Dienhart: Michigan State's 2014 schedule analysis

Everything came up roses, literally and figuratively, for Michigan State last season. The Spartans won their first Big Ten title since taking a share of the 2010 crown. And Michigan State went to its first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season, beating Stanford to finish 13-1 overall en route to ranking No. 3 in the polls.

How dominating were the Spartans? They won every Big Ten game by double-digits, which never had happened in league annals.

What’s in store for the encore for Mark Dantonio’s crew?

Questions dot Michigan State’s outlook. The defense lost six key starters, and three starting offensive linemen are gone. And how will the Spartans deal with being the hunted?

The schedule will be an ally, as the toughest Big Ten foes (Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State) all come to East Lansing. Bottom line: The good times may keep on rolling along the banks of the Red Cedar River.

[ MORE: Read all of Tom Dienhart's 2014 schedule previews ]

Here’s a breakdown of the Spartans’ 2014 slate.

Toughest non-conference game: This is a no-brainer. The journey to Oregon on Sept. 6 will be one of the most anticipated non-league games in the nation. It doesn’t get much better than a matchup between the high-flying Duck offense and the steely Spartan defense. The schools most recently met in 1998-1999, as each team won on its own turf in battles between Mike Bellotti and Nick Saban.

Toughest conference game: Nebraska’s visit for the Big Ten opener on Oct. 4 won’t be a picnic. In fact, it could be a preview of the league championship game. But let’s go with Ohio State’s trip to East Lansing on Nov. 8, which could be a de facto Big Ten East title tilt. The Buckeyes won 17-16 the last time they visited Spartan Stadium in 2012. But Michigan State took the last meeting, dumping Ohio State 34-24 in the 2013 Big Ten championship game to end the Buckeyes’ 24-game winning streak and national title hopes. The Spartans have won two of the last three meetings after losing seven in a row to the Buckeyes.

Who they don’t play: The Spartans miss Big Ten West heavies Wisconsin and Iowa. And, that’s nice. But they also miss Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota, teams likely projected in the lower-half of the West.

MICHIGAN STATE’S 2014 SCHEDULE
Date Opponent Result / Time
8/29 vs. Jacksonville State TBA
9/6 at 9 Oregon TBA
9/20 vs. Eastern Michigan TBA
9/27 vs. Wyoming 12:00 ET
10/4 vs. Nebraska 8:00 ET
10/11 at Purdue TBA
10/18 at Indiana 3:30 ET
10/25 vs. Michigan TBA
11/8 vs. 12 Ohio State TBA
11/15 at Maryland 8:00 ET
11/22 vs. Rutgers TBA
11/29 at Penn State TBA

Easiest game: There are several games when the workload looks light. But no game-day will be cushier than the opener on Aug. 29, when FCS Jacksonville State comes to East Lansing for a Friday night tilt. Yes, the Gamecocks shocked Ole Miss in 2010. But Mark Dantonio won’t let his team get pantsed at home in the opener coming off one of the most glorious seasons in school history. This will be a nice tune-up for the Oregon game the next week.

Rugged stretch: Michigan State will be pushed during a three-game run from Oct. 18-Nov. 8. The Spartans play at Indiana on Oct. 18, come home to play Michigan, have a bye week and then play host to Ohio State. The Spartans had to rally for a 31-27 win in Bloomington the last time they visited in 2012. No doubt, the Wolverines will be looking for payback after getting throttled 29-6 by Michigan State in East Lansing last year. And Ohio State likely will need to beat the Spartans if it wants to win the East. The Buckeyes also will be looking for payback for that Big Ten title game defeat.

Factoid: Michigan State has its foot firmly on Michigan’s neck, winning five of the last six meetings after dropping six in a row to the Wolverines.

Best chance to pull an upset: The only time Michigan State may be an underdog is when it plays in Eugene vs. Oregon on Sept. 6. The Ducks figure to be a consensus top-five team in the preseason headed by Heisman contending quarterback Marcus Mariota. This will be a deadly team that has nine offensive starters back. Will a Michigan State defense with six new starters be ready? If so, MSU could return home with a big win and lots of confidence.

Best chance to be upset: Nebraska figures to be an underdog when it comes to Spartan Stadium. But it could leave with a victory, as Bo Pelini will have one his best squads in his seventh season in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers won the last time they visited East Lansing, taking a 28-24 win in 2012. Michigan State beat Nebraska for the first time ever last season when it took a 41-28 triumph in Lincoln, giving the Spartans a 1-7 all-time mark vs. Nebraska.

Must win: If Michigan State wants to repeat as Big Ten champs, it must first win the East division. And that figures to mean beating Ohio State. The game follows a visit from Michigan, but the Spartans will have a bye to prep for the Buckeyes’ big visit. Good thing.

Bye weeks: The first one comes way too early, as MSU is off after playing just two games. But perhaps the time off will help, considering the bye comes on the heels of the visit to Oregon. The Spartans play six more games after their first bye before getting their second, the week after playing host to Michigan on Oct. 25. Perfect timing, as Michigan State welcomes Ohio State for its next game on Nov. 8 as it finishes with four games in a row.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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3 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (3 Comments)
Scott on 5/22/2014 @ 1:31pm EDT Said:

Win the Oregon game, and MSU will be the title playoff. That’s because the Spartans WILL beat Nebraska, Ohio State, and (there’s hardly any need to say it) Michigan.

Jonathan on 5/29/2014 @ 6:45pm EDT Said:

Spartans will be a better rounded team. The offense will be much better. The “D” may slip a notch, but not much. The Oregon game will be big, but I would like to have victories over OSU, Nebraska and scUM . Go Green… Go White!

greg on 7/29/2014 @ 7:54am EDT Said:

MSU handled Nebraska last year in Lincoln, which should have been a two year winning streak if MSU hadn’t been jobbed by the refs in EL in 2012. Phantom PI calls and then calling a penalty for blocking too hard on the Dennard int for a touchdown are just two examples of how Nebraska got help in 2012.

Toughest games will be all of them, MSU has expectations this year, MD called it right, we are the hunted now. Time will tell if we can withstand the pressure.

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