The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have a problem. Under current scheduling guidelines, they end every season in California in a rivalry week matchup with either the USC Trojans or the Stanford Cardinal. The Irish have ended every season since 1993 on the road; since 1998, all of those games have been in Palo Alto or Los Angeles.
The results of this experiment speak for themselves. The Irish are 7-15 in Golden State finales since 1998. Watching these games, you can see the effect of the end-of-season travel on a team that has already been worn down over the course of the season. Even in wins, the Irish often look tired and slow, with several of the best Notre Dame teams in recent memory - 2018, 2012, and 2005 to name a few - grinding out inexplicably tight games against mediocre Trojan and Cardinal teams.
Notre Dame’s scheduling agreement with Stanford ends in 2024, which makes now a perfect opportunity to revisit the terms of that series. USC is Notre Dame’s arch-rival, so traveling there for rivalry week is one thing, but ending every other year at Stanford is an unforced error. Ideally, USC would reciprocate and visit South Bend in rivalry week, but good luck getting that to happen. The Trojans whine about the cold in mid-October; late November is out of the question. If Notre Dame wants to improve the current state of affairs, they have to look elsewhere.
The Michigan State Spartans also have a problem. When rivalry week comes around, they have no one to take to the dance. The obvious choice - and the team Spartan fans regard as their biggest rival - the Michigan Wolverines, already has a date. Everyone has their special Thanksgiving weekend tradition. For Michigan that tradition is getting their asses handed to them by the Ohio State Buckeyes, and like your Aunt Polly’s marshmallow-smothered sweet potatoes, it’s not going away no matter how bad it gets.
The lack of a rivalry-week nemesis often leaves the Spartans facing the dregs of the Big Ten, with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins accounting for their last three regular-season finales. A program with the history and tradition of Sparty deserves better: a real rivalry with real dramatics, and a game of consequence to close out the season.
Notre Dame and Michigan State have history going back to 1897, played each other every year from 1948 to 2013 and have shared some incredibly fun, historic moments. Their desire to compete with each other was so strong that Michigan State, when pressured by Michigan and others in the Big Ten to stop playing the Irish and create a conference-wide blackball, told the Skunkbears and their toadies to go pound sand. This is a rivalry with history, a trophy, and hate (the good kind). Oh, and they’re 160 miles away from each other. Notre Dame and Michigan State both have a problem, and they are both the solution.
Here’s the proposal: Notre Dame and Michigan State should play each other in the last week of the season, at least in odd years when the Irish don’t travel west to play USC.
How It Could Work
There are a few things to keep in mind while working this out. Number one: USC takes precedence over both Stanford and Michigan State. Number two: While ending every season on the road is not ideal, reducing travel is still an improvement on the status quo. Number three: reinstating the Michigan State rivalry would restore it on an every-year basis. With those in mind, here are the potential arrangements.
Option 1: The Stanford Model
The easiest option to adopt, this would involve simply taking the current arrangement with Stanford and applying it to Michigan State. The Irish would play the Spartans during rivalry week in odd years, while the matchup would take place earlier in the season in even ones.
Ideally, rivalry-week matchups would be home games for Notre Dame, while the Irish would go to East Lansing in September or October. Sparty might balk at this proposal as it would make their trips to South Bend higher-stakes than Notre Dame’s in East Lansing; in that case, it may have to be reversed. While not ideal, this would still mean not having to travel to California for the final game of every season. Overall, this plan would allow for a resumption of the Michigan State rivalry and a resolution of the California problem without too much disruption to Notre Dame’s scheduling, while giving Michigan State a compelling rivalry week matchup every other year.
One obvious question arises when one proposes having another team take Stanford’s spot on the schedule: what about Stanford? The Irish and Cardinal have developed a fun and competitive rivalry, and it would be a shame to see it go away.
If I were advising Savvy Jack in negotiating the series after 2024, I would suggest a take-it-or-leave it approach. The Cardinal could either agree to make the rivalry a full-time midseason matchup, or else receive the same on-again off-again rival treatment that Notre Dame gives the Purdue Boilermakers, Pittsburgh Panthers, Boston College Eagles, etc.; a home-and-home here, a Shamrock Series there.
I can’t think of any reason they wouldn’t go for that first option, as it would provide a premier nonconference matchup early in the season, perhaps even as a season opener. If Notre Dame was to pull this off, it would accomplish the following:
- Reinstating a fan-favorite rivalry while preserving two others.
- Creating a final-week matchup with a genuine rival that would take place at home (or, worst case, a two-hour drive away) every other year.
- Bolstering schedule strength by adding regular matchups against a consistently above-average-to-good program.
Option 2: The Red River Model
A more radical option, this would involve converting the USC rivalry to a full-time October matchup. Notre Dame and Michigan State would then play each other in rivalry week every year, using the conventional home-and-home format. The Stanford rivalry would again be moved elsewhere in the schedule, likely early in the season, with matchups remaining staggered so the Irish were only traveling to California once in a given season.
Is this a little crazy? Maybe, but the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners make it work. Neither school in the Red River Showdown thinks it a lesser rivalry because it takes place in midseason; on the contrary, its history and hatred make it the season’s premier matchup. After facing their arch-rival in the middle of the season, each team goes on to play an in-state little-brother rival (the Oklahoma State Cowboys for OU, the
Texas A&M Aggies Texas school TBA for UT) in rivalry week.
Do you see the parallels? Just as the Red River Showdown’s unusual timing makes it a unique event, the Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh could also take center stage in a midseason weekend. As, indeed, it already does half the time.
Each team would then have a local rivalry game against a less-prestigious but scrappy and dangerous program for its season finale - Sparty for the Irish and the UCLA Bruins for USC. This should work out to the benefit of all teams involved. It might give USC trouble with the Pac-12, but with the Trojans considering independence and the Pac-12 likely desperate to keep them, they may be able to swing it.
Although it would require a lot more work and create more disruption than the Stanford model, I like this idea better because of the symmetry it creates for the teams involved. Let’s take a look what would be accomplished if the Irish were to pull this off:
- The Notre Dame-USC rivalry would become a regular October matchup, giving it a unique place in the landscape of the college football season.
- The Notre Dame-Michigan State and USC-UCLA rivalries would likewise be elevated by becoming regular rivalry-week matchups, with none of the four teams in question having to travel more than two hours in the final week of the season.
- The Irish would have not only revived, but upgraded the Michigan State rivalry, while preserving its rivalries with USC and Stanford.
What do you guys think? Is restoring Michigan State the answer to Notre Dame’s California woes? How excited would you be to wake up on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for a Notre Dame-Michigan State matchup? Let us know below in the comments.