Toughest non-conference game: Take your pick between Boise State in the opener on Aug. 31 (Friday) or Notre Dame’s visit on Sept. 15. I’m going with the game vs. the Fighting Irish, given the personnel losses (six NFL draft picks) that the Broncos suffered. Notre Dame—which should be a consensus preseason Top 25 squad–whipped Michigan State, 31-13, last year and has won two of the last three meetings, so the Spartans have revenge on their mind. And know this: Notre Dame hasn’t won in East Lansing since 2006.
Toughest Big Ten game: How much time do you have? This is a loaded schedule, with big hurdles dotting every twist and turn of the Spartans’ schedule. But I’m circling Michigan State’s Oct. 27 trip to Wisconsin. These arguably have become the premier programs in the Big Ten. Last season, they played two epic games. The Spartans used a last-second Hail Mary pass to stun the Badgers, 37-31. But Wisconsin rebounded to knock off Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, 42-39.Will these schools play two times again this season?
Who they don’t play: Illinois; Penn State; Purdue. No doubt, Michigan State would be favored in games vs. all three of these teams. Too bad the Spartans don’t get to play them—instead having cross-division tilts vs. Wisconsin and Ohio State. Still, Penn State and Purdue may be better than people think and upper-division Leaders Division squads.
Easiest game: Yes, Eastern Michigan is coming off a 6-6 season, one of its best efforts in years. But the Eagles historically are one of the worst FBS programs, going to one bowl (1987) in their history. They figure to have scant chance in East Lansing on Sept. 22. This is a nice “breather” to sandwich between contests vs. Notre Dame and Ohio State. Thanks, Eagles!
Rugged stretch: Check this out–from Oct. 20-Nov. 3, the Spartans play at Michigan (Oct. 20); at Wisconsin (Oct. 27); vs. Nebraska (Nov. 3) on consecutive Saturdays. Once the smoke clears, we will know if Michigan State is worthy of defending its Legends Division crown. And the game at Wisconsin will be a continuation of the teams’ two thrillers from 2011, one of which was in the Big Ten championship game. No need to remind the Spartans who won that one.
Best chance to be upset: Teams often are most vulnerable in their first game. Kinks still are being worked out, roles are still being defined. And Michigan State must do all of that vs. a Boise State team that always is one of the most well coached in America. Yes, the Broncos lost a lot of key players—including quarterback Kellen Moore—but they have shown a knack for knocking off big boys in season openers. Ask Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia.
Best chance to pull an upset: The Spartans probably won’t be an underdog too often in 2012. But they figure to be ones when they make back-to-back junkets to Michigan (Oct. 20) and Wisconsin (Oct. 27). It may be difficult to beat the Wolverines for a fifth straight time—especially in Ann Arbor. But perhaps Michigan State can knock off the Badgers in what could be a preview of the Big Ten title game. But the Spartans haven’t won in Madison since 2001 and are 1-5 in their last six trips to Mad City.
Must win: If Michigan State wants to repeat as Legends Division champs, it needs to protect its home field—and that will mean defeating Nebraska on Nov. 3. The Cornhuskers muted the Spartans like no other team in 2011, limiting Michigan State to 187 yards (86 passing) in a 24-3 mugging. The Spartans will be revenge minded—but they will be coming off what figures to be tough back-to-back games on the road at Michigan and at Wisconsin.
Bye week: Nov. 10. This comes after the Spartans have played 10 games. Is that too late in the season? Debatable. In another respect, the timing is good, as Michigan State will need the break following the aforementioned rugged three-game stretch as it looks to finish the season with a bang by playing host to Northwestern before traveling to Minnesota.
Aug. 31 Boise State*
Sept. 8 at Central Michigan*
Sept. 15 Notre Dame#
Sept. 22 Eastern Michigan*
Sept. 29 Ohio State#
Oct. 6 at Indiana*
Oct. 13 Iowa*
Oct. 20 at Michigan
Oct. 27 at Wisconsin
Nov. 3 Nebraska*
Nov. 17 Northwestern*
Nov. 24 at Minnesota*
*must win; #tossup
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, and all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart. Send questions to his weekly mailbag, subscribe to his RSS feed, and check out his video Q&A.