EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Forget about waiting until the stretch run in November. Michigan State will find out right now how it measures up against the Big Ten's top teams.
Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State -- all in a row, the first two on the road. That's the October schedule the 25th-ranked Spartans are facing.
First up is No. 4 Ohio State, which has won its last four games by at least 41 points each, including a 48-7 rout of Nebraska last weekend. Some of Mark Dantonio's greatest wins as Michigan State's coach were against the Buckeyes, but the Spartans have managed only nine points total in their last two meetings with Ohio State.
"I think it's a measuring stick. I'm sure with the win comes more opportunities, and you get ready to play the next one as well. We've got two big ones," Dantonio said. "We've known this. We understand this. Then when you do your summer studies and things of that nature, you understand what you're up against when you come to this part of the season."
Michigan State will at least have an open date between the Wisconsin and Penn State games, but that feels a long way off with the Buckeyes looming. The transition from Urban Meyer to new coach Ryan Day has gone well so far, with Ohio State looking like every bit the juggernaut it usually is.
The Spartans beat Ohio State in 2011, 2013 and 2015 -- and those were all pretty special seasons at Michigan State. The Kirk Cousins-led Spartans made the Big Ten title game in 2011, then Michigan State won the conference in 2013, beating Meyer and the Buckeyes for the championship. In 2015, a win at Ohio State vaulted the Spartans to another conference title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
"Ohio State has been a dominant program in this conference," Dantonio said. "I don't think I'm letting the cat out of the bag here."
This will be the earliest matchup between Michigan State and Ohio State since 2012, when they played in late September. Then the Spartans will have to face what looks like a formidable Wisconsin team. Michigan State has had its ups and downs already, losing at home to Arizona State but starting Big Ten play with wins over Northwestern and Indiana.
The Northwestern game was an impressive blowout on the road. Against Indiana, Michigan State won 40-31, which was a step forward for the team's much-maligned offense.
"You can see each and every week, we want to get out there on Saturday and prove that we can be better," receiver Darrell Stewart said. "And show different things that we can do."
There may be no better opportunity than this weekend for the Spartans to prove their worth, on both sides of the ball.
"It's going to be a challenge as we back it up to Columbus, Ohio, but that's part of it. We understand that," Dantonio said. "Again, if you want to be the best, if you want to say you're one of the best defenses in the country, you'd better play well against a great offense as well. That's part of it."
NOTES: Dantonio talked a bit about RB Connor Heyward's decision to enter the transfer portal. "I think this is a sign of the times a little bit. I'm always going to take the position that, hey, whatever you think is best for you -- if you don't think it's best to be here, then it probably isn't because you're not all in," Dantonio said. "We've got competition at running back. I don't think there's any question about that, that there's been competition there. I think at this point in time we have a No. 1 running back." Redshirt freshman Elijah Collins has been receiving the bulk of the carries.