Michigan State Spartans
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio
2011 Record: 11-3 overall, 7-1 Big Ten Legends
2011 Bowl Result: Beat Georgia 33-30 (3OT) in Outback Bowl
Odds to Win Big Ten Legends and Big Ten: 3/1 Legends, 5/1 Big Ten
Odds to win 2013 BCS Championship: 40/1
Over/ Under Regular Season Wins: over 8 1/2 -130 / under even
All Odds Courtesy of Bovada
Last season, Michigan St won the first ever Big Ten Leaders Division title. It set up a rematch of a classic game during the regular season against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. During the regular season Michigan St beat Wisconsin 37-31 on a Hail Mary on the last play of the game. The Badgers won the rematch 42-39 to clinch a berth in the Rose Bowl. Michigan St had to settle for the Outback Bowl where they beat Georgia 33-30 in triple overtime. The Spartans also had losses at Notre Dame and Nebraska in their 11-3 season. The season included other key wins over Ohio St and Michigan.
Despite tying for the Big Ten title in 2010, Michigan St hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1988. The Spartans have won 22 games in the last 2 years. Only 6 other teams have more in that span, Boise St, LSU, Oklahoma St, Oregon, Stanford, and TCU. Michigan St has more wins than Ohio St, Nebraska, and Michigan, and is tied with Wisconsin for the most wins in the conference in the last 2 years. The difference is all of those teams except Boise St and Nebraska have gone to a BCS bowl while Michigan St has not. The goal for the Spartans is to at least qualify for a BCS bowl, but Michigan St would prefer a Big Ten title. It won’t be easy as they have to replace quarterback Kirk Cousins, now with the Washington Redskins, and most of the receivers as well. The schedule is tough, but it always is in the Big Ten.
The Michigan St offense, under coordinator Dan Roushar. was the third best scoring team in the Big Ten last year averaging 31 points.
Now that Cousins is gone for the NFL, the quarterback will be Andrew Maxwell. Maxwell backed up Cousins for the last two years. Cousins threw for over 3,300 yards and 25 touchdowns last year. In two years, Maxwell has only thrown a total of 51 passes for the Spartans. Maxwell is a pocket passer with a strong arm but he can throw on the run. He knows the system, but it is one thing to throw a touchdown pass in garbage time of a blowout against Central Michigan than it is to be the full-time starter. He could struggle early, even though he is very talented.
Look for Maxwell to lean on the running game as he settles into his groove. The Spartans return 3 of their top 4 running backs from last year, with the exception of Edwin Baker who rushed for 665 yards, and 5 touchdowns. Le’Veon Bell was the leading rusher last year with 182 carries, 948 yards, and 13 touchdowns. He also caught 35 passes for 267 yards. Larry Caper had 30 carries, 116 yards, and a touchdown run, and also caught a touchdown pass. Expect him to get most of the 170 carries Baker had last year. Nick Hill had 29 carries for 113 yards. He will get more carries this year as well.
Bell is the only player back for the Spartans who caught more than 14 passes last year. The Spartans must replace their top 4 receivers in B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol, and tight end Brian Linthicum. The quartet accounted for almost 2,800 receiving yards, and 19 touchdowns. That could create a new set of problems for Maxwell, as he really doesn’t have any experienced receivers other than the running back Bell. Bennie Fowler had 14 catches in 2010, but missed last year with an injury. He does return in 2012. Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey had a combined 6 catches last year. Sophomore DeAnthony Arnett is a transfer from Tennessee, and was granted a waiver to play immediately by the NCAA. He caught 24 passes for 242 yards and 2 touchdowns last year for the Vols. Freshmen Anthony Burbridge, Juwan Caesar, and Andre Sims Jr will also get some targets. Dion Sims will take over at tight end for Linthicum. Look for Fowler and Arnett to be the starters, and get the majority of the targets.
The line loses four year starter and all-conference guard Joel Foreman but returns 8 other line men with a combined 74 games starting experience. The line will be anchored by left tackle Dan France, center Travis Jackson, and right guard Chris McDonald. The line should be a strength with so many veterans.
While there is a lot of new personnel on offense, that really isn’t a problem on defense. Most of the starters return from a defense ranked in the top ten nationally last year, under coordinator Pat Narduzzi. They were 8th in rushing defense and 11th against the pass.They led the Big Ten in rush defense, sacks and interceptions.
The only question mark on defense is at tackle, where the Spartans must replace their top 3 tackles. Jerel Worthy and Kevin Pickelman combined for 18 tackles for loss last year, and their back-up Johnathan Strayhorn are all gone. Anthony Rashad White, Tyler Hoover, Brandon Clemens and Damon Knox will compete for the tackle spots. All have potential but are largely untested. The two ends do return in William Gholston and Marcus Rush who combined for 28 tackles for loss and 9 sacks. The two are likely NFL draft picks next year.
Linebacker Denicos Allen had 18.5 tackles for loss last year. He headlines a unit that many people consider to be among the best in the country. Max Bullough and Chris Norman also return at linebacker, as does the entire two deep line-up.
Corners Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard have the potential to be all-conference or maybe even All-American. The two combined for 5 tackles for loss and 6 interceptions. Isaiah Lewis is the strong safety and known for his hard hits. Demetrious Cox and Jamal Lyles will also compete for playing time but free safety is the only position open.
If the tackles live up to their potential this should be a dominant defense once again. The rest of the defensive units have elite talent.
Senior kicker Dan Conroy made 17 of 23 kicks last year, but 3 of those were from 50 yards or more. He has proven himself to be clutch, and is a dangerous weapon on special teams.
Punter Mike Sadler averaged 41.1 yards per punt last year. He also had 25 punts inside the 20 and 15 touchbacks.
Nick Hill and DeAnthony Arnett will likely handle the kick and punt returns. Keshawn Martin returned punts last year and was one of the best in the country. The Spartans do need to improve their punt and kick coverage as they gave up 16.2 yards per punt and 23 yards per kick return. They also gave up a touchdown on both.
Michigan St opens at home against Boise St. The Spartans should be careful because Boise has pulled off upsets on the road at Virginia Tech and Georgia in the last two season openers. (Yes, I know they were technically neutral site games, but Boise had to travel to Landover, MD and Atlanta respectively) Michigan St then travels to Central Michigan, before a three game homestand against Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, and Ohio St. That Eastern Michigan game seems like a potential trap sandwiched between two huge rivalry games. The Spartans travel to Indiana and host Iowa. Then comes a three game stretch against the other Big Ten title contenders, at Michigan and Wisconsin, and home against Nebraska. That stretch will likely determine Michigan St’s Legends and Big Ten title hopes. The Spartans close at home against Northwestern and at Minnesota. That is 7 teams that went to a bowl game last year.
With so many questions at quarterback and wide receiver and a difficult schedule, the Spartans will be hard pressed to win 11 games like they did last year. I think 8 or 9 wins is more likely. The good news is that their two biggest rivals for the Legends division title, Michigan and Nebraska, have questions of their own. Eight or Nine wins might be good enough to win the division for the Spartans and send them back to the Big Ten title game.
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