Every team in the Big Ten faces a crucial stretch in 2016. It may make the difference in a program’s bid to escape the division basement, to reach bowl eligibility or contend for the College Football Playoff. But for all 14 teams, a make-or-break period exists.
So to help you map your fall, this week, we’re identifying and analyzing those pivotal points around the conference.
Up next is Michigan State.
Toughest stretch: Weeks 3 through 7 (at Notre Dame, Wisconsin, at Indiana, BYU, Northwestern)
Why: Odd, isn’t it, that the Spartans’ most difficult run does not include East Division powers Michigan or Ohio State, who visit Spartan Stadium in weeks 9 and 12, respectively?
Instead, we picked a stretch of games that includes two nonconference foes and two West Division crossovers. Let’s be real, though, the feature matchup of this early-season run is Notre Dame.
MSU faced the Fighting Irish every season from 1997 to 2013. After a two-year break, they’re back together for a home-and-home set, starting Sept. 17 in South Bend. Notre Dame has won its past three games against the Spartans and three straight in the series at home.
While DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire continue to wage a QB battle for the Irish, Tyler O’Connor is all but set at Connor Cook’s replacement at Michigan State. But O’Connor’s first 2016 trip away from home, after the opener against Furman, represents a major test.
And the Spartans don’t get a breather, with Wisconsin headed to East Lansing in Week 4. The Badgers figure to look improved on offense with a healthy Corey Clement to run the football -- and their linebackers are likely the best in the Big Ten.
An Oct. 1 night game at Indiana looks like the easiest game in this stretch, and even it doesn’t look all that easy.
BYU won at Nebraska last year and face a formidable lineup of games this season, so the trip to Spartan Stadium against a 2015 playoff team won’t worry the Cougars.
Northwestern closes the five-game stretch on Oct. 15. MSU ought to have an edge in talent, but the Wildcats feature linebacker Anthony Walker, who’s as good as any player in this game, and they win whenever the opportunity exists. If Michigan State maintains a full tank of gas by this point, just wait -- the Wolverines come calling two weeks later.