Eight months after Mel Tucker was introduced as Michigan State’s head coach, a new era of Spartans football will finally launch.
The journey to the opener against Rutgers on Oct. 24 will have been unlike any other, as the fallout from a global pandemic paralyzed the program during the spring and summer.
“It's been very different,” Tucker said Thursday. “Different than anything that I've ever experienced, but you know, what we've what learned during this process of COVID is that you really have to take it one day at a time. And we always knew that we wanted to play.”
The Spartans will have eight opportunities to compete as they try to navigate a schedule that includes early road tests against Michigan and Iowa as well as a final stretch with two of the Big Ten’s best – Penn State and Ohio State.
For Michigan State, the challenging odyssey of 2020 won't get easier as the year comes to a close.
But then again, Michigan State athletic Bill Beekman said, “We never thought we'd be quite where we are today.”
Oct. 24: vs. Rutgers
The Spartans were given a reprieve in the opener. The Scarlet Knights are introducing a new coaching staff. Greg Schiano takes over for Chris Ash, who sent the Rutgers program into a ditch. The Scarlet Knights have lost 21 consecutive Big Ten games and finished second-to-last in the FBS in scoring offense in 2019. Schiano and Tucker have been duking it out on the recruiting trail for Jersey kids, so this game between two transitioning programs might have some significance.
Oct. 31: at Michigan
As if 2020 wasn’t weird enough, Michigan State will have to travel to Ann Arbor to face its in-state rival for the second consecutive season.
If Tucker can find his inner Dantonio and conjure an upset, he could alter the complexion of the season. Last fall the Wolverines dominated the Spartans in a 44-10 victory. But that Michigan team no longer exists. There will be a new starter at quarterback, a revamped offensive line and plenty of alterations within the receiver group, linebacker corps and secondary.
A win over Michigan would be a surprise. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Nov. 7: at Iowa
It was a tumultuous offseason for the Hawkeyes, which endured player complaints over racial issues. The controversy that mushroomed came on the heels of Iowa bidding adieu to three of its best players: Quarterback Nate Stanley, offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and defensive end A.J. Epenesa. Despite it all, the Hawkeyes are still expected to be one of the most formidable teams in the Big Ten with a mix of talented players at the skill positions, along the offensive line and within the starting 11 on defense.
Beating Iowa at Kinnick Stadium is not an easy task.
It’s even harder when the visitor is the underdog, which is what Michigan State will be Nov. 7.
Nov. 14: vs. Indiana
Last season, the Hoosiers won eight games for the first time in 26 years.
With the reduced schedule, the chances of that happening again are next to nil.
But the Hoosiers should still pose a challenge after pushing Michigan State to the brink last season and succumbing in the final seconds.
Quarterback Michael Penix is back, after all. Before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, he tormented the Spartans while throwing for three touchdowns last September.
He’s one of 17 returning starters on a team that features an experienced defense.
Nov. 21 at Maryland
Road wins may be hard to come by.
But circle this game as a potential victory.
The Terrapins are still in a transition phase under second-year coach Mike Locksley. While Locksley has performed well on the recruiting trail as he’s tried to seal off the DMV from outsiders, he has yet to build a team that can win consistently.
An area of concern Locksley must address is offensive line. Only 13 FBS teams allowed more sacks than the 38 the Terrapins conceded last season. If the Spartans can generate a pass rush, Maryland may fold.
Nov. 28: vs. Northwestern
A year after appearing in the Big Ten title game, Northwestern bottomed out last season.
The Wildcats won three games and their offense hit the skids – finishing near the bottom of the FBS in scoring.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald then went out and hired a new offensive coordinator, Mike Bakajian and reeled in a graduate transfer at quarterback, Peyton Ramsey.
After Penix went down last year, Ramsey captained Indiana’s high-powered offense. If he can replicate his 2019 performance with a new team, Northwestern may be primed for a rebound.
If not, then the Spartans could add a win to their record.
Dec. 5 vs. Ohio State
It could be worse.
The matchup with the Buckeyes could have appeared on the front end of Michigan State’s schedule.
Instead, Ryan Day’s squad will roll into town at a point in the season when the Spartans should be beyond their transition phase.
It may not make much of a difference on the scoreboard, but it could provide Tucker with a better understanding of where his team stands in relation to the Big Ten’s premier program.
Ohio State is a national title contender and is stocked with an abundance of talent, including quarterback Justin Fields, cornerback Shaun Wade and receiver Chris Olave.
Even with winter approaching, Dec. 5 figures to be a long day in East Lansing.
But take solace in the fact that it could have been worse if the game was played at an earlier point.
Dec. 12 at Penn State
In three of the last four seasons, James Franklin has guided the Nittany Lions to 11 wins.
Reaching that benchmark won’t be possible this year.
But an elusive berth in the College Football Playoff may still be up for grabs when Michigan State travels to Happy Valley.
If so, expect the Nittany Lions to show no mercy on the Spartans.
Penn State returns ten starters on offense, including quarterback Sean Clifford. With new coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca dialing up the plays, expect the Nittany Lions to press the Spartans defensive from beginning to end.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football 2020 schedule: Challenges await for Mel Tucker