Cal provides much-needed early test for Spartans

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Fast starts are nothing new for Michigan State, which has a 17-5 record in games before Oct. 1 since 2003 and a 29-9 mark since 1999. But many of those Spartans teams fell apart in October, an annual tumble that can partially be attributed to scheduling.

Here's a look at Michigan State's season-opening opponents since 2001:

  • 2001: Central Michigan

  • 2002: Eastern Michigan

  • 2003: Western Michigan

  • 2004: Rutgers (Scarlet Knights went 4-7 that season)

  • 2005: Kent State

  • 2006: Idaho

  • 2007: UAB

Not exactly murderer's row, and all but the Rutgers game took place at Spartan Stadium. Though the Spartans always play Notre Dame early, the Irish haven't always provided an overwhelming test.

Michigan State should be able to get a much better read on its potential from this year's opener, a road trip to California on Aug. 30. Cal has made top 10 appearances in each of the last four seasons, and coach Jeff Tedford consistently produces formidable offenses and dynamic skill players.

"The Cal game comes right up on us," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "Important game, away from home, high expectations at Cal as well, so we put our hands right in the fire, right off the bat. I don't think that's a bad thing for this football team. ... It's a good thing to find out exactly who we are in the first game, and then we can play accordingly from there."

Michigan State hasn't faced a Pac-10 opponent since 2002, when Cal came to Spartan Stadium. If the Spartans want to reach their annual goal of a Pac-10 matchup Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif., this is a good place to start.

"This year's different," linebacker Adam Decker said. "There's no tune-up game, there's no warm-ups. We don't build up through our nonconference schedule. We just hit the ground. It'll be exciting."

Cal's speed already has caught the attention of Decker and several other MSU defenders. The Bears lost top wideouts DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan, as well as top rusher Justin Forsett, but Michigan State will have to prepare for sophomore running back Jahvid Best and several other threats.

Speed is often a sore subject around the Big Ten, especially after the last two national title games, but Michigan State has the chance to boost the league's image.

"It's a great opportunity," Spartans sophomore linebacker Greg Jones said. "A lot of people say the Big Ten is just power, strength and endurance. But we can play fast, too. We're college athletes just like they are. We can keep up."