We can make a reasonable guess at this early stage of the season that both Michigan State and Notre Dame are going to be pretty good teams. But as the Spartans and Irish get set to renew their longstanding rivalry Saturday night in East Lansing, we really don’t know how good. Is it eight wins kind of good? Or can either one make a run at a BCS game? For Michigan State the answer will ultimately be decided in Big Ten play, a conference where the ability to walk and chew gum simultaneously, all without breaking NCAA rules, might be sufficient for a Rose Bowl berth. For Notre Dame, with a brutal schedule still ahead—Michigan, BYU, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC for starters—Saturday is a must-win game and the Spartans-Irish headlines the marquee games for college football Week 3.
Michigan State comes into the game as a six-point favorite, but this matchup will test quarterback Andrew Maxwell. The junior signal-caller was erratic two weeks ago in a narrow escape against Boise State. Maxwell had a nice confidence-building game against Central Michigan last Saturday, but now he needs to translate that confidence into success against a quality opponent. It’s particularly relevant here because even though the Spartans run the ball very well with Le’Veon Bell, the key weakness the Notre Dame defense has shown early on is in the secondary. If Maxwell can open some things up with play-action, it sets the stage for Bell to have a big night.
On Notre Dame’s side of the ball, they’re getting some good groundwork themselves from Theo Riddick and freshman quarterback Everett Golson has played efficiently, if not spectacularly, in the opening wins over Navy & Purdue. Where Notre Dame had problems a year ago was taking care of the ball in situations where they were forced into scoring more points. Golson hasn’t been put in that spot, and if it does come to that, my guess is that head coach Brian Kelly goes back to Tommy Rees behind center. You may recall this was Rees’ job originally before a one-game suspension sat him down and Golson’s played well enough to keep the job. Michigan State plays good defense, so Notre Dame will not have much room for error.
The Spartans are a six-point favorite at home, a margin that indicates bookmaker comfort level with Michigan State—particularly given the heavy money that usually flows in on Notre Dame in any case. I won’t quibble with the smart money here and except the home team to control the flow of play and win.
Two other games going on Saturday night deserve the marquee label and that’s Tennessee-Florida and USC-Stanford. We’ll start with the Vols-Gators, a huge game in an SEC East race that has both teams as viable contenders in a division where South Carolina and Georgia are the favorites. While the SEC East race will likely take several turns during the season, it’s pretty reasonable to see this as an elimination game between the two schools.
Tennessee has been impressive in what’s a critical year for third-year coach Derek Dooley and the biggest reason for that is quarterback Tyler Bray has looked impressive, particularly in hooking up with Justin Hunter. What the Vols haven’t done well is run the ball and they’re going to need to on Saturday night. Florida is the reverse—they’re doing a good job establishing the ground game with Mike Gillislee and quarterback Jeff Driskell is mobile. But for the Gators to get a road win, they’re going to need to be able to throw the ball better than we’ve seen thus far. Overall, this looks like a very even game and Vegas agrees, giving Tennessee just the customary three-point courtesy for homefield and I think it’s that homefield which swings it for the Vols.
In the overall scope of the Pac-12 race, the USC-Stanford game likely won’t stand out. The two teams are in opposite divisions and it’s games like USC-UCLA or Stanford-Oregon that will be more significant. But with the Trojans shooting for a national title and unlikely to survive one loss, this game in Palo Alto takes on more urgency. USC had to feel good about seeing Silas Redd run the ball effectively last week against Syracuse and they’ll need to match up with a physical Stanford team. On the flip side, the Cardinal can hope to run the ball with Stephan Taylor and keep Matt Barkley and the SC offense off the field to a certain extent. But eventually Stanford’s going to have put up at least 28 points to win (and that’s if all goes well defensively and with game management) and we have seen nothing from new quarterback Josh Nunes which suggests he can throw the ball well enough against a defense like this to make that happen. USC’s a nine-point road favorite, a hefty number, but a reasonable one.