After a rare down season for Michigan State in 2016, Mark Dantonio and his Spartans put the Big Ten on notice last fall with a return to contention. With wins over Michigan and Penn State, the Spartans reminded everyone watching they were not to be dismissed. Ohio State felt otherwise, but the 2017 season was a return to the norm in East Lansing.
So what does 2018 hold in store for Michigan State? The schedule does Michigan State few favors with a bye week in mid-September and some difficult stretches in conference play. If Michigan State is going to make a run at the Big Ten East Division, the Spartans will have to earn it the hard way.
Here is a look at Michigan State's schedule ranking the games from the easiest to the most difficult.
12. Nov. 24 vs. Rutgers
The easiest game on Michigan State's schedule will be the final game of the regular season. By the end of the year, Rutgers could be worn down, especially after a brutal stretch in November with games against Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State before visiting East Lansing.
11. Aug. 31 vs. Utah State
The season opener comes against Utah State in Spartan Stadium. The Spartans may get a little bit of a fight from the Aggies early on but the depth and talent disparity favoring Michigan State will allow Sparty to pull away for a comfortable win.
10. Sept. 29 vs. Central Michigan
Michigan State has won the past three meetings with the Chippewas by a combined score of 116-24. This year's meeting could follow a similar trend on the scoreboard.
9. Sept. 22 at Indiana
The Hoosiers have given Michigan State some struggles the past two years, so a trip to Bloomington is not to be taken for granted. But this game comes after a bye week following a road trip to Arizona State. The time off and time to prepare gives Mark Dantonio and the Spartans the edge.
8. Nov. 3 at Maryland
Maryland pulled the upset of the Spartans the last time Michigan State visited in 2016, and the Terrapins presented a threat to MSU last season in a 17-7 Spartans win. This one could be tricky if Maryland continues to improve and can stay healthy. Michigan State not wanting to show off a whole lot before the next week's game against Ohio State could be a mild factor as well.
7. Sept. 8 at Arizona State
Michigan State heads to Pac-12 land to face Herm Edwards and his Sun Devils. A road trip early in the season to Tucson brings concerns about the heat, but Michigan State is a more well-rounded team compared to Arizona State and should return home with a win.
6. Oct. 27 vs. Purdue
Purdue will have some retooling to do after a surprise season under Jeff Brohm last fall, but Michigan State should be able to add to its current seven-game winning streak in the series.
5. Oct. 6 vs. Northwestern
Northwestern has a two-game winning streak in this series over the past two seasons, and the Wildcats have won three of the last four meetings since 2012. Will Northwestern continue to be a pest?
4. Nov. 17 at Nebraska
A mid-November trip to Lincoln is never easy, even if the Cornhuskers are rebuilding a little bit with a new head coach. But to have to do so a week after hosting Ohio State in what could be a pivotal division clash makes this game even more difficult if you subscribe to the Buckeyes body blow theory (Ohio State opponents are .500 in the following game over the last four years).
3. Oct. 20 vs. Michigan
A week after playing at Penn State, Michigan State returns home to face in-state rival Michigan. If the Wolverines have a pulse on offense this season (and with Shea Patterson eligible, that is the hope in Ann Arbor), then Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines will be tough to send home with a loss. Michigan State has held the upper hand in the series for a while now, but this one will be difficult.
2. Nov. 10 vs. Ohio State
Ohio State embarrassed Michigan State last season, putting the game away early on in a 48-3 blowout. This year's contest in East Lansing should be much closer, but toppling the best team in the Big Ten will still be no easy task for Michigan State. But with a chip on their shoulder, the Spartans will hope to do more than simply play for pride.
1. Oct. 13 at Penn State
Ohio State may be the best team Michigan State will play, but a road trip to Happy Valley a week after the Nittany Lions had a bye week to prepare makes this the most difficult spot for Michigan State to land a victory. The Spartans will be coming off a game against prickly Northwestern and Penn State will play with the revenge factor in mind after last season's meeting in soggy Spartan Stadium. And if Penn State manages to beat Ohio State two weeks prior, the importance of this game will skyrocket in mid-October.
-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.