With four teams ranked in the top dozen or so in the country, the battle for the Big Ten East title is going to be epically good this year. There’s not much that separates Michigan State from Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, and it’s going be a great battle over the next three months.

I could be wrong about Michigan State — very wrong, in fact —but in trying to project this season, I just don’t see Michigan State surviving the gauntlet. I think Penn State and Ohio State are just better, and I think Michigan simply finds a way to have some of that good karma land in their lap this year.

This is an interesting team with a lot of returning starters on both sides of the ball. They bounced back nicely a year ago (9-3 plus a bowl win over a good Washington State team) from that 3-9 disaster in 2016. It would be easy to predict even better than 9-3 this year, but maybe there’s some bad karma still floating around that campus.

Maybe those little breaks go against MSU this year. Maybe.

2017 Record: 9-3* (7-2 in Big Ten)

*regular season

And now, on to this year:

Coaching situation

Mark Dantonio knows what he’s doing and he doesn’t back down from anyone. He’s proven that by bouncing back from that 2016 disaster, but he’s also proven he’s not willing to take any flak from anyone over the other bad things that have swirled around the program — and the entire athletic department — over the past few years. He’s stubborn that way.

He’s got pieces to work with this year, so I won’t be a bit surprised if he proves me wrong and wins the Big Ten East anyway. He’s got that kind of skill as a coach.

Quarterback situation

Brian Lewerke is back for more, and he’s done well as a starter at Michigan State. Last year he threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns, and with all of his weapons back, those numbers should be even higher this year. He knows how to make plays, and big-time moments don’t scare him.

Strengths & weaknesses

Experience across every level on both sides of the ball is the biggest strength, as is having a veteran quarterback who knows how to win. There’s a solid defense too, led by Joe Bachie and Josiah Scott. The biggest question is this: Is all that returning talent great, or just good? And is “just good” enough to get them beat in the biggest of games?

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Utah State (W)
When you return 18 starters, you should be well prepared to get off to a good start and the Spartans will do just that.

Week 2: at Arizona State (W)
Ditto as to above. Experience means handling an early road trip well, especially a tough one that will fight the body clock as well with a 10:45 p.m. ET kickoff. This one will be very close, with a late score making the difference.

Week 3: Bye
This is early. Just so you know.

Week 4: at Indiana (W)
There’s a big difference between the top four teams in the East and the bottom three, but this is the game I had circled for an upset. I couldn’t pull the trigger, which was hard for this Indiana grad, so the Spartans win another tough one.

Week 5: vs. Central Michigan (W)
All the pieces come together early, and the Spartans finally with a breather for a change.

Week 6: vs. Northwestern (W)
The fifth win in a row comes, but not without another physical battle to the finish. Lewerke makes a big touchdown throw late to pull it out.

Week 7: at Penn State (L)
The winning streak comes to an end in a hostile environment in Happy Valley in a battle of unbeatens. Home field advantage makes a difference in what will likely be a primetime showdown.

Week 8: vs. Michigan  (L)
This is always one of my favorite Big Ten games of the year, because there is pure hatred between these two teams — and two fan bases. The Spartans have had some good karma through the years in this showdown, but this year that changes. This time, Michigan wins on some fluke.

Week 9: vs. Purdue (W)
Another battle to the wire, but the Spartans pull out another one.

Week 10: at Maryland (W)
It could be easy to look ahead with this one, but the Spartans find a way to pull away late.

Week 11: vs. Ohio State (L)
That early bye week finally catches up to the Spartans. Battered and beaten with eight games in eight weeks, the Buckeyes are just too much for them. For current purposes, I can’t use “if” in any of my projections, but come November, if the Ohio State disaster blows up, maybe a different result will come.

Week 12: at Nebraska (W)
The final road game of the year is another battle, but Lewerke has another big day against a shoddy Nebraska defense and pulls away in the second half for an easy win.

Week 13: vs. Rutgers (W)
It doesn’t get any easier than this to close out the season. It’s 9-3 to wrap it up, which isn’t all bad, but it could have been much more.

2018 Projection: 9-3 (6-3)
Final Standings: 4th in Big Ten East 

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