Nonconference primer: Michigan State

The clock is ticking. College football will be arriving before you know it. To get you geared up, we're taking a closer look at the list of nonconference opponents on each Big Ten team's slate this fall.

Today, let's inspect Michigan State's out-of-league hurdles.

Western Michigan, Aug. 30

Coach: P.J. Fleck (first season)

2012 record: 4-8, 2-6 MAC

Offensive headliner: Quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen started six games for the injured Alex Carder last season and inherits the full-time gig this season. He threw for 1,825 yards and 15 touchdowns in his understudy role a year ago.

Defensive headliner: Senior Johnnie Simon will play outside linebacker after being a two-time All-MAC selection at safety. He had 103 tackles and an interception last season.

The skinny: The Broncos fired Bill Cubit, who went on to become Illinois' new offensive coordinator. In his place, they hired 32-year old P.J. Fleck, the youngest coach in the FBS. He's a fast-talking, hyper-energetic guy, but Fleck has never even been a coordinator before. Will he be in over his head? After a string of mostly uninspiring seasons, Western Michigan feels it's worth the risk.

South Florida, Sept. 7

Coach: Willie Taggart (first season; 16-21 at Western Kentucky)

2012 record: 3-9, 1-6 Big East

Offensive headliner: Receiver Andre Davis had 534 yards and six touchdowns last season and shined in the spring game, where he caught two scores, including an 85-yarder. He counts as the offensive star on a team that lost four-year starting quarterback B.J. Daniels and leading rusher Demetris Murray.

Defensive headliner: Notre Dame transfer Aaron Lynch becomes eligible and should immediately become one of the top defensive ends in the American Athletic Conference. He had 5.5 sacks a a freshman for the Irish.

The skinny: The Bulls perennially seem poised to have a breakthrough season but perennially disappoint during conference play. Last year's disaster cost Skip Holtz his job and prompted the program to hire the third coach in its history: Taggart, the former Stanford assistant who worked wonders at Western Kentucky. His first job will be to decide on a quarterback between senior Bobby Eveld, sophomore Matt Floyd and Penn State transfer Steven Bench. USF always has raw talent; it's up to Taggart to mold it into something more.

Youngstown State, Sept. 14

Coach: Eric Wolford (16-17 fourth year)

2012 record: 7-4, 4-4 Missouri Valley (FCS)

Offensive headliner: Senior offensive lineman Chris Elkins was a first-team All-Missouri Valley performer last year and has been named to some FCS All-America teams this preseason.

Defensive headliner: Linebackers Teven Williams and Travis Williams were the team's two leading tacklers last year, but no one on the team had more than 63 stops.

The skinny: Wolford has brought steady improvement to the one-time FCS powerhouse. The Penguins began last year with a win at Pittsburgh en route to a 4-0 start before faltering in October. Mark Dantonio spent five years as Youngstown's defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel.

at Notre Dame, Sept. 21

Coach: Brian Kelly (28-11, fourth year)

2012 record: 12-1 (lost in BCS National Championship Game)

Offensive headliner: Notre Dame loses most of its offensive firepower to the NFL or to suspension (QB Everett Golson), but top wide receiver TJ Jones returns after tying for the team lead in receptions (50) and touchdown receptions (4). Jones averaged 13 yards per reception in 2012.

Defensive headliner: With Manti Te'o gone, junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt likely becomes the star of the defense. Last year, he had 12 sacks and three forced fumbles.

The skinny: It has been a rough offseason for Notre Dame since getting dominated by Alabama in the BCS title game. The Irish once again will turn to Tommy Rees at quarterback after Golson was suspended for academic reasons. Notre Dame's defense includes several future pros and should be among the nation's best.


It's probably all about the Irish for Michigan State this September. The Spartans will wrap up nonconference play by going to South Bend for what should be a hard-hitting game between two physical defenses. If Dantonio's team takes care of business, it should be 3-0 by then after three home games where it will be favored. South Florida has the athletes to pull off an upset and has done so against power-conference teams before; yet it's hard to see how the Bulls are going to generate much offense against Michigan State's defense. It's also true that if the Spartans' quarterback and receiver situation doesn't improve, or if they don't find a reliable running back, they could keep just about any opponent in the game as they did a year ago. Yet this schedule is well designed to help build some confidence early on, confidence that will be needed before taking on the Golden Domers.

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