As the Big Ten enters its first nine-game conference schedule, the Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener.
ANALYSIS: The Spartans have looked like one of the best teams in the nation for a little more than two of the eight quarters they have played so far. While they were ripping off 36 straight points against Notre Dame, they looked like a playoff contender. QB Tyler O’Connor has completed 72 percent of his passes. Freshman WR Donnie Corley has given the Spartans an extra option in the passing game, but there might not be a true No. 1 wideout in the bunch. The defense is yielding less than 2.5 yards per rush and allowing opponents to complete only about half of their passes.
KEY GAME: vs. Michigan, Oct. 29, Spartan Stadium
There’s an argument for Saturday against Wisconsin, but for the Spartans to win the East again they will need to beat either Michigan or Ohio State or likely both. The Wolverines will want revenge after a stunning last-second defeat last season, and Spartans coach Mark Dantonio will hopefully find new ways to make his players think Jim Harbaugh’s crew looks at them like a pair of wool socks on Christmas.
KEY PLAYER: L.J. Scott, RB
The Spartans had three running backs finish with between 500 and 699 yards last season, but Scott is expected to become a star in 2016. He’s collected 42 of the 60 carries rationed out to him, Gerald Holmes and Madre London. His numbers are a little ho-hum to this point, especially 105 yards against an FCS team, but Michigan State needs him to be great if this offense is going to be better than average.
FIRST MATCHUP: vs. No. 11 Wisconsin (3-0), noon ET, Saturday, Spartan Stadium, Big Ten Network
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Dantonio continues to beat his two biggest rivals, and that leads to another Big Ten championship. With wins against Ohio State and Michigan, the Spartans avoid top-seeded Alabama in the semifinals of the playoffs.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: None of the three running backs distinguishes himself in Big Ten play, O’Connor can’t produce at the levels of Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook, so the offense stagnates against the top teams on the schedule, and even some lesser teams hang around. Even if everything goes wrong on offense, this defense is still probably carrying the club to eight wins.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: Michigan State splits with the big two, but the offense has one wretched Saturday against someone else and the Spartans end up 10-2 and in a New Year’s Six Bowl.