Wisconsin's seniors have had the Ohio State and Iowa games circled on the calendar for months but two hurdles must be completed before hosting the Buckeyes. The first one is the conference opener against an improved Michigan State squad in East Lansing.
One of the biggest surprises in the conference this past offseason was the return of Michigan State senior linebacker Greg Jones. A first-team All-American and the 2009 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Jones' 154 tackles were third in the nation, his nine sacks were fourth in the Big Ten and his 14 tackles for loss were tied for eighth in the conference. Jones is so good that he has his own website dedicated to him by the MSU Athletic Communication Department.
Even with Jones' presence, Michigan State needs to patch up its secondary, which allowed opposing quarterbacks to have a pass efficiency of 141.14 (ranked 101 out of 120 in the nation). With six new underclassmen starters, the Badgers can find success.
The Spartans' offense will provide the toughest test of the young season for Wisconsin. Junior team captain Kirk Cousins is a solid passer that returns after throwing for 2,680 yards and 19 touchdowns, 396 yards of which were against the Badgers. Of course, three of his nine interceptions also came against the UW secondary.
While the Spartans are thin at running back, MSU has depth at the offensive line and have a solid one-two punch of pass catchers in senior Mark Dell and junior B.J. Cunningham. UW got a good look at both of those standouts last year, as Cunningham (48 catches, 641 yards, 4 TDs) and Dell (26, 449, 1) combined for 10 catches and two scores.
The Spartans have taken steps forward under fourth-year Head Coach Mark Dantonio, but off-the-field incidents and lack of discipline cost Michigan State last season. In 09, Michigan State blew five fourth-quarter leads and suspended 13 players before their loss in the Alamo Bowl.
Michigan State has high hopes for this season, perhaps outlandish hopes. Although the Spartans aren't in the top half of the conference, Michigan State is still a good team and a tough place to play. Nobody needs to remind Bielema about what happened their two years ago and with UW having high hopes themselves, this will be a competitive contest to the finish.
If you go
Date/Time - Saturday, October 2 at TBA
Arena – Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Series – Michigan State leads 27-21
Last Meeting – Wisconsin beat Michigan State, 38-30, September 26, 2009 in Madison
Early Prediction - Wisconsin 28, Michigan State 20