There is no argument that Michigan State faces its share of questions heading into the 2016 season.
Fresh off an appearance in the College Football Playoff, the Spartans have lost their top playmakers with quarterback Connor Cook and wide receiver Aaron Burbridge off to the NFL, as well as All-American offensive linemen Jack Conklin and Jack Allen and defensive end Shilique Calhoun.
It’s a daunting task to fill those holes, but considering the track record of coach Mark Dantonio, few around East Lansing are doubting they will be filled. The same can’t always be said away from campus, where there always seems to be the perception that Michigan State is about to fall into obscurity.
Jim Harbaugh-mania feeds into that, as well as the aura of Urban Meyer at Ohio State, a phenomena that ignores Dantonio’s three wins in five meetings against the Buckeyes coach, as well as seven wins in the last eight meetings with the Wolverines.
It’s hard to tell if that perception will ever change, even if Michigan State wins a national championship. And make no mistake, winning it all is the goal for the Spartans. It might not seem as likely this season, even with a defense that should be stronger on the back end and playmakers in the offensive backfield, but it’s still where Dantonio has elevated the program.
And considering Ohio State and Michigan have the same goals, it should make for a wild year in the Big Ten East. Every game will be crucial, especially late in the season when all three face each other.
Michigan State’s home games against both Michigan and Ohio State will be are huge. ESPN ranked both in the top 10 games with the highest stakes this season. The MSU-UM game was No. 4 while MSU-OSU was next at No. 3.
But for the Spartans, high stakes are everywhere. Assuming the matchups with Michigan and Ohio State carry the most weight, here’s a look at some other biggies.
Sept. 17 at Notre Dame
As Michigan State learned in 2013, an early-season loss at Notre Dame can be overcome as the Spartans rolled to a 13-1 record with wins over Ohio State, and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. If the playoff had been in place that season, the Spartans likely would have made the field.
But what this season’s matchup will do is give an early look at where Michigan State might be headed. Many think Notre Dame has a shot at the playoff, and the Irish have their share of playmakers. If Michigan State manages to end a three-game skid against the Irish and get its first win at Notre Dame Stadium since 2007, it could be the springboard that builds confidence. A loss wouldn’t necessarily cripple it, but it might leave lingering doubt moving forward.
Sept. 24 vs. Wisconsin
It’s an early start to the Big Ten season, and while Wisconsin comes in far from the power it has been in the past, the Badgers will still be far from an easy victory. The real key will be how the Spartans handle coming off a big game – win or lose – against Notre Dame.
They’ve done well with it in the past, not allowing a tough defeat turn into two and not allowing an emotional victory create a loss in focus. Last season, they overcame the Nebraska loss by rolling over Maryland and then beating Ohio State on the road. In 2014, the loss at home to Ohio State was followed by three straight wins to close the season.
Getting the same focus in the conference opener this season will be vital.
Oct. 8 vs. BYU
The early conference start is balanced by the fact Michigan State hosts a non-conference game five weeks into the season. And BYU is no slouch. The Cougars have one of the tougher schedules as an independent, and with quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum capable of putting up big numbers, it will be a challenge for the MSU defense.
Nov. 26 at Penn State
The result the previous week against Ohio State will have a lot of bearing on the stakes the final week of the season in Happy Valley. If Michigan State has come up short in several of its big games, this one will simply be a matter of potential bowl-game positioning.
However, if Michigan State has defended the home field and won its biggest games, this one will likely be to reach the conference title game in Indianapolis. The Spartans clinched a share of the title there in 2010 and it could be the site of another celebration.
MICHIGAN STATE 2016 SCHEDULE
Fri., Sept. 2, Furman, 7 p.m. (BTN)
Sat., Sept. 17, at Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m. (NBC)
Sat., Sept. 24, Wisconsin, time and TV TBA
Sat., Oct. 1, at Indiana, 8 p.m. (BTN)
Sat., Oct. 8, BYU, time and TV TBA
Sat., Oct. 15, Northwestern, 3:30 p.m. (TBA)
Sat., Oct. 22, at Maryland, 7:30 p.m. (BTN)
Sat., Oct. 29, Michigan, time and TV TBA
Sat., Nov. 5, at Illinois, time and TV TBA
Sat., Nov. 12, Rutgers, time and TV TBA
Sat., Nov. 19, Ohio State, time and TV TBA
Sat., Nov. 26, at Penn State, time and TV TBA