Mark Dantonio leads a Spartan team poised to take down the defending National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes. Photo Credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images
Mark Dantonio leads a Spartan team poised to take down the defending National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes. Photo Credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images

Our Big Ten preview series is back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll make our way through the Big Ten East and West from the bottom to the top. The countdown continues with the Michigan State.

Our own Ari Ross looks at a team that hopes to compete for the Big Ten Championship and a College Football Playoff berth.

Team Capsule: 

2014 Record: 10-2, 7-1 B1G

WNUR Sports 2015 Staff Projection: 11-1, 7-1 B1G

Key Returning Players: Connor Cook (QB), Shilique Calhoun (DE)

Key Departing Players: Trae Waynes (CB), Jeremy Langford (RB), Tony Lippett (WR), Pat Narduzzi (Defensive Coordinator)

Offensive Preview

Not known for their offense, the Spartans should have one of their best offenses in years. Senior quarterback Connor Cook decided to return to school, and he leads a potent offense that will put up points. Last season Cook threw for 3214 yards and 24 TDs and this year he could top those numbers. The Spartans return all but one starter along an offensive line including possible future first-round pick Jack Conklin. The offensive line paved the way for Jeremy Langford’s 1500 yards on the ground this season, but the Spartans will have to replace his production at running back. Junior Delton Williams (54 car, 316 yrds, 5 TDs) was suspended in the spring, so look for sophomore Gerald Holmes (15 car, 44 yrds), redshirt freshman Madre London and four-star recruit Larry Scott to compete for the job.

On the receiving end, while Cook loses his top two targets from last season in Lippett and Keith Mumphrey, Michigan State returns to experienced seniors at the wide receiver position in Macgarrett Kings Jr. (29 rec, 404 yrds, 1 TD) and Aaron Burbridge (29 rec, 358 yrds, 1 TD). Junior R.J. Shelton (16 rec, 173 yrds, 2 TDs) will also be expected to contribute. At tight end, Josiah Price (26 rec, 374 yrds, 6 TDs) returns, giving Cook a big target on third down.

Defensive Preview

After finishing in the Top 10 in defense for the fourth consecutive year, the Spartans have a few more question marks on defense than usual. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi left to become the head coach at Pittsburgh and will be replaced by co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. And top cornerback Trae Waynes left for the NFL, selected by the Minnesota Vikings at No. 11 overall.

But the Spartans will have one of the most fearsome front-sevens in all of Division I. Shilique Calhoun (8 sacks, 12.5 TFL) decided to forgo the NFL Draft and will anchor an impressive front. Calhoun is joined on the line by returning starters Joel Heath  (2.5 sacks, 5 TFL) and Lawrence Thomas (3 sacks, 4.5 TFL) with sophomore Malik McDowell (1.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL) rounding out the line. Senior Ed Davis (80 Tkls, 7 sacks, 12 TFL) and junior Riley Bullough (32 Tkls, 3.5 sacks, 4 TFL) headline an experienced linebacking corps.

If there’s a weakness on this Spartans’ defense it’s the secondary, which has to replace two starters, Waynes and Kurtis Drummond at cornerback. Junior Darian Hicks (2 INT, 3 PD) started 10 games last season, but he’ll have competition from senior Arjen Colquhoun (1 INT, 2 PDs), junior Demetrious Cox (2 PDs) and redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland. Senior RJ Williamson (3 INT, 5 PDs) and sophomore Montae Nicholson should start at safety

Special Teams Preview

Kicker Michael Geiger struggled last season, hitting just 14 of 22 FGs and is coming off hip surgery. Four-year standout punter Mike Sadler (41.2 yrd avg) graduated and will be replaced by freshman Jake Hartbarger, the No. 1 punter per 247 Sports.

Outlook

Michigan State looks to be in for another season competing for the Big Ten West with Ohio State. The Spartans non-conference schedule is headlined by a primetime matchup with Oregon, who they lost to in Eugene last year. But at home, the Spartans should be up to the task against the Mariota-less Ducks.

In Big Ten play, the Spartans face their in-state rival and Nebraska on the road, but neither should pose too much of a challenge for the Spartans. Michigan State’s toughest Big Ten tilt will come on the road in Columbus against the defending-national champion Buckeyes. The winner of that matchup should be playing in the Big Ten Championship.

If Mark Dantonio can get the Spartans past Oregon, Michigan State could be sitting pretty till Nov. 21 when they’ll take on the Buckeyes, whom they lost to 49-37 last years at home. If Michigan State can beat the Buckeyes in Columbus, they may be playing in the College Football Playoff.

Best Case Scenario

The Spartans beat the Ducks at home and upset the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe on Nov. 21. Come Dec. 31, after winning the Big Ten Championship, the Michigan State Spartans are playing in one of the two College Football Playoff Semifinals.

Worst Case Scenario

A lackluster secondary dooms a once vaunted Spartan defense and Michigan State loses to Oregon, and the Buckeyes in Columbus. Losing their two biggest games, the Spartans finish 10-2 and are left watch the Buckeyes compete in the Big Ten Championship for the second consecutive year.