Michigan State comes into 2016 fresh off the program’s first College Football Playoff appearance, and faces a schedule with significant challenges in each quarter of the season. For a team replacing five NFL draft picks, the Spartans get only one “cupcake” opponent before facing a couple of their toughest opponents of the season. Here’s a preseason look at how difficult each game will be for coach Mark Dantonio and company:
12) vs. Furman (2015: 4-7 overall, 2-5 in Southern Conference play)
Friday, September 2, 7:00 p.m. EST (TV: BTN)
The Paladins failed to go .500 in the FCS Southern Conference, which is a step down from the level of opponents the Spartans will play in the Big Ten. This game will be a good chance to figure out the wide receiver rotation for the rest of the season. By all accounts, this game will be a comfortable season opener at home.
11) vs. Rutgers (2015: 4-8, 1-7 B1G)
Saturday, November 12, TBA
Players to watch: RB Robert Martin (763 yards, 6 TD), DT Darius Hamilton (11.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks in 2014)
Last season, this game went down to the last play before MSU escaped with a 31-24 win, but the Scarlet Knights lose wideout Leonte Carroo, as well as all three of last season’s starting linebackers. The secondary is still young, which could lead to some big plays from an MSU passing game that will have had the whole season to gel. This season’s game won’t be nearly as much of a nailbiter.
10) at Illinois (2015: 5-7, 2-6 B1G)
Saturday, November 5, TBA
Players to watch: RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn (723 yards, 6 TD), DE Dawuane Smith (15 tackles for loss, 8 sacks)
First year head coach Lovie Smith will now get his chance to stabilize the Fighting Illini after recent troubles at the head coach position over the last few years. When Illinois played good teams last season, they usually were blown out. A 48-14 loss at North Carolina, a 39-0 blowout by Penn State, and a 28-3 beatdown from Ohio State are the three biggest examples of what Illinois’s season was like. That said, Cal transfer Hardy Nickerson should slot in well at middle linebacker, and strong safety Taylor Barton returns as the team’s leader in interceptions last season, with four.
9) at Maryland (2015: 3-9, 1-7 B1G)
Saturday, October 22, 7:30 p.m. EST (TV: BTN)
Players to watch: QB Perry Hills (11 total TD), ILB Jermaine Carter Jr. (84.5 tackles, 14 for loss)
The Terps keep their top four receivers from last season, but this is still a team that struggled mightily at times last season. Michigan State was sloppy in last season’s game last season but still sleepwalked their way to a 24-7 win. That said, former Michigan defensive coordinator DJ Durkin has a chance to take Maryland out of the B1G cellar, and a primetime matchup at home for Maryland is probably the best chance for MSU to lose a game it shouldn’t.
8) vs. Northwestern (2015: 10-3, 6-2 B1G)
Saturday, October 15, 3:30 p.m. EST (TV: TBA)
Players to watch: RB Justin Jackson (1,418 yards, 5 TD), MLB Anthony Walker (91.5 tackles, 20.5 for loss)
For a 10-win team to be ranked this low, you’d think that the Wildcats were gutted by graduation and the NFL Draft after last season. But Northwestern keeps last season’s top rusher in Jackson, and outside of their top two wideouts and offensive linemen, keeps the rest of their offense. The defense was a strength last season, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald will have to replace at least one starter from each position group. Still, this game is at home, so the Spartans should have a good chance to maintain a potentially perfect home record at this point in the season.
7) at Indiana (2015: 6-7, 2-6 B1G)
Saturday, October 1, 8:00 p.m EST (TV: BTN)
Players to watch: RB Davine Redding (1,012 yards, 9 TD), SS Jonathan Crawford (62 tackles, 4 INT)
The offense is one of the scariest in the Big Ten, and they took Michigan to double overtime at home last season. In last season’s home game against the Hoosiers, MSU was sucked into a battle for three and a half quarters before pulling away late for a deceiving 52-26 win. The only reason I have this game rated so highly is the chance for an upset on the road against an offense that can match up with anyone in the league.
6) vs. BYU (2015: 9-4)
Saturday, October 8, TBA
Players to watch: QB Tanner Mangum or Taysom Hill (Mangum: 3,377 yards, 23 TD; Hill: 4,282 total yards in 2014), FS Kai Nacua (6 INT)
Although the Cougars are in a state of transition heading into 2016, this is still a potentially problematic game for the Spartans. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will be a tough passer to stop, and in Taysom Hill’s case, a threat in the running game as well. There’s no elite pass rusher on the roster, but the defense should be above average this season. A game that should probably end as a win for MSU, but that’s not to say it won’t be competitive for three quarters.
5) vs. Wisconsin (2015: 10-3, 6-2 B1G)
Saturday, September 24, TBA
Players to watch: RB Dare Ogunbowale (819 yards, 7 TD), OLB Vince Biegel (48.5 tackles, 8 sacks)
Wisconsin is an unusual name to see so early in the season, but the Big Ten’s conference realignment means different divisions and the occasional suspension of one of the most entertaining series in the conference. The Badgers went 3-0 on the road in 2015, with their only losses coming to Alabama on a neutral site, Iowa at home, and a 13-7 loss at Northwestern late in the season. While they have to replace three of four positions in the secondary, this Wisconsin team usually finds a way to hang tough against MSU.
4) at Penn State (2015: 7-6, 4-4 B1G)
Saturday, November 26, TBA
Players to watch: RB Saquon Barkley (1076 yards, 7 TD), FS Marcus Allen (62 tackles)
Now comes the toss-up games on MSU’s schedule. The first one is for the Land Grant Trophy and a matchup with a much-improved Nittany Lion squad. Last season, there was no stopping the Spartans on Senior Day as they blew PSU out of the water, 55-16. A hot start last season was brought back to Earth with losses to Ohio State, Michigan, MSU, and a loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. This road game on the last day of the season could prove pivotal in deciding who goes to the Big Ten championship game, if MSU is still in the race.
3) vs. Ohio State (2015: 12-1, 7-1 B1G)
Saturday, November 19, TBA
Players to watch: QB JT Barrett (992 passing yards, 22 total TD), MLB Raekwon McMillan (88 tackles)
Perhaps the most impressive win of last season’s run to the Playoff came on the road against the Buckeyes. OSU beat Notre Dame handily in the Fiesta Bowl to complete one of head coach Urban Meyer’s best seasons as a coach. That said, this is definitely a rebuilding year in relative terms for a team as consistently good as Ohio State. Having this game at home will be very useful, as a Senior Day home field advantage may make the difference between two teams that may both suffer a drop in quality.
2) at Notre Dame (2015: 10-3)
Saturday, September 17, 7:30 p.m. EST (TV: NBC)
Players to watch: QB DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire (Kizer: 2880 yards, 21 TD; Zaire: 428 yards, 4 TD in two games), OLB James Onwualu (29.5 tackles, 3 sacks)
The earliest test of MSU’s championship credentials will come on the road in South Bend, as an explosive ND offense will test how good MSU’s defense really is. Whoever wins the quarterback battle for the Fighting Irish will have earned it, as the sophomore Kizer stepped in for a highly touted Zaire after an injury. Notre Dame also returns two decent running backs in Tarean Folston and Josh Adams, and while the secondary isn’t proven, it is talented. MSU’s most difficult road matchup will come in their second game of the season.
1) vs. Michigan (2015: 10-3, 6-2 B1G)
Saturday, October 29, TBA
Players to watch: TE Jake Butt (654 yards, 3 TD), CB Jourdan Lewis (44.5 tackles, 2 INT)
Michigan’s defense is scary good. They return All-American corner Jourdan Lewis, four defensive linemen that saw extensive playing time in 2015, and linebacker/safety Jabrill Peppers, who is also a threat on the offensive side of the ball. The quarterback situation is a bit of a concern for head coach Jim Harbaugh, but they can rely on the running game and an experienced receiving crew for offense. This is the game Spartan fans have had circled on the calendar for months, and the Wolverines will be out for blood after last season’s miracle victory. A win in this game could put MSU in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten East.