Big Ten Team Preview: Michigan State Spartans
WNUR’s Tralon Williams previews the Michigan State Spartans and how they will improve on their successful 2013 campaign. The WNUR staff seems to think that the Spartans won’t be finishing as high as Tralon thinks, mainly due to that Spartans-Buckeyes game. The staff predicts the Spartans will finish second in the Big Ten East, just a game away from top team Ohio State.
WNUR’s Prediction: 10-2 overall, 7-1 conference/
All of the pieces fell into place for the Spartans in their 2013 season. After a disappointing 2012 campaign that saw the team from East Lansing go 7-6 with a host of painful, single score losses, the Spartans played 2013 with a chip on their shoulder. That chip turned into 13 wins, a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl Championship, their first win in the Pasadena bowl game in 26 years. In truth, without their narrow 17-13 loss to Notre Dame on September 21st last year, they likely would have been in the National Championship discussion and had a legitimate argument for bumping out the SEC hopeful Auburn.
But that is all in the past now. The Spartans are looking to get right back to work and find their way into the first ever National Championship playoff. And after being voted 8th in the country by both the coaches and the media, the Spartans have just as much a chance as anyone.
Offense: Arguably, the Spartans biggest question mark coming into last season was the quarterback position. QB Connor Cook was able to silence a lot of those criticisms with his solid play over the course of the year after the abysmal play of Andrew Maxwell. He proved he was ready for the big games when he played his two best games against Ohio State and Stanford (Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl.) In those two games, Cook went 46/76 with 636 yards and 5 touchdown. Alongside Cook, the Spartans are returning two of their best position players. RB Jeremy Langford will be returning over 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns and WR Tony Lippett will have experience as a senior as well as big play experience (caught the GW TD pass in the Rose Bowl.)
The Spartans didn’t lose many players on the offensive side of the ball but the ones that did depart were significant. Last year’s top receiver Bennie Fowler is now catching passes from Peyton Manning on the Denver Broncos and both starting guards also graduated. The Spartans will be looking for the combination of Lippett, Keith Mumphery and Macgarrett Kings to make up for the loss of Fowler. The three of them, alongside projected tight end starter Josiah Price, finding a comfort level early in the season with Cook will be key to this offense’s production. The offensive line will be the biggest question mark for the Spartans. It is worth noting, the two most important positions are the ones returning. Center Jack Allen will still be delivering the ball to Cook, and left tackle Jack Conklin will still be watching his backside. RT Donavon Clark will also be returning to the Spartan offensive line. The two OL expected to get the nod are guards Travis Jackson and Connor Kruse. The play of these two will directly impact the Spartan running game, which is what Dantonio likes to use to control game tempo and time of possession.
Defense: Michigan State has boasted one of the best defenses in the country over the last several years. Last year, they held 11 of the 14 opponents to 20 points or fewer and 6 of those scored less than a touchdown. The Michigan State defense has been stifling but suffered some serious losses after last year’s Rose Bowl victory. Three starters left including first-round pick CB Darqueze Dennard and accomplished linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen. Even with the losses of these players, the Spartans still have one of (if not) the best defensive lines in the Big Ten and the country. DE Shalique Calhoun returns after a stellar season that saw 37 tackles and 8 sacks. Alongside Calhoun is returning starter DE Marcus Rush, DT Joel Heath and NT Damon Knox. The defensive line also boasts 5 star recruit Malik McDowell and redshirt freshmen (formerly a 4 star recruit) Demetrius Cooper. These six threaten to be a formidable combo and Michigan State will once again be a great pass rushing team that is almost impossible to run against.
Back behind that defensive line, the Spartans have to retool if they want to make a push for the CFB playoff. They are returning three starters in LB Taiwan Jones, CB Trae Waynes and FS Kurtis Drummond. Waynes and Jones will have the daunting tasks of replacing the departed Dennard and Bullough respectively. The other projected starters for this team are linebackers Darien Harris and Ed Davis, CB Darian Hicks and SS RJ Williamson. With the exception of Hicks, all of Michigan State’s defensive starters will be juniors or seniors and they will all have seen some playing time. Although Dantonio is forced to replace some of his stars from last year, the defense should still have enough to rank in the top 25 of most major categories throughout the country.
Aug. 29 Jacksonville State
Sept. 6 at Oregon
Sept. 20 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 27 Wyoming
Oct. 4 Nebraska
Oct. 11 at Purdue
Oct. 18 at Indiana
Oct. 25 Michigan
Nov. 8 Ohio State
Nov. 15 at Maryland
Nov. 22 Rutgers
Nov. 29 at Penn State
The most important games for the Spartans jump off the page at this point. September 6th against Oregon is huge for this team from a national perspective. With a relatively weak Non-Conference schedule and a conference schedule that does not quite inspire fear, the Spartans need to pull off a win against Oregon to have any shot at making the college football playoff. Barring a Michigan vs Appalachian State style upset the week before, all eyes will be on Eugene as Michigan State tries to pull off the upset that will put them in the driver’s seat for a berth in the playoff.
The second most important game is the November 8th date with Ohio State in East Lansing. This matchup will likely decide who will win the Big Ten East, be favored to win the Big Ten Championship Game and have a strong argument for a playoff spot. This game will be for a lot of marbles in the Big Ten conference.
It is also important to note that MSU will have games against Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska all at home, a place where Dantonio is 38-11 since he took the job in East Lansing.
Prediction: Michigan State plays a style of football that wins games (ask Nick Saban how that’s worked out for him) and for that reason I am very high on this team. Oregon, with a healthy Marcus Mariota in Eugene, will be a tough task but at worst will give this team an early look at how they stack up against the Braxton Miller type of QB. Conner Cook is going to evolve as a player and the MSU offense will evolve with him. The defense will remain stout as always. I predict that Michigan State will finish 11-1 in the regular season. The one loss coming to Oregon early. After beating a stubborn Wisconsin team in the Big Ten championship, Michigan State will sneak into the CFB playoff as a number 4 seed. Their season will end there but they will have back to back Big Ten Championships and be the first Big Ten team to make the college football playoff.
The 11th-ranked Spartans are favored by more than 40 points against Eastern Michigan on Saturday, so complacency is certainly a possibility. Dantonio will do his best to prevent any of that, but there isn’t much buzz surrounding this game, even though the two schools are only about 60 miles from each other.