Bach: Game-by-game MSU football schedule breakdown


Photo: Michigan State Athletic Communications

Eric Bach

It’s starting to feel more real with each passing day.

After the Big Ten announced the return of fall football on Wednesday, the conference released the eight-game regular season schedule on Saturday morning. Michigan State’s slate includes six games against the other East Division teams, and two crossover games against West Division foes Iowa and Northwestern.

Before we get into the schedule, let’s assess what Michigan State has. The starting quarterback job appears to be Rocky Lombardi’s to lose at the moment, but I’m all for giving either Payton Thorne or Theo Day a shot. I just don’t think Lombardi is the long term answer to success for Michigan State.

The much-maligned offensive line returns a lot of experience from last season, as injuries forced young guys into playing probably more than a lot of them were ready for. Starting tackle Jordan Reid has opted out of the season and it appears he doesn’t plan to opt back in, but there are eight guys on the roster with significant experience at multiple positions on the offensive line. Running back Elijah Collins is MSU’s best offensive weapon, and if this unit — led by new coach Chris Kapilovic — can open some holes for him, then that will only help whoever the quarterback ends up being in the play action game. Anthony Williams Jr. is a very explosive young player as well who can be used both in the run game and potentially at slot receiver.

The receiver room is full of young talent too. If Jalen Nailor can stay healthy, then the sky’s the limit for him. C.J. Hayes got a lot of playing time last year, and he showed flashes of being a solid number two option if he can assert himself a little bit more. Laress Nelson has made some big plays in his time, but the Spartans will need him to step up in a big way this upcoming season. Tre Mosley is another young receiver with some experience that will be asked to take on a bigger role. The potential is there, it’s just a matter of execution for these guys.

Defensively, the defensive line loses two every-down tackles in Raequan Williams and Mike Panasuik, but they got some good news Saturday when Jacub Panasuik decided to opt back into the season. His presence will help the Spartan pass rush immensely. Antjuan Simmons takes over the middle linebacker spot after Joe Bachie graduated, and he is the unquestioned leader of this football team. The secondary was the weak link of the unit last year, but with so much experience returning, it’s easy to be optimistic about their development under the watchful eye of Harlon Barnett. If Xavier Henderson, Dominique Long, Kalon Gervin, Shakur Brown and Tre Person all take steps forward, Michigan State can begin its climb back to being able to refer to themselves as the “No Fly Zone.”

Let’s dive in and make some predictions.

Week 1 (10/24): vs Rutgers

Whenever a new coach takes over a program, it’s always so important to get off to a good start and win that first game. Mel Tucker should be thanking his lucky stars that the powers that be scheduled Rutgers first for Michigan State. There is no better way to start your career in East Lansing than a game against the worst team in the conference.

Greg Schiano has returned to Piscataway to try to bring Rutgers back to relevance, but it’ll be a long journey. Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Scarlet Knights have won 21 total games, and only SEVEN of those wins have come against Big Ten opponents. That’s really bad. They have been the laughingstock of the loaded East Division of the Big Ten, and if Schiano is able to make them competitive in the next two to three years, it would be nothing short of a miracle. Schiano has recruited well early on, but we’ll have to wait on the results.

Prediction: Michigan State 31, Rutgers 13

Record: 1-0

Week 2 (10/31): at Michigan

During a normal season, a Michigan/Michigan State game at the end of October would be the perfect springboard for the winner of the game into the final stretch of November before the postseason. This season, a “week two” Halloween battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy will once again take place in Ann Arbor, but in the long run, I think playing at Michigan two years in a row will actually help Michigan State. Starting this season, they won’t have to travel to both Michigan and Ohio State every other year. Splitting the sites up with those two opponents is better for everyone.

Michigan’s had an interesting few weeks. Dylan McCaffrey has opted out of the season and will transfer, so the starting quarterback job apparently belongs to flamethrower Joe Milton. Reports out of practice say that Milton is far and away the best QB on the roster, but he has very limited game experience. In his little game experience, he hasn’t exactly looked great.

Michigan has recruited very well and sent many players to the NFL in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, but they still have yet to win their division and make it to the Big Ten Championship game. Harbaugh has had success, but he just hasn’t been able to win the big game when it counts to push Michigan to the top of the Big Ten. Their running game has been inconsistent at best, but with young stud Zach Charbonnet returning, that very well could change. Don Brown’s defense slipped to 44th nationally last year after finishing 3rd overall in 2018, and they’ll have to get back to that top-10 form if they want to give Penn State and Ohio State a run for their money in the East.

This year, I just don’t think Michigan State will be quite ready to take on the physical challenge this game presents. In time, Tucker will get the Spartans back to where Mark Dantonio had them in this rivalry, but I give the edge to Michigan once again this year.

Prediction: Michigan 24, Michigan State 13

Record: 1-1

Week 3 (11/7): at Iowa

This is the game that Michigan State can most realistically steal. Iowa has had a tumultuous offseason, with the previously untouchable Kirk Ferentz now under pressure for non-football reasons. The reports that came out of Iowa City of Ferentz ignoring racist comments and actions are disturbing to say the least, but Ferentz kept his job after a thorough internal review.

On the field, the Hawkeyes finished last season on a high note with a thumping of USC in the Holiday Bowl, but now, three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley is gone, and last year’s backup Spencer Petras attempted 10 passes the entire season. Stanley may have been criticized for his lack of a vertical passing game, but there’s no denying he was the pillar of consistency for Iowa. Whoever takes over for him certainly has a tough act to follow.

Normally, a November trip to Kinnick Stadium means doomsday for most visitors, but without fans, that environment certainly loses its luster. If Michigan State can develop an offensive identity by this point in the season, it could very well steal one in Kinnick.


Prediction: Michigan State 27, Iowa 24

Record: 2-1

Week 4 (11/14) vs Indiana

Oh, Indiana.

Tom Allen’s program has been so close to breaking through in some very tight losses to divisional opponents the last few years, but consistency has always been the issue for the Hoosiers. Peyton Ramsey transferred to Northwestern in the offseason, giving way to Michael Penix Jr., who showed flashes of greatness (especially in the MSU game) last season before getting injured. All four of Indiana’s regular-season losses last season came against teams that were ranked in the top-25 at the time of the game. The Hoosiers are very young on offense and return the vast majority of their playmakers from 2019.

All that being said, Indiana just always seems to find a way to lose to Michigan State in the end of the game. It’s hard to explain. They blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of their bowl game against Tennessee too. It’s like the Detroit Lions. They should win, but they find a way to lose. Until that changes, give me the Spartans close at home.

Prediction: Michigan State 31, Indiana 28

Record: 3-1

Week 5 (11/21) at Maryland

Since entering the Big Ten with Rutgers in 2014, the Terrapins have seen more success than the Scarlet Knights, but that’s not saying much. Year two under Mike Locksley should show some improvements, but a lot of their offensive hopes were contingent on Virginia Tech quarterback transfer Josh Jackson returning for his second season as the starter. Jackson has opted out of the 2020 season and there’s been no indication that he plans to opt back in, so that leaves a lot of question marks on the offensive side of the ball. The Terrapins also have to make some major improvements on the defensive side of the ball, last season they allowed just under 35 points per game. Locksley has made some headway in recruiting, including landing five-star receiver Rakim Jarrett and a couple of other bigger names, but it just feels like they’re a year or two away from making any real noise in the Big Ten East.

Prediction: Michigan State 29, Maryland 17

Record: 4-1

Week 6 (11/28) vs Northwestern

Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats had an offense in 2019 that was truly painful to watch. And that’s coming from a guy that broadcasted Michigan State games. Northwestern only averaged 16.3 points per game and just simply could not keep up with anyone on the scoreboard. However, their offensive fortunes may have changed as Indiana QB Peyton Ramsey decided to transfer to Northwestern this offseason. He’s immediately eligible, and is primed to have a breakout year.

Fitzgerald is now the second longest tenured coach in the Big Ten behind Kirk Ferentz, which is still wild to me. Until Northwestern proves to me they can be at least competent offensively, I’m not sold on the Wildcats doing anything meaningful.

Prediction: Michigan State 28, Northwestern 14

Record: 5-1 (!!)

Week 7 (12/5) vs Ohio State

And now, the fun begins.

The Buckeyes lost a ton of talent to the NFL (Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, J.K. Dobbins and Malik Harrison come to mind), but this program is built to reload with players that are just as good or even have the potential to be better than their predecessors. Justin Fields is primed for a huge year and will likely be in the running for the Heisman Trophy (he may not win it due to the condensed season). Master Teague was the backup running back last year and still rushed for nearly 800 yards, and Garrett Wilson leads a very young receiver group that lost KJ Hill and Binjimin Victor to graduation, but should be very deep. The defense will have to reload a bit with the losses of Young, Harrison and Okudah on each line of defense, but the Buckeyes have talent to spare, especially with All-American safety Shaun Wade opting back into the season.

If Michigan State can keep this thing a football game in the second half, I’d consider it a win. Also, I hope this game is at Ford Field in Detroit. Nobody likes being outside in East Lansing in December.

Prediction: Ohio State 34, Michigan State 17

Record: 5-2

Week 8 (12/12) at Penn State

Whatever goodwill the scheduling gods have built up with Mel Tucker by scheduling Rutgers for his first game might be gone by the time the Spartans reach this point of the season. Finishing with the top two teams in the conference is tough. But, much like the point I made about Kinnick Stadium earlier, a fanless Happy Valley doesn’t seem nearly as bad for the road team.

Penn State returns a large chunk of their offensive production from 2019, losing only K.J. Hamler to the NFL. Sean Clifford and Journey Brown both finished last season on a tear, and if that trend continues into 2020, Penn State will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the East division. The Nittany Lions’ potential on defense rides a lot on the decision of Micah Parsons. He opted out of the season back in early August, and he’s yet to decide whether or not to opt back in. He is the latest great Penn State linebacker, and was already on several Butkus award watch lists heading into the season.

Again, keeping this thing close is a win for MSU at this point in the Tucker tenure.

Prediction: Penn State 27, Michigan State 10

Final regular-season record: 5-3

5-3!! That would certainly reinvigorate the Spartan fan base and potentially draw more of the bigger time recruits Tucker and staff are chasing. The task will be tall, but the path to 5-3 is quite possible for a young Michigan State team.

Eric Bach is the Sports Broadcast Director and football reporter for WDBM. Follow him on Twitter, @ebach21.