After months of speculations, cancellations, and negotiations, we finally know that the Big Ten is planning to play football this fall. Whether or not we will ever make it to the start of the schedule, or if the schedule will be completed as currently laid out is yet to be seen. However, we are taking the optimistic approach here and are assuming that the Michigan State Spartans will play (at least) nine games (counting the final divisional cross-over game after the regular season) this year to kick off the Mel Tucker era in East Lansing.
Let’s go through the schedule and give some basic info and breakdown for each game. We will be relying heavily on the SP+ rankings from ESPN here to look at the relative difficulty of the opponents. The truth of it is, given everything that has gone on, we really have no idea how teams will respond, how prepared they will be, or how rosters may be impacted by COVID over the next few months. So for now, we stick to the math.
The Spartans are currently 40th in the SP+ rankings. MSU ranks 20th in defense, and 74th in offense, which makes sense given what we have seen the last few years.
All right let’s get to the schedule…
October 24 vs. Rutgers
The Spartans will open the Mel Tucker era at home against Rutgers, which is really about the closest thing to a warm up game as you can get.
MSU leads the all-time series with eight wins to just three loses, and has won six straight against the Scarlet Knights. The last Rutgers win in the series was before the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten back in 2004.
Greg Schiano is back at the helm for Rutgers, and he was also coaching the team in 2004 when Rutgers last beat the Spartans.
Rutgers checks in at No. 78 in the SP+ rankings right now, 85th on offense and 57th on defense.
You are unlikely to find a more winnable game to start this weird season off with than this, so getting Tucker a win right out of the gate is definitely the hope here.
October 31 at Michigan
Halloween night in Ann Arbor? All right, let’s get weird!
The big rivalry game is right at you here in week two, and honestly, it probably makes for the most likely upset scenario as neither team will have had much time to get into a rhythm.
After controlling the rivalry for the better part of a decade, the Spartans have lost two straight and three out of four to Michigan. Michigan State was not competitive in last year’s game, and the year before was only as close as it was because of the defense.
Both teams will have new quarterbacks this year as well, with Shea Patterson and Brian Lewerke both graduating.
The last MSU coach to win his first game against Michigan was Nick Saban back in 1995.
Michigan checks in at 18th in the SP+ rankings, 32nd on offense and 18th on defense.
November 7 at Iowa
The first cross division game of the season is a trip to Iowa City. The Hawkeyes went 10-3 last year, including a win over USC in their bowl game. Iowa was 6-3 in conference play, with all three losses by one possession again Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin. They also went 6-1 at home, with Penn State the only blemish.
Michigan State has won three straight, and four out of five, in the series against Iowa. The last meeting was a 17-10 win at Spartan Stadium in 2017. MSU has also won the last two games in Iowa, with wins in 2013 and 2011.
The Hawkeyes check in at No. 22 in the SP+ rankings, 43rd on offense and 12th on defense.
That makes back-to-back road games against top-20 defenses for MSU in the early going to test the new offensive staff.
November 14 vs Indiana
MSU comes back home to face the Hoosiers and start a stretch of three games that represents a little bit easier part of the schedule.
Indiana is coming off an eight win season, its first since 1993. A one-point loss in their bowl game to Tennessee prevented the Hoosiers from getting to the elusive nine-win mark, which would have been their first time since 1967.
Despite that, the Spartans still were able to beat them in East Lansing last year in a shootout, 40-31.
MSU has won three straight games, and 10 out of 11, in the Battle for the Old Brass Spittoon. The lone Indiana win in that stretch was an OT loss in 2016 that started MSU’s slide that year.
Indiana looks to be in good shape again this year, checking in at 26th in the SP+ rankings, 25th on offense and 29th on defense. So a pretty balanced team for Tom Allen in Bloomington.
November 21 at Maryland
Back on the road the next week as the Spartans will travel to College Park to take on the Terps.
The Spartans got by Maryland 19-16 last year to get themselves bowl eligible. Meanwhile, the Terrapins finished just 3-9 on the season under first year coach Mike Locksley, and haven’t been to a bowl since 2016.
Michigan State has won five of six meetings between the two schools since Maryland joined the Big Ten. The lone Terps win came in 2016 at Maryland.
Maryland comes in at No. 58 in the SP+ rankings, 64th on offense and 52nd on defense.
Of all the road games this year, this one looks to be the most winnable on paper.
November 28 vs Northwestern
The other cross division game comes over Thanksgiving weekend as the Spartans host the Wildcats. The two teams were scheduled to open the season against each other originally, so it is good to see this game being kept them on the schedule.
It was a rough season for Pat Fitzgerald’s team last year, as Northwestern went just 3-9 one year after appearing in the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time.
MSU was able to win 31-10 at Northwestern, snapping a three-game losing streak to the Wildcats. Despite that win, Northwestern has still won four of the last six between the two schools, including the last three in East Lansing.
Northwestern comes in at No. 44 in the SP+ rankings, 83rd on offense and 10th on defense. So a stout defensive group with a poor offense, that should sound familiar.
December 5 vs Ohio State
Now things get really tough to end the season so hopefully Mel and the boys have things rolling by this point. The Buckeyes come to town for the last home game of the season, and have only one thing on their minds this year, a National Championship.
The Bucks came up short last year losing to Clemson in the national semi-finals after running the table up to that point, and doing so in pretty convincing fashion.
OSU beat the Spartans 34-10 in Columbus last year in a game that felt close for about a half before JK Dobbins did JK Dobbins things. The win for the Buckeyes was the fourth straight in the series. The last MSU win was Michael Geiger’s field goal back in 2015. Each of the last three games has been decided by at least 20 points.
Ohio State checks in atop the overall SP+ rankings this week, while ranking second in offense and fourth on defense.
December 12 at Penn State
The Battle for the Land Grant Trophy returns to its rightful place at the end of the schedule! What used to be a tradition has come back home as the Spartans end the season against the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley.
This is also a really tough road game and God only knows what the conditions will be like in mid-December out there, so this could be a really weird game.
Penn State got some revenge on MSU last year with a 28-7 win in East Lansing, but the Spartans have won five of the last seven games between the schools, including four of the last five at Penn State.
Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions are coming off an 11-win season including a perfect 7-0 record at home.
PSU checks in at sixth in the SP+ rankings, sixth on offense and 14th on defense.
The final divisional cross-over game or Big Ten Championship is expected to take place on Dec. 19.
So there you have it, the 2020 COVID-19 Schedule for Michigan State football. I am sure this is not how we all imagined the first season post-Mark Dantonio, but here we are. On paper it looks pretty tough, but as we said, who knows if that is worth anything at this point.
I for one am interested to see how Coach Tucker handles everything, and also what this team looks like from a scheme perspective. If nothing else, it should be different, and that should be a good thing.
The wins will come, but probably not right away. But hey, it’s football, and something is better than nothing, right?