the Spartans. The game against Notre Dame, which come after a bye week, definitely could.
From that point on, the schedule offers few favors for Michigan State. That could change once the season begins as expectations for teams change.
For now, it looks like the Spartans are going to miss the two programs expected to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten West (Illinois and Purdue). The game after Notre Dame is Iowa at home, and Michigan State travels to Minnesota and Northwestern later in the season.
The East is expected to be loaded, with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan ranked in the top 12 of most preseason polls. Michigan State, Maryland and maybe Indiana are expected to be better.
A win against Notre Dame would be a big boost for the Spartans after the way last season ended. It doesn’t guarantee that Michigan State “is back,” but it’d be a much-needed victory before a tough conference slate.
Combine that need with the uncertainty surrounding both programs and the emotions of a rivalry, and Notre Dame’s trip to Spartan Stadium looks like an intriguing matchup.