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A season under scrutiny: Predicting each game on Michigan State’s 2021 football schedule

Michigan State v Michigan Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Thanks to the opening kickoff of Nebraska versus Illinois this past Saturday, the 2021 Big Ten football season has officially arrived. This season remains a question mark for Michigan State fans due to the massive roster turnover during the 2021 offseason, and many fans understandably have no idea what to expect from this team. This article will shine some light on what to expect from game to game and give predictions for each game on the schedule, as well as give some insight into the Spartans’ opponents each week.

Sept. 3 at Northwestern

Going on the road to face off against the reigning Big Ten West Division champions in the season opener is a tough way to start the new season. Ordinarily, after a major roster turnover like the one the Spartans underwent this past offseason, many would look at this game as a potential bloodbath. This is no ordinary situation, however, as the Wildcats are replacing a significant portion of the talent that was on their championship level roster last year, including the quarterback position after transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey declared for the 2021 NFL Draft following last season. The Wildcats look to replace Ramsey with senior Hunter Johnson, a transfer quarterback from Clemson who has featured in eight games over his two seasons at the school. Things always get more interesting when a new quarterback is chosen to lead a team, but a home environment against a defense full of players new to the current system is a good place to start. The Spartans keep it close but drop the first game of the season.

Prediction: Loss, 24-31

Sept. 11 vs Youngstown State

MSU gets its first win of the season here in the 2021 home opener coming off the tough loss to Northwestern. With Youngstown State coming off a season in which it went 1-6 in FCS play, the Spartans should handle the Penguins and put up some points in the process. Expect big games from wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor as the offense gets a chance to show off what it can do.

Prediction: Win, 38-17

Sept. 18 at Miami (FL)

Going into Hard Rock Stadium to play the Hurricanes is a tough test for any team in the country, and it will be a very difficult game for the Spartans to win. The defense is going to need to play at an elite level to pull out a win in this one, as the Hurricanes bring back redshirt fifth-year senior quarterback D’Eriq King and a wide receiver room led by transfer receiver Charleston Rambo from Oklahoma. Transfers have brought a good amount of talent to this Michigan State defense, including transfer cornerbacks Ronald Williams Jr. and Chester Kimbrough from Alabama and Florida, respectively, but King’s dual threat abilities will prove to be too much for them to handle as the Hurricanes hand the Spartans their second loss of the season.

Prediction: Loss, 28-38

Sept. 25 vs Nebraska

Nebraska offers the Spartans a chance to rebound from their loss in Miami and get back to .500 on the year. The Cornhuskers looked rough in their opener against Illinois, receiving numerous costly penalties and being on the wrong end of a fumble return touchdown as well as a safety. Nebraska’s offensive line looked suspect as well, with returning fourth-year quarterback Adrian Martinez often being forced to scramble out of the pocket to avoid pressure from the Illini defensive line. If the newly revamped Spartan defense can create some pressure up front, Michigan State should have little trouble keeping the Huskers out of the end zone.

Prediction: Win, 27-13

Oct. 2 vs Western Kentucky

The homecoming game against Western Kentucky is what some would view as a potential trap game. Coming off a conference win, the Spartans could easily turn their attention to the impending two-week road trip to visit Rutgers and Indiana, completely looking past the game against the Hilltoppers. The Hilltoppers struggled last season, finishing 5-7, but offer a very different looking offense following the arrival of offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, as well as quarterback Bailey Zappe and wide receivers Jerreth Sterns and Josh Sterns, all from Houston Baptist. Zappe, a graduate transfer, put up massive numbers in the shortened 2020 season at HBU, throwing for 1,833 yards and 15 touchdowns in just four games. His familiarity with Kittley’s offensive scheme paired with the presence of his favorite target from HBU (Jerreth Sterns) shows the potential for a very explosive passing attack. The Spartans escape this one, but not without some fireworks.

Prediction: Win, 41-36

Oct. 9 at Rutgers

Michigan State will head into Piscataway, New Jersey highly motivated to avenge the team’s 2020 season opening loss to the Scarlet Knights, a loss that included what is somehow not a school record seven turnovers. The Spartans will have to be on their game to walk away from this one with a win, however, as Rutgers is in the midst of a renaissance following the return of head coach Greg Schiano prior to the 2020 season, and will not go down quietly, as the Scarlet Knights return much of their talent from last season. Transfer running back Kenneth Walker III from Wake Forest will be the driving force for Michigan State in a physical, low scoring affair, with the Spartans outlasting the Scarlet Knights and walking away with a hard-earned win.

Prediction: Win, 21-17

Oct. 16 at Indiana

Not too long ago, the idea of a matchup with Indiana in Big Ten play being thought of as scary was almost laughable. That speaks to the job Tom Allen has done since being made head coach of the Hoosiers at the end of the 2016 season. The Hoosiers are now nationally recognized as a highly competitive team following a second-place finish in the Big Ten East and a respectable loss in the Outback Bowl last season. Indiana brings back quarterback Michael Penix Jr. who, if he can stay healthy, is a legitimate threat for first-team All-Big Ten honors. The Hoosiers also get several returning starters on the defensive side of the ball, including leading tackler from 2020 and first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Micah McFadden. The Spartans have their work cut out for them in this one, and coming on the second week of a road trip following a physical game against Rutgers, staying within two scores would likely be an acceptable outcome.

Prediction: Loss, 31-17

Oct. 23: BYE

A much needed respite after a tough road trip. The Spartans can take some time to catch their breath and get ready for the second half of the season. Plus, it’s always a good thing for a bye week to fall right before rivalry week. An extra week to freshen up after a road trip, and an extra week to build up the tension and ramp up the fan base toxicity. Bring it on.

Oct. 30 vs Michigan

Rivalry week is always more than enough to get fans riled up, but when the Michigan-Michigan State game happens to fall on the night before Halloween, pandemonium can be assumed, both on and off the field. The Spartans managed to knock off the rival Wolverines in Ann Arbor last season, but make no mistake, this game is by no means one Spartan fans should feel overly confident about. With Jim Harbaugh entering his seventh season at the helm of the Wolverines having posted some questionable (some would argue mediocre) results during his tenure, he will be highly motivated to assert the dominance Michigan teams have often felt against their in-state rival. If last year’s game provides any indication of what the Spartans need to do to keep Paul Bunyan in East Lansing, the deep ball will need to be heavily involved. Look for Jalen Nailor to shine in this one as the Spartans fend off the Wolverines.

Prediction: Win, 31-24

Nov. 6 at Purdue

A potential let-down game candidate, Michigan State should by no means find themselves looking ahead of the Boilermakers. If that sounds a little paranoid, just ask 2018 Ohio State. A trip to West Lafayette can’t be taken lightly even with Purdue coming off a 2-4 season and the loss of star receiver Rondale Moore to the NFL. This one will be closer than it should be, but Jayden Reed will have a double-digit reception day to lead the Spartans to victory.

Prediction: Win, 27-21

Nov. 13 vs Maryland

The Terrapins have the recipe for a sneaky good offense full of returning upperclassmen, including 2020 leading receiver Dontay Demus Jr. Pairing that with returning starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa offers an opportunity at a high-scoring offense. Unfortunately for the Terps, however, the Spartan defense provides a masterclass in this one, picking off Tagovailoa three times and sealing a substantial victory for the Spartans.

Prediction: Win, 35-9

Nov. 20 at Ohio State

Despite rivalry week being scheduled the day before Halloween, most Spartan fans will agree that this is the scariest game of the year. A trip to the Horseshoe is always a frightening thing, but it’s made that much scarier when you look at this Buckeye roster. The Buckeyes bring back arguably the nation’s best receiver duo in senior Chris Olave and Junior Garrett Wilson, as well as 2020 first-team All-Big Ten running back Master Teague III. The one major problem Ohio State faces on the offensive side of the ball is the replacement of Justin Fields, who left for the NFL. C.J. Stroud looks to be the replacement and if Ohio State’s recent track record of quarterback success is an indicator, he’ll be a Heisman candidate by the end of October. The defensive side of the ball is where it gets interesting as the Buckeyes look to replace numerous starters, including all three linebacker positions, but the Buckeyes are rarely hurting for talent at any position. The Spartans show some life on offense but suffer their worst loss of the season.

Prediction: Loss, 48-28

Nov. 27 vs Penn State

One of the few good things to come out of the 2020 season for Michigan State fans was the resumption of the battle for the Land Grant Trophy in the final game of the season. Penn State is coming off a very up and down season in 2020, going 4-5. Describing the season as down and up would be more accurate, however, as the Nittany Lions lost their first five games of the season before rattling off four straight wins to close it out. As evidenced by the second half of the season, this Penn State team should not be taken lightly, as it brings back redshirt senior quarterback Sean Clifford to lead the offense, as well as top two receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington. The Nittany Lions defense has suffered several losses, as the unit looks to replace almost the entire defensive line this season, including first-team All-Big Ten defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney. The Michigan State offense delivers, but the Spartans lose an exciting season finale on a last-second field goal.

Prediction: Loss, 27-24

Overall Record Prediction: 7-5 with a bowl berth