Michigan State has won at least 11 games in five of the past six seasons, so the departure of a few key players — quarterback Connor Cook, receiver Aaron Burbridge and D-lineman Shilique Calhoun — shouldn’t cause too much commotion for coach Mark Dantonio.
However, the upcoming 2016 schedule could, in theory, rattle the cage a little bit — especially if the defending Big Ten champions don’t find a way to quickly tighten up the ship.
More on September in a bit, but let’s start with October, which contains five games, all of which could test Dantonio’s team. The could-be-tricky month begins with a trip to Indiana on Oct. 1. Then the Spartans host BYU (Oct. 8); welcome Northwestern (Oct. 15); visit Maryland (Oct. 22); and close the month at home versus Michigan (Oct. 29).
The upside? Home-field advantage for the bouts with BYU, Northwestern and Michigan — three teams that proved themselves during the course of the 2015 season. BYU won at Nebraska and knocked off Boise State last season. Northwestern and Michigan won 10 games.
Maryland has re-energized its program with the hiring of D.J. Durkin, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan and Florida. College Park could be a tough environment. The same goes for Indiana, which, despite a few slips, has measurably improved the past few seasons.
Right now, October doesn’t matter for Michigan State. Well, it does, but not as much as its home opener Sept. 2 — a Friday-nighter — versus Furman. In all likelihood, that’s the only thing on Dantonio’s mind.
Then come two September tests — at Notre Dame and then in East Lansing versus Wisconsin.
Michigan State will know a lot more about itself when September is over. The question on everyone’s mind in East Lansing: Will that knowledge be accompanied by at least one high-end victory in that two-game stretch against the Irish and the Badgers?
Michigan State will be forced to grow up quickly. Beyond Furman, there isn’t another game which will ease MSU into its 2016 schedule. This isn’t a September filled with three MAC cupcakes.
Tyler O’Connor, a fifth-year senior, should win the starting quarterback job and do enough to run the Spartans’ offense. Running the ball — meaningful carries and drives reminiscent of those versus Iowa in the Big Ten title game — will acquire supreme importance in the Notre Dame-Wisconsin double. Michigan State has always had options in the backfield, so there’s no need for panic in that regard. L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London should continue to bash their way for yards and touchdowns.
The season-opener against Furman on Sept. 2 shouldn’t be too difficult, but good Spartan teams have struggled with the likes of Central Michigan, which won with a last-second field goal in 2009, and Eastern Michigan, which put up a fight in 2012. Western Michigan did the same one year ago.
Those early non-con games… there’s just something about them, it seems.
Yes, those games were played in years past and have no bearing on today, but the previous hurdles do create conversation. Will Furman be a letdown victory? Something underwhelming?
Don’t be surprised to see such a thing, but then again, don’t be shocked to see Michigan State steamroll the Paladins — it’ll be one of “those” games either way.
The important part of the Furman game — which is followed by a bye week — is to enable players to understand their roles and form a level of cohesion which can adequately prepare the team for South Bend and then the Badgers.
Notre Dame and then Wisconsin — does a split sound fair heading into October? At that point, Michigan State could tote a 2-1 record into Bloomington.
As mentioned above, October looks a bit dangerous and certainly capable of delivering another loss to Dantonio’s team. An argument could be made for each of the opponents: Indiana, BYU, Northwestern, Maryland and Michigan — Michigan for certain.
On paper, 6-2 or 5-3 following October doesn’t seem crazy — not given the circumstances. Even if they click from the get-go, the Spartans’ road to a Big Ten title won’t be easy. They have the 18th-toughest schedule, per Phil Steele’s win-loss method (via FBSSchedules.com).
Four games in November could end in a 2-2 split, with wins over Rutgers and Illinois and losses to Ohio State and Penn State (on the road). A run of 8-4? Maybe 9-3?
Third place in the East Division could be a reality for the Spartans, who are — at least on paper — clearly behind the Buckeyes and Wolverines, a pair of national-title picks. Some teams prove themselves later in the year, but Michigan State will have to reach a peak during September and October if it hopes to compete for a Big Ten championship.