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2011 schedule analysis: Michigan State

My team-by-team breakdown of each Big Ten schedule continues with the Michigan State Spartans.

Nonconference opponents (with 2010 records)

Sept. 2: Youngstown State (3-8)

Sept. 10: Florida Atlantic (4-8)

Sept. 17: at Notre Dame (8-5)

Sept. 24: Central Michigan (3-9)

Legends division games

Oct. 15: Michigan

Oct. 29: at Nebraska

Nov. 5: Minnesota

Nov. 12: at Iowa

Nov. 26: at Northwestern

Crossover games

Oct. 1: at Ohio State

Oct. 22: Wisconsin

Nov. 19: Indiana (protected)

No plays

Penn State

Purdue

Illinois

Gut-check game: At Ohio State. We'll find out early on if Michigan State is a team that once again can contend for a Big Ten championship. The Spartans open conference play in Columbus, where they take on an Ohio State team playing its final game without quarterback Terrelle Pryor, four other suspended players and (presumably) coach Jim Tressel. Ohio State is the only Big Ten team (besides newcomer Nebraska) that Michigan State hasn't beaten in coach Mark Dantonio's tenure. The Spartans have dropped seven consecutive games to the Buckeyes.

Trap game: Minnesota. Although it's a division game, the Minnesota contest falls after Michigan State plays archrival Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska and before the Spartans visit Iowa City, where they were thrashed 37-6 last season. Minnesota is going through a coaching change and visits East Lansing for the second consecutive year after falling to Michigan State 31-8 last November.

Snoozer: Florida Atlantic. Michigan State's nonconference schedule offers several possibilities, but Youngstown State is the opener (on a Friday night, no less) and Central Michigan marks the return of former Spartans assistant and former Spartans quarterback Dan Enos to East Lansing. The Owls are coming off of back-to-back losing seasons.

Non-con challenge: Michigan State has won four of its past six meetings against rival Notre Dame, but the Spartans could head to South Bend as the underdogs this year. Notre Dame returns 16 starters and could make a jump in Brian Kelly's second season as coach. The Irish haven't forgotten "Little Giants," and Kelly could have a few tricks up his sleeve for Michigan State.

Key stretch: Like many Big Ten teams, Michigan State gets few breaks during the month of October. The Spartans begin with the league opener at Ohio State. After an open week, they host rival Michigan and try to record their first four-game win streak against the Wolverines since 1959-62. Michigan State then hosts a Wisconsin team looking to avenge last year's loss in East Lansing and wraps up the month at Nebraska in a game that could decide the Legends division title.

Analysis: One of the few knocks against Dantonio during his Spartans tenure is the absence of a signature road victory. He and his players will have plenty of chances to record one this season. No Big Ten team faces a rougher road than the Spartans, who play five away games against teams that had a combined record of 37-16 in 2010. It further magnifies the importance of the Ohio State game because the Spartans can gain some confidence with a big win in Columbus. Michigan State should be favored in most if not all of its home games -- the Wisconsin contest could be a pick 'em -- and it'll be imperative for the Spartans to take care of business at home.

More B1G schedule analysis