With its 3-9 debacle far in the rear view, Michigan State bounced back in a big way in 2017, flipping the script and finishing the year 10-3, with wins against Penn State, at Michigan and a resounding 42-17 Holiday Bowl win over Washington State.
Back on the sidelines for his 12th season in East Lansing, head coach Mark Dantonio returns 19 of 22 starters from last year’s double-digit winning team, including his junior quarterback Brian Lewerke, whose 2,793 passing yards ranked sixth in the Big Ten.
The reviews for this 2018 team seem to be mixed. Many college football pundits have pegged the Spartans to go 12-0 or 11-1 and win the Big Ten East, while others, including the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, are a little bit less impressed with this team. The Spartans should take the next step this season and be amongst several teams who are gunning for that elusive East title.
Vegas has three East teams, and Wisconsin in the West, with higher odds than MSU to win the conference. Ohio State is the odds-on favorite at 19-10, Wisconsin has 12-5 odds, in-state rival Michigan is getting serious love with 3-1 odds and Penn State, 2016 B1G champ, comes in with 15-2 odds.
The Spartans have the fifth-best odds, given an 8-1 chance to win the conference. Looking at its slate of games, if there’s a season which could perfectly set up for a Big Ten title run, which would be MSU’s second in four years, 2018 very well may be the one.
MSU has three manageable non-conference games, with no Notre Dame on its schedule this year. Unlike 2017, the team will play away from Spartan Stadium in one of their three non-conference games, traveling to Tempe, Ariz. to battle the new-look Arizona State Sun Devils.
With Indiana sandwiched in-between, MSU will get its feet wet in conference play in Week 4 before finishing off its non-conference slate with Central Michigan a week later. Barring any slip-ups, the Spartans should be favorites in each of those four games and return to conference play 4-0 before a Homecoming clash with Northwestern, a team who’s had their number in the last two seasons.
Back-to-back games on Oct. 13 and Oct. 20 could be the defining two-week stretch which will either make or break MSU’s season, with its toughest road game of the year, traveling to Happy Valley before a big in-state showdown with Michigan.
Although they were manhandled at Beaver Stadium in 2016, the Spartans return there having won two of the last three matchups, but the Nittany Lions will be looking to avenge last season’s heartbreaking loss as they have Big Ten title aspirations of their own.
This two-game stretch could decide whether or not the Spartans are contenders or just pretenders for a Big Ten East crown, returning home for another revenge game when Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines come to town looking to repay last season’s loss.
Coming out of those games 2-0 should set up for a pivotal divisional showdown with Ohio State a couple weeks later. Splitting those games still keeps them in the divisional race, while losing both would put them in a difficult spot with games at Nebraska and against Ohio State still to come.
That two-game stretch should ultimately decide how much MSU will get up for subsequent games against Purdue and at Maryland, before hosting Ohio State, traveling to Lincoln and capping off its season at home for Senior Day against Rutgers.
The other three teams in the “Big 4” all face similar daunting stretches that should heavily influence the divisional race. Michigan has a brutal three-week stretch starting Oct. 13, where they host Wisconsin, go to Michigan State and then host Penn State. Penn State welcomes Ohio State and Michigan State over the course of three weeks while the Buckeyes get Michigan State and Michigan in two of the final three weeks of the regular season.
8-1 odds for the Spartans seems a bit disrespectful, with four other Big Ten teams having higher odds to win the conference title in Indy. MSU has pivotal divisional games at home, and while that daunting road test at Penn State looms, there are still several question marks surrounding that team to assume a loss.
An improvement from Brian Lewerke in the passing game is a must, and if the young defense can continue to elevate its play from a season ago, this team should be one of the more balanced teams in the country. Vegas may not think so, but an 11-1, even 12-0 season isn’t anywhere out of the realm of possibilities.