East Lansing — After completing the biggest turnaround in program history, there will be plenty of high expectations heading into the 2018 season for Michigan State.
A seven-win improvement is one reason for the optimism as well as the fact the Spartans knocked off ranked opponents like Penn State, Michigan and Washington State along the way. But the biggest reason there is belief Michigan State will push to get back to the Big Ten Championship game is the fact it loses just one starter on offense and two on defense.
Its best players are young, including quarterback Brian Lewerke and team MVP and linebacker Joe Bachie. Both will be juniors and could be All-Big Ten performers. They’re surrounded by plenty of talent and with the return of running back LJ Scott, who decided to come back for his senior season, the Spartans feel they have plenty of proven playmakers to win the East for the first time since 2015.
The schedule is favorable this fall as Michigan State avoids Wisconsin from the Big Ten West and gets Ohio State and Michigan at home.
Here’s an early look at who they face and what those teams will be facing once the season gets closer.
Aug. 31 – vs. Utah State: The Aggies had their own bounce-back from a 3-9 season in 2017, but unlike the Spartans, it didn’t translate into double-digit victories. Utah State did, however, get back to a bowl game after missing out in 2016 by reaching the Arizona Bowl, dropping an overtime decision to New Mexico State. Quarterback Jordan Love will be coming off a solid freshman season but the Aggies offense will need to take a big jump to compete in the Mountain West or have a shot at upsetting Michigan State.
Sept. 8 – at Arizona State: It’s hard to gauge the Sun Devils coming off last season, which ended with seven wins and a loss in the Sun Bowl. That’s because coach Todd Graham was shown the door and in came former NFL coach Herm Edwards, an odd hire considering his long stint as a television analyst and lack of any real experience at the college level. That might get the most attention early in the season, but Michigan State will have to be dialed in to get a road win over a team that finished second in the Pac-12 South last season.
Sept. 22 – at Indiana: An early start to the Big Ten season and the Spartans will do so against an Indiana team that has given the Spartans problems in the past, especially in Bloomington, but will be replacing some important pieces. Gone are linebacker Tegray Scales, wide receiver Simmie Cobbs and kicker Griffin Oakes but quarterback Peyton Ramsey is back after a solid 2017 and the offensive line is intact. Whether the Hoosiers can stop anyone is the real question.
Sept. 29 – vs. Central Michigan: The Chippewas won eight games last season, the most they’ve won since 2009 when they had 11 victories. They’ll need to find a new quarterback after former Michigan graduate transfer Shane Morris. He was second in the MAC in passing yards a game (249) and his 27 TD passes also ranked second. Sophomore running back Jonathan Ward is back after rushing for 1,019 yards and 10 touchdowns as CMU will try to win at Spartan Stadium for the fourth time.
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Oct. 6 – vs. Northwestern: The Wildcats have had the Spartans’ number the last few years, winning three of four. There’s no doubt Michigan State will be looking for some revenge after the overtime loss in 2017 and Northwestern ended the season on an eight-game winning streak. However, there are plenty of questions for the Wildcats heading into next season as running back Justin Jackson and safety Godwin Igwebuike are gone and quarterback Clayton Thorson will be coming back from a torn ACL suffered in the Music City Bowl.
Oct. 13 – at Penn State: The Nittany Lions will, no doubt, be thinking of the loss at Michigan State in 2017 that helped derail a season that they hoped would end with a Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. They’ll be looking to make up for that in 2018 but they’ll do so without running back Saquon Barkley, who left early for the NFL. Quarterback Trace McSorley and wide receiver Miles Sanders are back, however, meaning the Penn State offense will still have plenty of firepower.
Oct. 20 – vs. Michigan: The Spartans have continued to dominate this rivalry and there will be no shortage of venom heading into this version with the typical war of words already rolling between the teams. For those that believe the Wolverines are a quarterback away, they might be proven right if Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson is eligible to play after transferring. He’ll have to get it done with an unproven offensive line, but the Wolverines will have the benefit of a defense that doesn’t look to have any drop-off after another outstanding season.
Oct. 27 – vs. Purdue: This one is no longer an automatic win after coach Jeff Brohm got the Boilermakers in a bowl game in his first season and managed to come away with a victory. It’s a long process to get Purdue back to relevancy and Brohm will need to continue to bring in better players, but the attitude is changing and the Boilermakers will enter Spartan Stadium believing they can pull the upset.
Nov. 3 – at Maryland: The Terrapins have done a good job on the recruiting trail, however, the results on the field have been slow to come for second-year coach D.J. Durkin. Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill were lost early in the 2017 season to knee injuries, effectively derailing the season. Expect both to be back and battle for the starting position in 2018 with the expectation that the offense should be much more potent as the Terps look to become a factor in the Big Ten East.
Nov. 10 – vs. Ohio State: There’s rarely a drop-off for the Buckeyes, and though they’ll lose quarterback J.T. Barrett from a team that won the Big Ten, the cupboard is hardly bare as Dwayne Haskins takes over. He had a big game in the win over Michigan and is a dynamic play-maker. The Buckeyes have already had a couple players declare early for the NFL and could lose a few more, but the depth is as good as any team in the country, enough to believe the Buckeyes will compete for the Big Ten once again.
Nov. 17 – at Nebraska: The confidence is high in Lincoln with the hiring of Scott Frost, who just capped a perfect season at Central Florida before taking the job at his alma mater. He’ll have plenty of work to do to get the Cornhuskers back in contention in the West after it was last in total defense in 2017 and next to last in scoring defense while the offense did no better than middle of the pack in most categories.
Nov. 24 – vs. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights are returning a ton of starters after improving to four victories in coach Chris Ash’s second season. However, they were dead last in the Big Ten in total offense in 2017 and 13th in the conference in total defense. Playing in the East doesn’t help as the schedule is brutal, meaning the odds are long the Scarlet Knights will be looking to become bowl eligible if they can pull off an upset in East Lansing in the season finale.