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Spartans begin defining road stretch

It's only fitting that Michigan State's first road game takes place in the state of Indiana.

Like every Big Ten team, Michigan State wants to reach Indianapolis on Dec. 3 for the inaugural conference championship game. And after claiming a share of the Big Ten title for the first time in 20 years last season, the Spartans possess the pieces to get to Naptown. They have veteran leadership in fifth-year senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, excellent depth at the offensive skill positions and a defense that flexed its muscles Saturday by holding Florida Atlantic to one first down, 48 total yards and zero points.

But the Spartans' route to Lucas Oil Stadium is a potentially treacherous one, beginning this week at Notre Dame Stadium and weaving through Columbus, Lincoln, Iowa City and Evanston. Their road opponents -- Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern -- all went to bowl games in 2010 and had a combined record of 45-21.

Among major-conference teams, Michigan State might have the most taxing road schedule in the country.

And while Spartans fans might disagree, that's the beauty of this year's schedule. We'll know exactly where the Michigan State program stands when December rolls around. Tough road games are the best barometer of whether a program can go from good to great.

"A lot of away games in challenging environments," Cousins told ESPN.com in August. "So we're going to find out what we're really made of."

Michigan State won a team-record 11 games last season, including three -- Notre Dame, Northwestern and Purdue -- in dramatic fashion. But the Spartans' two losses, both away from home and by a combined score of 86-13, prevented them from claiming a spot among the nation's elite.

Mark Dantonio has guided Michigan State to postseason appearances in each of his first four seasons as coach. He has provided stability to a chronic underachiever and has elevated the program's profile in several areas.

But there are two items that remain on Dantonio's checklist: bowl victories and signature road wins.

Michigan State is 10-9 in true road games under Dantonio, a very respectable mark. Dantonio has guided the Spartans to historic road wins like last year's triumph at Penn State, Michigan State's first since 1965 -- the year before Joe Paterno took over as Nittany Lions coach.

But Dantonio is just 1-6 at Michigan State against ranked teams in road or neutral-site games. The Spartans likely will face at least two ranked opponents on the road -- Ohio State and Nebraska -- while Iowa and Northwestern could be ranked by the time Michigan State comes to town.

Saturday's road opener at Notre Dame has no direct bearing on whether Michigan State reaches its desired destination of Indianapolis. But the game provides an opportunity for the Spartans to build their mettle away from the comforts of home.

They'll be facing a Notre Dame team desperate for a win after confounding losses to both South Florida and Michigan. The Irish average 510.5 yards of offense per game and, at times, have displayed improvement on the defensive side.

A loss drops Notre Dame to 0-3, ruins any expectations of a breakthrough season and potentially makes Brian Kelly's head explode.

Dantonio has won in South Bend before -- Michigan State crushed a horrendous Irish team 31-14 in 2007 -- but only one of his current players, fifth-year senior nose tackle Antonio Jeremiah, was on the field that day. Two years ago, the Spartans fell 33-30 at Notre Dame Stadium as Cousins overthrew a wide-open Larry Caper in the end zone for the potential game-winning touchdown and then tossed a loss-sealing interception moments later.

Saturday marks a chance for redemption. It also marks a chance to set the tone for tougher road tests ahead.

The Spartans hope their first trip to the Hoosier State won't be their last in 2011.