Ranking Michigan State Football's 2011 Opponents by Likelihood of Victory

GAME WEEK GAME WEEK GAME WEEK GAME WEEK GAME WEEK GAME WEEK.  Michigan State begins the 2011 Football season against Youngstown State on Friday.  As we embark together on a campaign that will have indeterminate parts or euphoria and disappointment (hopefully much more of the former than the latter), we'll hope to attempt to answer the big questions facing the Spartans this year.  To begin, I've ranked MSU's opponents in difficulty from easiest to hardest. 

#1 -- YOUNGSTOWN STATE, September 2nd. 3-8 (1-7) in 2010, lost to only BCS opponent (Penn State) 44-14

The neuroses that come with playing a 1-AA opponent are mitigated by these two factors:  the Penguins were a middling opponent in the FCS last season, and Michigan State has this game on a Friday night to open the season.  A lack of energy will not be a problem here, and if MSU loses this game, extreme panic is advised.

#2 -- FLORIDA ATLANTIC, September 10th.  4-8 (3-5) in 2010, wins over UAB, Florida International, Louisiana, and Western Kentucky

Last year Michigan State dispensed of the Owls 30-17 in Ford Field, and don't expect the score to be much closer this time.  Florida Atlantic needs to replace a quarterback along with their three leading receivers and two top tacklers.  The one aspect of their game to look out for is their rushing attack; they return their three top runners and their entire offensive line.  If Michigan State can stop FAU's rushing attack, the rest of the game should be smooth sailing.

#3 -- INDIANA, November 19th.  5-7 (1-7) in 2010, conference win over Purdue

Indiana before Central Michigan?  Yes.  Dusty Kiel will be a big downgrade at quarterback from Ben Chappell,and although the Hoosiers will eventually be better off under Kevin Wilson then they were under Bill Lynch.  The offense will take time to learn.  The defense can't be much worse even with five starters to replace, but that doesn't mean that unit won't be a liability.  This game is MSU's Senior Night, and I fully expect the Spartans to retain the Old Brass Spitoon.

#4 -- CENTRAL MICHIGAN, September 24th.  3-9 (2-6) in 2010, wins over Hampton, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan

Call it PTSD from two years previous, but Central Michigan does have a few ingredients that should cause a bit of pause.  There's eight returning starters on offense, including the top receiver (Cody Wilson, 83 receptions for 1,137 yards for five touchdowns), running back (Paris Colton, 4.6 yards per carry) and quarterback (Ryan Radcliff, 60.5% completion percentage, 3,358 yards, 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions).  Former Spartan coach Dan Enos is the head coach, and his familiarity with MSU won't be a liability.  Michigan State should win this game, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Chippewas hang in this game.

#5 -- MINNESOTA, November 5th.  3-9 (2-6) in 2010, wins against Middle Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa

Your opinions may vary depending on how integral you think Adam Weber was to Minnesota last season.  Four players on the offensive line have eight or more starts, the two top running backs and receivers return, and eight starters come back from a defensive unit that was about as good as Northwestern was last season -- not good, but still better than Michigan or Indiana.  The one thing I think most of us can be sure of is that Jerry Kill is an upgrade at head coach from Tim Brewster.  If Marquise Gray can be an effective quarterback (and to be fair, that's a good sized "if" at this point) the Golden Gophers can be the surprise team of the Big Ten this season.

#6 -- AT NORTHWESTERN, November 26th.  7-6 (3-5) in 2010, wins against Minnesota, Indiana, and Iowa.

There's a huge jump of difficulty from Minnesota to Northwestern, but I have my concerns about the Wildcats.  Such as the question, "What is eight points?"  The answer, "The combined victory margin in Northwestern's three Big Ten wins last season."  I can't figure out why the Wildcats are being forecasted by some to win the Big Ten, because even with Persa this team struggled to beat cellar-dwellers Indiana and Minnesota.  If Persa is at 100%, which he should be by the last game of the season barring injury, Michigan State could struggle to beat the Wildcats once again.

#7 -- MICHIGAN, October 15th.  7-6 (3-5) in 2010, wins against Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois.

It's close between Northwestern and Michigan for what will be the harder game, but give the edge to Michigan since it's a rivalry game.  Many Michigan fans are saying the defense will be better because it has to be, and they're probably right.  The Wolverines return four of the five top tacklers in the defense plus Troy Woolfolk, a senior cornerback who will give much needed stability to the back four.   Who knows what kind of offense Brady Hoke and company will be running with Denard Robinson, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt in that they won't try and force a system on the offense a la Rich Rodriguez.  I think any player improvement will be offset by trying to learn a new offense and defense (again) and home-field advantage.

#8 -- at OHIO STATE, October 1st.  12-1 (7-1) in 2010, loss to Wisconsin, wins against Iowa, Miami, and Arkansas

Another notch of difficulty up from Northwestern and Michigan,  the Ohio State game would have been a good deal more difficult if this was the sixth game of the season rather than the fifth.  Luckily for us, Michigan State misses out on top returning running back Dan Herron, top returning receiver DeVier Posey, and all-Big Ten offensive tackle Mike Adams.  I know Ohio State is a difficult place to play, but my logic is overriding my emotions with this game.  Against what will be in part a second-string Buckeye offense, Michigan State will have a much easier go at the Buckeyes than the rest of the Big Ten.

#9 -- WISCONSIN, October 22nd.  11-2 (7-1) in 2010, losses to Michigan State and TCU, wins against Ohio State, Iowa, and Arizona State.

All of the lights? ALL OF THE LIGHTS.  While Wisconsin would be a tougher game on a neutral field than a couple teams further down this list, this game will be a night game at Spartan Stadium, and should provide a decent advantage to the Spartans.  Another reason the Badgers aren't further down this list is that I'm not sold on Russell Wilson being the right quarterback for the Badgers.  I know he was a great playmaker at N.C. State, but he doesn't need to do that in Madison.  He needs to be accurate, and given his career completion percentage (57.8%), I think he might actually be a downgrade from Scott Tolzien.  This could be the toughest game of the Spartans' schedule if it was in Madison, but since it'll be played under the lights in Spartan Stadium, it's here.

#10 -- at NOTRE DAME, September 17th.  8-5 in 2010, wins against Boston College, Pittsburgh, USC, Miami.

The Fighting Irish staggered for the first nine games of the 2010 season, then found their footing and beat Utah, Army, USC and Miami.  Notre Dame returns more starters (19, including special teams) than any other team Michigan State will face this season.  Dayne Crist has once again emerged as the starter, and Michael Floyd will be back after avoiding suspension.  I'd say something, but, uh...glass houses.  There's no reason to expect this Fighting Irish squad will lose any momentum from their strong finish last season; the top six tacklers return, as well as the top three receivers.  The only reason the Irish are tenth on this instead of eleventh is that I'm much more confident of MSU's ability to play in South Bend than...

#11 -- at IOWA, November 12th.  8-5 (4-4) in 2010, wins against Michigan State, Penn State, and Missouri.

On paper, this game should be much less threatening.  However, two thoughts dominant in my mind have put the mid-November tilt with the Hawkeyes here.  Worry the first -- that MSU does not traditionally play well in Kinnick Stadium (last win, 1989!  Yeah!).  Worry the second -- that, like Michigan State, Iowa is a team that does best when only a smidgen of expectations are placed upon their old gold and black shoulders.  They've got a good running back, a decent quarterback, and while their offense probably won't put the 30 points plus a "holy crap how did Iowa score on that interception/lateral", I'm still doubtful about MSU's ability to pull out a victory in Iowa City.

#12 -- at NEBRASKA, October 29th.  10-4 (6-3) in 2010, wins against Washington, Oklahoma State, and Missouri.

I may have this game ranked too high.  While Taylor Martinez was electric when he was healthy, he wasn't the most efficient passer.  Top running back Roy Helu is gone.  The secondary will be weakened with Prince Amukamura and Dejon Gomes' departures.  Everything else that's terrifying, including the Nebraska fan base?  Still there.  I know it's irrational, but a lot of the reason I think Nebraska will be the toughest opponent MSU will face this season is because I have nothing to gauge it against -- there is little to no information, and I don't care how many time you turn on the light in the closet, I am sure this is going to do unspeakable things to me while I'm asleep.

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