Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly
The Michigan State-Notre Dame matchup (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC) is one of the marquee games of the college football weekend, and it should give everyone a chance to see who the Fighting Irish really are in 2013.
A win is the obvious and most important goal, but if Brian Kelly's team wants to restore a reputation that was hurt in consecutive weeks by a loss to Michigan and a sluggish performance against Purdue, it must mash the Spartans from the onset.
At the conclusion of the 2012 season, Irish fans were giddy that their team had finally exceeded expectations and proven the doubters (i.e. the rest of the country) wrong.
After quarterback Everett Golson was suspended during the offseason, it was thought that the team would at least take a small step back this season.
However, hopes were still high that behind experienced senior Tommy Rees, an athletic backfield and an outstanding defense, the Irish would remain among the Top 10-15 teams in the country.
But it hasn't materialized that way.
While the loss to the Wolverines wasn't entirely unexpected, the 31-24 win at Purdue was damaging. For fans complaining that a win shouldn't ever be a reason to criticize a team, consider it a good thing that Notre Dame can actually look bad and still win games. When people are complaining about victories, it isn't a bad thing.
But Notre Dame can be a lot more than it has shown in the first three weeks. In fact, it should have a defense that ranks better 58th in the country in points allowed. It should have an offense that scores more than 30 per game.
Not everybody has had to face two BCS teams in the first three weeks, either, but a 28-6 win over Temple doesn't exactly validate the idea that this team would look a lot better against lesser competition.
Against Michigan State, the crowd will be fired up to see their guys against a Big Ten foe, and it's up to Tommy Rees to step up and make things happen from the start. Not after halftime when the Irish have fallen behind and not in the fourth quarter, when a game-winning drive is the only solution to victory. Right at the beginning of the game.
At least, that's what has to happen if Notre Dame wants to remain relevant on national scale. A close shave against Michigan State isn't going to surprise or impress anyone.
It may sound like we're talking about an unworthy opponent, which would be unfair to the Spartans. They're 3-0 and have some lofty goals of their own, but anyone who has seen that team play thus far should know that it has major questions on offense. Questions that a Notre Dame defense should make very difficult to answer.
Mark Dantonio's team is averaging just 160 yards through the air, and that's in three games against Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State. Which also takes something away from the nearly 210 yards it averages on the ground.
If Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and the rest of the Irish front seven want the clout they garnered throughout last season, they need a shutdown performance. This can't be a 38-33 victory in which the defense gives up more than 400 yards of offense.
This has to be a 31-13 victory where the Spartans are held to under 300 total yards and the game is over by halftime.
This isn't a prediction of what will happen, because there are doubts about whether the Irish can actually pull off a dominating victory over a decent opponent. Those doubts have manifested over the course of the first few weeks.
But not even the biggest Notre Dame haters can deny that the team has top-notch talent on both sides of the ball. According to the aforementioned article on Golson, the dynamic quarterback is set to return in the spring.
How do you see Michigan State vs. Notre Dame playing out?
2013 won't be the year that Kelly's team makes it back to the title game. But does it really want to start off the 2014 season under-the-radar and having to climb all the way up the rankings ladder?
Odds are probably not, so it's games like the one on Saturday that will not only start to mold this season into a successful one, but will build the cornerstones for what could be an exciting run over the next few years.
And if things go awry against the Spartans, what do you think will happen against Arizona State and Stanford later in the year?
Last year may have been a bit of a fluke with the Irish reaching the title game. They certainly deserved to be there having gone undefeated, but they clearly didn't belong there to those who watched more than 10 minutes of the contest.
Now, the job is to stay afloat instead of sinking back into the depths of mediocrity.
On Saturday, Notre Dame must give everything it has from the get-go and impose its will, notching a victory that lets everybody know the Irish aren't taking a step back anytime soon.