Despite the departure of a bevy of NFL talent and their defensive coordinator over the last couple of seasons, the Michigan State Spartans are still widely regarded as the second-best team in the Big Ten.
There is still plenty to be excited about in East Lansing, starting at quarterback. Senior signal-caller Connor Cook is expected to be one of the premier passers in the nation and the face of yet another Big Ten title run.
The Michigan State schedule is a bit top-heavy, which means a couple of things. Most notably, it means there will be little margin for error — not just in those big games — but in games Mark Dantonio's team will be heavily favored in. The Spartans will need to take care of business and do so soundly each week if they want to stay in the College Football Playoff conversation.
Here now are Michigan State's 12 regular season games, ranked according to degree of difficulty from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 26 vs. Central Michigan
This is the first of two in-state matchups with MAC teams. Talent and home-field advantage should be enough to make this a lopsided win for the Spartans. Anything less would be cause for concern.
11. Sept. 4 at Western Michigan
It's rare for a high-profile team like the Spartans to open on the road against a "Group of Five" school, but that's exactly what's happening here. If this were anything but the first game of the season, I might be nervous. As it is, a more talented Spartan team has been prepping for this game all summer and likely won't be challenged in this one.
10. Oct. 24 vs. Indiana
Unlike last season, Indiana's strength on offense is more than likely going to be the passing game. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, that's been the strength of Michigan State's defense recently. Additionally, the Hoosiers don't have enough on defense to contain Connor Cook and Co.
9. Oct. 3 vs. Purdue
The Boilermakers get the nod over Indiana on the strength of what they return on offense. Purdue is likely to challenge Michigan State's defense with a more balanced attack. Be that as it may, this should still just be a tune-up for the Spartans as they prepare for the meat of the Big Ten schedule.
8. Nov. 14 vs. Maryland
This has trap game written all over it. The home contest with Maryland is sandwiched between road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. It'll be a tough one for the Spartans to get hyped for, but their talent should be enough to get them through it.
7. Sept. 19 vs. Air Force
Preparing for Air Force is always difficult due to the Falcons' unique offensive attack. Making this even more difficult for the Spartans this season will be the fact that they will be coming off of a matchup with Oregon that will likely be an exhausting one — both mentally and physically. This game has a chance of being Michigan State's first surprise stumble of the season.
6. Nov. 28 vs. Penn State
There are two likely scenarios heading into this game: Michigan State is either coming off of a loss to Ohio State and could be vulnerable, or the Spartans just knocked off the Buckeyes and will have one more hurdle to clear in order to make it to Indy for the Big Ten title game. Either way, the Spartans will need to be focused to face Christian Hackenberg and a talented Penn State squad.
5. Oct. 10 at Rutgers
This is another trap game scenario. After three straight weeks of going through the motions against inferior teams, the Spartans must avoid looking past Rutgers before their trip to Ann Arbor. The Rutgers faithful will be pumped to welcome another Big Ten giant to their unfriendly confines - likely with either a white, red or black-out serving as the backdrop. Focus, again, will be key for Michigan State.
4. Oct. 17 at Michigan
Records won't matter in this one. Michigan fans will pack the Big House for Jim Harbaugh's first matchup against the in-state rival/little brother, hoping to once again claim dominance. It will be loud, emotional and grueling, regardless of the talent level on either side.
3. Nov. 7 at Nebraska
The Spartans were lucky to come out of their last two matchups against Nebraska with wins. Questionable calls/antics by former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini helped Michigan State in those games. They likely won't be so lucky this season, as Mike Riley brings a more focused and disciplined approach to the Nebraska program. The Huskers return the core of a team that won nine games and nearly knocked off USC in the postseason. The trip to Lincoln won't be an easy one for the Spartans in 2015.
2. Sept. 12 vs. Oregon
Marcus Mariota is gone, but plenty of talent remains on the Oregon roster. The Ducks are still a team loaded with speed on both sides of the ball. Michigan State will need to counter Oregon blow for blow and hope to wear the Ducks down with a power-running game late.
1. Nov. 21 at Ohio State
This is the No. 1 game on the Buckeyes' schedule as well. It's a season-defining contest for both teams, and they'll each try to dictate the tempo with different strengths. The Buckeyes will likely be favored, but Cook's leadership and the resiliency shown against Baylor in the bowl game last season are both reasons to believe the Spartans can win this one.