"Past results do not guarantee future performance." If you've ever flipped through a prospectus, you've no doubt encountered this eloquent little qualifier. It is a legendary ass-coverer in the world of investments, but does it hold true when applied to football? In other words, does history give us any indication as to what we ought to expect from a team? Both Michigan State and Notre Dame better hope not.
As has been much discussed, commented on and parodied; traditionally, Michigan State has had a tendency to, well, stop showing up after around game #5. In looking back at the 11 seasons between 1997 and 2007, Michigan State, on average, started the season at a respectable 3-2 before finishing them 3-4. As a result, for Spartans' fans, the team's current 2-1 start is likely not as comforting as one might assume (MSU started 2007 4-1 before finishing 3-5).
Still, as craptacular as the East Lansingites have been as the season rounds the corner, the one thing they have consistently been able to do is beat the Irish. Over those same 11 seasons, the Spartans are 8-3 against the Irish. It's also probably no coincidence that, during that time, they haven't played ND later than the fourth game of their season.
So, this season, will the scripts stay true? In its fourth game, will Michigan State beat Notre Dame only to see the promise of a great year go spinning down the toilet once Big Televen play begins, or can Notre Dame continue to bounce back from 2007's paean to suckitude by knocking off the Spartans? Well, clearly, if I actually had those types of answers I would be laying down large chunks of my mortgage payment in a casino in Vegas rather than writing this blog. Still, it's probably worth a look and some speculation (to stick with the Wall Street analogies).
First and foremost, we need to look at what the teams have done thus far. As we know, Notre Dame has squeaked by San Diego State and shell-shocked Michigan. For their part, Michigan State has, in order, lost to a Cal team that subsequently lost to horrendous Maryland, crushed an Eastern Michigan team that was 4-8 in the frickin' MAC last year and slogged past Florida Atlantic, of whom I know two things, 1) they play in the Sun Belt (which, amazingly, is a conference and not a constellation) and 2) their biggest rival is Florida International (I'm not kidding). So, what does this tell us? Other than the fact that I'm glad Notre Dame's mascot is not a bird (MSU has already knocked off the Eagles and the Owls), not a whole lot. I would argue that Notre Dame has the only quasi-quality win of the two, so that probably counts for something. Granted, Michigan is probably going to be relatively bad this year, but they're also not playing in the MAC or Sun Belt (though these are probably the only conferences worse than the Big Televen this year...don't be jealous, ACC, you suck too).
So, how about the players? Well, Notre Dame's offense is starting to click a little bit. Clausen's looked good (56% completion percentage, 5 TD passes), the line's held strong and the running game has done what's necessary when called upon - they only have 68 rushing attempts as a team - MSU's Javon Ringer has 104 attempts on his own. As for Michigan State, while the aforementioned Ringer seems to be everyone's focal point (he has accounted for 86% of the Spartans' rushing yards), WR Mark Dell also bears mentioning as his 320 yards receiving represents 54% of the team's total passing yards. The bad news for Sparty is that QB Brian Hoyer is completing just 44% of his passes and only has 1 TD through the air. I'm no Knute Parseghian, but I think I'd be stacking the line and taking my chances on letting Mr. Hoyer try and beat my secondary (which has been pretty awesome).
With all this information, you may ask, what's the verdict? Well, as everyone knows, the away team in this series has won the last seven times they've played, so that certainly points to the Irish this week. I have a more important reason to like the chances of the Irish - they're the better team. Notre Dame is simply more talented and has more weapons than Michigan State. Keep in mind, as awful as the Irish were last year, they only trailed the Spartans 17-14 at halftime. This year, ND is a year older, more experienced and, as MSU coach Mark Dantonio noted, is having fun. While there are many downsides to a young team (see: 3-9), one of the major upsides is enthusiasm - especially with a few wins under their belts. It is for all of these reasons that I feel good about Saturday. No doubt about it, Michigan State is a good football team (they don't start to suck until October), but Notre Dame seems up to the challenge of not only upsetting the Spartans, but the odds as well.