Notre Dame found itself at the center of the college sports universe Wednesday, announcing it will join the ACC as a non-football member in a deal laden with gridiron implications. The Irish will play five games against ACC opponents annually starting in 2015 and gain access to the league's non-BCS bowl package. Perhaps most importantly, the school will maintain its football independence, quelling any talk that it might assimilate with the Big Ten or Big 12.
But the move overshadowed something more imminent: Notre Dame plays Michigan State this Saturday. For the first time since 2008, the Irish have an opportunity to start 3-0.
Is this the year Notre Dame finally makes a BCS run? Or will this team disappoint like so many recent Irish squads? Here's a breakdown of this year's Fighting Irish heading into the bout in East Lansing.
Notre Dame hasn't been to a BCS bowl since the 2006 season. It hasn't finished with fewer than five losses since that same 10-3 campaign. But this season brings renewed hope. If Brian Kelly and Co. can pull off an upset Saturday, they'd take the first step toward reestablishing the Irish as a meaningful national threat.
Through two weeks, it's difficult to make sense of Notre Dame. It pummeled Navy in its season opener by racking up 490 yards of total offense (293 on the ground), but it struggled late last week against Purdue, weathering a furious fourth-quarter comeback only after converting a 27-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining. Notre Dame forced four turnovers in its first game. It allowed five sacks in its second. It begs the question: Which is the real Notre Dame?
The answer will largely come from under center. Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson remains the starter after passing for 433 yards and a touchdown through two weeks, but senior Tommy Rees isn't accepting the backup role passively. After Golson, who was bothered by a thumb injury, coughed up a fumble with just more than three minutes to go in Week 2, Rees was subbed in and promptly orchestrated the game-winning drive. Golson boasts more upside -- he tossed 151 career touchdowns at Myrtle Beach High, the sixth most in national high school history -- but he doesn't know the system nearly as extensively as Rees does. Kelly won't hesitate to pull his youngster if inexperience bubbles to the fore. "I'd be crazy not to use [Rees] if I felt like there was a time in the game, whether Everett was injured or something was not going well, that we could call to him," Kelly said.
The depth chart is similarly crowded at running back. Cierre Wood returns after serving a two-game suspension for violating team rules and joins Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III in the backfield. Wood won't start Saturday despite leading the team with 1,102 rushing yards last season, but he could see heavy action. The Irish could have issues scoring against a Michigan State unit that ranks eighth nationally in total defense so far this season.
On the other side of the ball, linebacker Manti Te'o spearheads a Notre Dame defense that starts eight upperclassmen, but Te'o will play through a bruised sternum this weekend, and starting safety Jamoris Slaughter will be expected to perform after leaving the Purdue game with a shoulder injury. That could spell trouble against Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell, a 6-foot-2, 244-pound workhorse considered one of the early Heisman favorites.
Notre Dame will have to play nearly perfectly to win, but an upset isn't out of the question. If the Irish can take down Michigan State, they'll set the table for the rest of the season.
Is Notre Dame's offensive line really as good as advertised?
Coaches nationwide like to say the game is won and lost in the trenches. For the Irish, that sentiment might prove especially accurate this season. Tabbed as one of the team's unquestioned strengths during the preseason, the offensive line failed to live up to its billing against Purdue, as it was overwhelmed by defensive tackles Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston when the Boilermakers threatened late.
Notre Dame allowed five sacks against Purdue. It didn't allow that many until November last season.
Braxston Cave, Zack Martin, Mike Golic Jr. and Chris Watt, who combined for 65 starts on the offensive line the past two seasons, bring sorely needed experience to a roster that lacks it elsewhere. But last week, their blocking led to a mere 52 rushing yards against a defense that ranked 82nd against the run in 2011. Things will get more difficult this week, when the Irish will be asked to contain a pass rush led by 6-7 man-child William Gholston, one of the most physical defensive players in the country. "That's Mark Dantonio's style, it's always been his style," said Kelly. "I took over the Cincinnati program from him and the players that I inherited had this toughness just like they have at Michigan State. So we know that going in."
• Tyler Eifert: For Notre Dame to challenge Sparty this week -- and survive the rest of its daunting 2012 schedule -- Golson will need to emerge as a capable passer. Expect Eifert to become his security blanket. The Fort Wayne, Ind., native reeled in 63 receptions for 803 yards last year and will likely be targeted early and often while trying to break free from Michigan State's Johnny Adams, Darqueze Dennard and Co.
• The Irish secondary: Michigan State is also starting an unproven passer. Junior signal-caller Andrew Maxwell picked apart Central Michigan, but he's yet to succeed against a defense as talented as Notre Dame's, and he looked wholly out of sorts during the season opener against Boise State. If Slaughter and junior cornerback Bennett Jackson, who corralled two interceptions against Purdue, can get to Maxwell early, it could foreshadow good things for the Irish's upset chances.
• History: The last time these two teams met in East Lansing, Michigan State won on a fake field goal in overtime. In last year's meeting, the 0-2 Irish throttled the 2-0 Spartans in South Bend. All of which is to say: In this rivalry, expect the unexpected. Though Michigan State enters as the clear favorite, Notre Dame could very well make a game of it despite its unsettled quarterback situation.
SI.com caught up with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly before this weekend's matchup with Michigan State. For Kelly's comments on the Irish's move to the ACC, click here.
SI: How has the team readjusted to a normal routine following the trip to Ireland?
BK: We wanted to make sure that we didn't do a lot of things to put our kids at a deficit as it relates to rest. Getting up early in the morning to duplicate the time zonedifferences -- we really stayed away from doing that because I didn't want to feel those effects later in the year. We're back in a good routine and I think we've got the Ireland trip behind us because of the things that we did, or we didn't do, leading into that game.
SI: You've backed Everett Golson your starter, but you also haven't ruled out playing Tommy Rees. What's your approach under center this weekend?
BK: I want to start [Everett] and finish him. But if circumstances occur during the game that put us in a position where I think Tommy can help us, he's a great asset. He's started 16 games. He's won at USC. He's beaten Michigan State. But that'd also be like going into the game expecting some bad things to happen. I'm going into the game expecting it to go the right way and Everett starts it and finishes it. But also know that you have to have contingency plans.
SI: Which is more difficult to prepare for: Michigan State's defense or its Le'Veon Bell-led running game?
BK: Certainly there's a challenge on both sides. But they've really built their entire program on the prowess of their defense and how disruptive they are. That's a huge challenge. But Le'Veon Bell is a man. He's gonna make you work every single down.
SI: What's the key to this matchup?
BK: You gotta manufacture big plays. Neither one of these defenses are gonna let you drive it on them 80-yards every time you touch the ball, so you gotta find ways to get big-chunk plays. The team that's able to manufacture those big-chunk plays is probably gonna have an opportunity to put enough points on the board to win the game.
SI: How much confidence do you have entering this weekend?
BK: [Our guys] believe they can beat Michigan State. But they know they're gonna have to play extremely well on the road to do so. I don't think we go into the game feeling like we're overmatched. We know we're gonna have to play really well against a great opponent. But we've got the confidence that we can do that.
Even if Golson, Wood and Te'o excel, it still seems a tall task for Notre Dame to topple Sparty. Michigan State looks like the class of the Big Ten, possibly the conference's only true national contender. Beating MSU at Spartan Stadium would be no small feat.
Particularly in this rivalry, though, crazy things are prone to happen. While Michigan State looks better on paper, the Irish may very well have the pieces to keep the game close.
No matter what happens, this won't be Notre Dame's final test. Kelly's crew takes on five more currently ranked opponents over the remainder of the season: Michigan, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma and USC. This weekend starts the Irish's quest to make national headlines -- and not just because of their non-football move to the ACC.
"We've told our guys that the only way to climb Mount Everest is to go each level," said Kelly." There's a base camp one, base camp two. If you start thinking about the summit before you get there, you're not gonna make it."
Prediction: Michigan State 27, Notre Dame 20