Ranking Michigan State’s 2018 football opponents

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The last time Impact ranked Michigan State’s football opponents was in 2016, the worst season for the program in decades. After a resurgent 2017 that ended in a 10-win season and a bowl win, the Spartans head into 2018 with enough talent for an outside chance at a Big Ten title.

With trips across the country and a pair of high-profile home matchups, Mark Dantonio’s team could have a memorable season on the cards. The Spartans kick off their season on a Friday night, starting against Utah State on Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. on Big Ten Network. Here’s the entire schedule, ranked for difficulty.   

All times Eastern where available.

12. Central Michigan (2017: 8-5, 6-2 MAC)

Sept. 29, TBA

Players to watch: Running back Jonathan Ward (1,019 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns), linebacker Malik Fountain (89 tackles)

Despite playing in a bowl game last year, the Chippewas rank last on this list purely due to the amount of talent leaving Mount Pleasant. CMU returns just nine starters from last year’s team, and lose their quarterback as well as 2017’s top three receivers. 2015’s contest was a battle for the better part of three quarters, but MSU should end their non-conference schedule comfortably.

More CFB: Ranking the Big Ten’s most intriguing non-conference matchups

11. Rutgers (2017: 4-8, 3-6 Big Ten)

Nov. 24, TBA

Players to watch: Quarterback Giovanni Rescigno (517 passing yards, 2 touchdowns), LB Trevor Morris (118 tackles)

Last year’s contest set a record for time of possession in favor of Michigan State, who swept through Piscataway with ease. The defense returns enough to be a unit headed for the middle of the Big Ten pack, but the Scarlet Knights will have to be nearly perfect in the first half of the season to make a bowl game.

10. Utah State (2017: 6-7, 4-4 Mountain West)

Aug. 31, 7 p.m., BTN

Players to watch: QB Jordan Love (1,631 passing yards, 8 TD-6 INT), LB Suli Tamaivena (111 tackles, 3 sacks)

The Aggies lost two games they probably shouldn’t have to end 2017, dropping a road test to Air Force and the Arizona Bowl to independent New Mexico State. The task for Matt Wells’ team doesn’t get much easier to kick off 2018, heading to a Spartan Stadium expectant of a winning start. USU returns their entire offensive line to complement sophomore Jordan Love, who started the final six games of their season. Still, MSU is expected to progress comfortably from their season opener.

9. at Arizona State (2017: 7-6, 6-3 Pac-12)

Sept. 8, 10:45 p.m., ESPN

Players to watch: QB Manny Wilkins (3,270 passing yards, 27 combined touchdowns), LB Koron Crump (4 sacks)

The Sun Devils grabbed offseason headlines by hiring former NFL head coach Herm Edwards to lead their program. Picking past the noise surrounding the program now, Edwards will have a tough task on his hands to get to bowl eligibility. Wilkins is the headliner offensively, and the senior will have top receiver N’Keal Harry to throw to, but ASU must replace their entire defensive line and most of their secondary. The long trip to Tempe will be a home game for MSU QB Brian Lewerke, and the #Pac12AfterDark nature of this game could complicate things if the Spartans don’t get a good start.

8. at Maryland (2017: 4-8, 2-7 Big Ten)

Nov. 3, TBA

Players to watch: RB Ty Johnson (875 rushing yards, 5 TDs), cornerback Antoine Brooks (77 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions)

Johnson forms one half of an impressive rushing duo alongside junior Lorenzo Harrison, and head coach DJ Durkin enters his third year in College Park looking to reach a bowl game. Their division makes it tough to consider them anything more than candidates for fifth in the East, but with a couple of solid recruiting years, it’s not out of the question for the Terrapins to give MSU a scare on the road.

7. Purdue (2017: 7-6, 4-5 Big Ten)

Oct. 27, TBA

Players to watch: QB Elijah Sindelar (2,099 passing yards, 18 TDs), LB Markus Bailey (89 tackles, 7 sacks)

Bailey played out of position as an outside linebacker last year and still put up the best defensive numbers on the team in 2017, but the senior is one of just four remaining starters on the defense. Jeff Brohm’s offense returns most of its receivers plus a pair of upperclassmen running backs. The Spartans’ last matchup with the Boilermakers in 2015 came down to the final possession, and Brohm has the program trending upwards.

6. at Nebraska (2017: 4-8, 3-6 Big Ten)

Nov. 17, TBA

Players to watch: Wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. (986 receiving yards, 10 TDs), nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg (33 tackles)

After leading UCF to a 13-0 record last year, Scott Frost returns to an alma mater desperately in search of a new identity. The Cornhuskers lost a handful of tight games last year, which means that Frost’s magic could swing Nebraska’s record back towards .500 in year one. Spartan fans will undoubtedly remember the lone 2015 regular season blemish suffered in Lincoln, and the late-season clash is already oddly reminiscent of that game.

5. at Indiana (2017: 5-7, 2-7 Big Ten)

Sept. 22, TBA

Players to watch: RB Morgan Ellison (704 rushing yards, 6 TDs), safety Jonathan Crawford (62 tackles, 1 INT

This game has been tight for the past three years, including a shock overtime loss in Bloomington two years ago. The program itself is on the rise. That said, Tom Allen returns only three defensive starters and faces a tough schedule – as does anyone in the East. Their record won’t reflect how dangerous the Hoosiers actually are, and the Big Ten opener for MSU will be tricky.

4. Northwestern (2017: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten)

Oct. 6, TBA

Players to watch: QB Clayton Thorson (2,844 passing yards, 15 TDs), LB Paddy Fister (113 tackles)

Thorson’s ACL tear from Northwestern’s bowl game should be fully healed up just in time to head to East Lansing, but if absent, this game becomes a lot easier for the MSU defense. The key for this matchup will be how defensive coordinator Mike Tressel gameplans for Thorson after the Spartan linebackers were burned in Evanston last year. Fisher, LB Nate Hall and CB Montre Hartage are all among consideration for All-Big Ten honors.

3. Michigan (2017: 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten)

Oct. 20, FOX or FS1, time TBA

Players to watch: Defensive end Rashan Gary (58 tackles, 5.5 sacks), DE Chase Winovich (73 tackles, 8.5 sacks)

The Wolverine defense should be a top-five unit in the FBS, and Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson should make Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback situation much more stable than their disastrous 2017. LB Khaleke Hudson and the cornerback tandem of Lavert Hill and David Long are among the Big Ten’s finest, if not the entire nation. This game could be another 14-10 slugfest, weather notwithstanding. The only reason this game isn’t higher on the list? The Spartan record in the last ten years of this rivalry.

2. at Penn State (2017: 11-2, 6-2 Big Ten)

Oct. 13, 3:30 or 4 p.m., TV TBA

Players to watch: QB Trace McSorley (3,570 passing yards, 491 rushing yards, 39 total TD), DE Shareef Miller (37 tackles, 5 sacks)

The Nittany Lions were two drives away from a Playoff berth last year, but the defense returns just two starters. Whether or not that unit gels enough to keep out Big Ten offenses could affect this ranking. McSorley heads into his senior year with two of his favorites returning, but the offensive line will have to improve to give new starter Miles Sanders enough room to run. This will be the biggest game between these two teams in Happy Valley in a decade.

1. Ohio State (2017: 12-2, 8-1 Big Ten)

Nov. 10, TBA

Players to watch: RB J.K. Dobbins (1,403 rushing yards, 7 TDs), DE Nick Bosa (34 tackles, 8.5 sacks)

This should be fairly obvious. If the Buckeyes get sufficient production from QB Dwayne Haskins and can adequately replace three offensive line starters, this matchup will likely have major Playoff ramifications. The 48-3 result in Columbus exposed exactly how young MSU was last year, and if anything, it proved that something good could come down the line. There’ll be a lot of football played before this late-season matchup, but the two have played classics in both cities this decade alone.

Follow @WDBMSports for continuing coverage of the 2018 college football offseason. You can contact the sports department at msuimpactsports@gmail.com.

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