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Michigan State football's woes aren't solved by a new schedule. Here's why

The prospect of there being no college football this season is real. But more on that later.

For now, Michigan State has a new schedule and a new opening opponent. And a marquee home game that has been changed, requiring traveling to Ann Arbor in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1967-68.

Those alterations are just a few more complications in Mel Tucker’s debut season, one already challenged by his late hiring and a bevy of disruptions by the coronavirus pandemic.

But at least there is some college football to talk about for the moment. Here are three observations on what is ahead for Tucker and MSU if they do indeed make it to kick off the season.

More on the Big Ten's new schedule:

Why Michigan State football won't host Michigan this season

Don't get excited about Big Ten football schedules just yet. 

MSU's Panasiuk opts out of '20 season as team resumes workouts

Front-loaded

The loss of a nonconference schedule didn’t change much for Week 1 for the Spartans; they were already set to open with a Big Ten game.

But the altered docket definitely makes things more challenging up front, with five straight games before a week off for a new MSU staff — still waiting to conduct its first practice — that needs to find a new quarterback and replace almost its entire starting defense.

It starts Sept. 5 against Minnesota. The Gophers, despite star wide receiver Rashod Bateman opting to sit out this season, are coming off an 11-2 resurgence in 2019 under P.J. Fleck. The matchup will be tougher than MSU's previous first-game opponent, Northwestern, which went 3-9 and won just one Big Ten game a year ago.

Then comes a road trip to Maryland and a home game vs. the Wildcats in Week 3. That is followed by a three-game, four-week gauntlet — at Penn State, at Michigan, a bye week, and then back home against Ohio State — that will be the defining portion of the Spartans’ revamped schedule.

Things get easier over the final seven weeks, but there are no gimmies. Rutgers, which welcomes coach Greg Schiano back, should be improved. A road game at Iowa always is difficult. Indiana under Tom Allen has been a thorn in MSU’s side, though at least the Spartans will get that game in East Lansing instead of Bloomington. Then after a second bye, the Spartans are set for another long journey to Nebraska to face the Cornhuskers in Year 3 of the Scott Frost era.

Long distance

One of the stated reasons for dropping nonconference competition was to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission via travel.

And though the Spartans' trip to Ann Arbor is the shortest in the league — 64.3 miles from Spartan Stadium to Michigan Stadium — the Spartans’ other four trips leave them racking up the most miles in the conference.

MSU visits College Park, Maryland, (587 miles) on Sept. 12; State College, Pennsylvania, (456 miles) on Sept. 26; Iowa City, Iowa, (427 miles) on Oct. 31; and Lincoln, Nebraska, (727 miles) on Nov. 21. Add it up and it's nearly 2,200 miles — each way.

Those distances raise big issues about how the team will travel.

From a physical standpoint, it seems infeasible to put 100 big-bodied players, coaches and staffers on buses for those long journeys. But solving that issue with flights raises monetary issues; if there is no revenue coming in from home ticket sales, chartering flights and booking hotels for that big travel party will strain an athletic department already making significant budgetary cuts. Either way, bus or plane, there is the danger of coronavirus transmission inherent in traveling across multiple states, especially with occasionally imprecise and often delayed testing.

What’s next?

In addition to the defensive players MSU's coaches knew they had to replace over the summer, there's defensive end Jacub Panasiuk; the senior announced via Twitter he plans to sit out this season. That means Tucker’s defense will need an entirely new front four, two new starting linebackers and two starters in the secondary, drawing from backups who saw minimal playing time last season.

Again, without having stepped on the field for a practice until Friday.

“The release of the Big Ten football schedule allows us to move forward in our planning for the upcoming season, both as a football team and as an athletic department,” MSU athletic director Bill Beekman said in a statement Wednesday. “At the same time, we understand that a schedule does not guarantee that games will be played.”

Panasiuk likely will not be the last  player to opt out, as parents talk with their sons and coaches discuss COVID-19 protocols via Zoom calls. That concern roared back to life over the summer as the football team learned, along with the handful of other teams that returned to campus for voluntary summer workouts, how quickly an outbreak can shut down their operations.

Schools will continue handling tests during their preseason practices. The conference will take over, using an outside company to test, once games begin in September.

“Testing is a critical component,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said Wednesday on BTN, promising tests at least twice a week for football players. “It doesn’t solve all the issues.”

Neither does simply releasing a schedule.

Warren has been forthright in acknowledging there still may not be a season. And with one month to go before kickoff, the Tucker era in East Lansing has a long way to go still in a short time.

MSU’s revised 2020 football schedule

(times/TV to be determined):

Sept. 5: Minnesota

Sept. 12: at Maryland

Sept. 19: Northwestern

Sept. 26: at Penn State

Oct. 3: at Michigan

Oct. 10: Bye

Oct. 17: Ohio State

Oct. 24: Rutgers

Oct. 31: at Iowa

Nov. 7: Indiana

Nov. 14: Bye

Nov. 21: at Nebraska

Dec. 5: Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis

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