Michigan State can earn the respect its fans desperately want with a win over Notre Dame

Mike Carter/Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

You’re right, Spartans fans, Michigan State football doesn’t get enough respect.

All Mark Dantonio’s team has done for the past few years is be one of the best football teams in the nation. That’s not debatable. The Spartans have five losses since 2013 and have ended the past three seasons at No. 3, No. 5, and No. 6 in the AP Top 25 poll.

You’d think that a team that has gone 66-16 and has been in the Top 10 consistently since 2010 would have the benefit of the doubt granted to it by now, but that’s not the case. Every year, Michigan State, one of the nation’s best teams and a participant in last year’s College Football Playoff, has to go out and prove itself all over again. It’s unfair, but when you’re comparing a half-decade of top-flight success to that of two of the most successful programs in the totality of college football, that’s how it works.

This year is no different — Michigan State is going to have to prove it’s part of college football’s elite again.

Saturday’s contest at Notre Dame is the perfect opportunity to do it.

To be fair, there’s more to question this year with Michigan State — the Spartans returned only 10 total starters, 42 offensive line starts, and 38 percent of their offensive yards. There’s a new quarterback — Tyler O’Connor — who doesn’t have last year’s two top receivers and didn’t look too good in Michigan State’s Week 1’s game against FCS opponent Furman.

Michigan State has done more with less, but will 2016 be different? How much longer can the Mark D Magic last?

Notre Dame is an excellent barometer to test what the Spartans are made of this season.

The two teams are evenly matched — Notre Dame is ranked 18th in S&P+, Michigan State is 25th — and both need to prove they’re 2016 title contenders Saturday in South Bend — Notre Dame because of its Week 1 loss to Texas, Michigan State because of "DISRESPECT!!!"

Their perceived weaknesses — O’Connor for MSU, pass defense for ND — and strengths — DeShone Kizer vs. that big-game Michigan State defense — seem to align in a tantalizing way, too.

Week 3 won’t totally define Michigan State’s season — Saturday’s game could prove to be meaningless or the most important chapter in a book that also includes home games against Michigan and Ohio State. That distinction will only come at the end of the season.

But Saturday’s game can go a long way to establishing a narrative.

A road win against a team with defined expectations this season — Notre Dame entered the season as a legitimate title contender as the No. 10 team in the AP preseason poll — would help give definition and expectation to the Spartans’ 2016 campaign. It could bring that long-desired respect that consistently eludes the Spartans.

A loss would confirm the pessimism outside of East Lansing.

Ultimately, it rides on O’Connor’s play. The senior waited three years for his chance to be the man, and while there was a quasi-competition behind him at quarterback, it’s clear that the Spartans are pinning their collective fate to his play. Michigan State might be built to win with a stellar defense, led by the tremendous defensive lineman Malik McDowell, and stout run game, but without stable quarterback play — the kind the Spartans received from Connor Cook and Kirk Cousins — it’s difficult to consider Michigan State a contender for the title belt it technically holds.

We’ll find out what O’Connor is made of on Saturday, and, in turn, we should garner a decent idea of what Michigan State — the only nation’s only perennially overlooked elite program — is made of as well.