College Football Preview 2014-2015: 5. Michigan State Spartans
Coach: Mark Dantonio (8th year)
2013-2014 Record: 13-1 (8-0 Big Ten)
August 29th vs. Jacksonville State
September 6th @ Oregon
September 20th vs. Eastern Michigan
September 27th vs. Wyoming
October 4th vs. Nebraska
October 11th @ Purdue
October 18th @ Indiana
October 25th vs. Michigan
November 8th vs. Ohio State
November 15th @ Maryland
November 22nd vs. Rutgers
November 29th @ Penn State
In 2012, the Spartans were hoping to take the next step and become an elite program, but they fell right on their face and would go 7-6 without Kirk Cousins. But, last season with lowered expectations, Michigan State had one of their best seasons in school history, going 13-1, winning the Big Ten and also winning the Rose Bowl. Much of that talented 2013 team returns, giving Michigan State lofty expectations for this season. But, can Mark Dantonio and MSU succeed with all eyes on them and the fact they won't sneak out on anyone?
Backfield: Junior quarterback Connor Cook won the job over incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell before last season and proved he deserved it, throwing for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns with just six interceptions. Although he struggled with efficiency, completing just 58.7 percent of his passes in 2013. He is a smart quarterback who will make important adjustments and has fantastic arm accuracy. The Michigan State offense really struggled last year before running back Jeremy Langford starting turning on the jets. Now a senior, Langford has the chance to be one of the conference's best, after rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. Langford has proven to be a powerful runner between the tackles who is so dangerous inside the red zone. He isn't necessarily the most explosive back you have ever seen but he is shifty and very tough to bring down. Also joining him in the backfield is senior Nick Hill, a more explosive option than Langord who should get a big chunk of carries. Along with effective blocker Trevor Pendleton, who returns for his junior year, this backfield is extremely gifted and stocked with experience. That is great, considering the Spartans won't throw the ball much, they have always been a run-first team under Dantonio.
Receivers: A ton of production returns in the receiving corps, including 2013's second-leading receiver, senior Tony Lippett. Lippett was a great option in the passing game who really was fantastic late in games. This spring, Lippett easily looked like the best receiver on this MSU roster, improving coaches with his deep speed and the ability to come down with anyone that is thrown near him. He really should be the No.1 option for Cook, as the Spartans will miss reliable receiver Bennie Fowler, who led the team with 622 yards and six touchdowns. Along with Lippett, Cook will have a number of other options to throw too, including juniors MacGarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge. Kings is a dangerous weapon who can hurt defenses in a variety of ways. Offensive coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman are happy to welcome back Kings from a spring suspension. Burbridge should be expected to step up big time after posting pedestrian numbers, recording 22 receptions with 194 yards and zero touchdowns. Senior Keith Mumphery is also back after a pretty solid 2013 campaign that included 18 catches and 3 touchdowns. Mumphery is not the most explosive target or the quickest player on the field but he is an exceptional route runner and just finds ways to get open and make plays. At tight end, sophomore Josiah Price will return and compete for starting snaps with Andrew Gleichert, a senior. Price is very effective as a receiving tight end while Gleichert is a much better blocker; it will be interesting to see how Michigan State uses them. Three-star tight end Montez Sweat has also been added to the equation; the steal from SEC country (Stone Mountain, Georgia), Sweat could find ways to make his presence felt.
Offensive Line: This Michigan State offensive line doesn't get a lot of credit but it was a big reason why the Spartans' offense started finding it's groove late in 2013. Three starters return to the unit, including All-Big Ten center Jack Allen, returning for his junior season. Allen is widely considered as not just one of the best centers in the conference but in the nation, gifted with pretty good size, long arms and an incredibly high motor. At left tackle, sophomore Jack Conklin returns, giving the Spartans a brick wall on the left side. Conklin struggled at times in 2013, not surprising considering it was his first season as starter with the Spartans. Joining Conklin on the left side of this line will be senior guard Travis Jackson, a good athlete with pretty impressive versatility. Jackson adds valuable experience and another leader to this unit. As a whole, the left side of this line is definitely stronger than the right, where the Spartans don't have much returning. At right tackle, sophomore Kodi Kieler will compete with junior Donavon Clark for the starting gig. Both have the potential to be great linemen but neither have really come out and seized the role like Michigan State would have liked. The right guard spot is likely to be manned by senior Connor Kruse, another pretty mobile guard with plenty of experience. Having two seniors at guard should definitely help this ground game improve after it was 58th in the nation a season ago. Center Brian Allen is among the nation's best at his position in the 2014 class, giving Michigan State a player who could be dominant in the near future, although he might not see much action this year.
Defensive Line: Few players in the nation this season might be as dominant (at least on the defensive side of the ball) as junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Calhoun might have been a high NFL draft selection but opted to return to East Lansing after earning All-American honors in 2013. Calhoun is also coming off a season in which he was also the Big Ten's Defensive Linemen of the Year. He recorded 37 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks but has all the tools to put up even bigger numbers this season. He has an NFL body but is also so strong and quick and will be so disruptive this season. I think if a defensive player does win the Heisman this season, Calhoun is one of the top candidates. On the other side, senior end Marcus Rush returns, after putting up five sacks a season ago. Rush isn't as large as Calhoun but is experienced and a little bit quicker, he is more of a help as a run stopper. Up the middle, Michigan State will miss defensive tackle Tyler Hoover, a hard-working, gritty tackle who played a large role in the rush defense. The nose tackle position appears to be in good hands, with junior Damon Knox the leader to take over there. Even though he didn't start last season, Knox had 22 tackles and proved to be a real help. The big question is at the other tackle spot where a number of players are competing for the job. Versatile junior Lawrence Thomas, senior James Kittredge and gritty junior Joel Heath are all competing for the starting job. Possibly even Malik McDowell, the gem of this year's recruiting class could, if not win the job, see a large number of snaps. No matter who starts, Rush and Calhoun occupying blockers should open up lanes to the quarterback and depth shouldn't be much of an issue.
Linebackers: Talk about tough losses. Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi had to say goodbye to fantastic pass rusher Denicos Allen and middle linebacker Max Bullough, the unquestioned leader of the defense. The two combined for 174 tackles along with 26 tackles for loss. The good news for this unit is that senior Taiwan Jones returns to this unit and could move from one of the outside linebacker positions inside to replace Bullough. Jones quietly had a very impressive 2013 but not much people gave him credit because he was forgotten about with Bullough and Allen on the roster. He had 67 tackles and proved to be a great coverage linebacker and moving into the inside shouldn't hurt him. One of the outside 'backer spots should be manned by junior Ed Davis who still found ways to make an impact despite not starting last year. Davis proved to be a very dangerous pass rusher, recording four sacks as a reserve. He has great instincts and loves to hit the quarterback, he could help replace Allen's production. At the other outside linebacker position, expect Darien Harris to take over. Harris is a real help as coverage 'backer who can hit people and jar the ball loose. Sophomore Riley Bullough (the brother of Max) has spent some time on the offensive side of the ball as a blocker in the backfield but will spend all of his time in 2014 on the defensive side of the ball. He has the chance to start at one of the outside linebacker slots because he isn't quick enough to play where his brother played on the inside.
Secondary: Dantonio, Narduzzi and MSU will also certainly miss a number of major defensive contributors, including NFL first-round selection Darqueze Dennard, a cornerback, and impact safety Isaiah Lewis. There is still loads of talent back at least, including stud cornerback Trae Waynes, who hopes to replace Dennard as Michigan State's next shutdown corner. Waynes will take over at the boundary position (where Dennard played and where MSU puts their top cornerbacks) and will be counted on to shut down some of the Big Ten's top receivers. Sophomore Darian Hicks will start this season and help Waynes in the coverage game. Hicks has the potential to figure things out quickly and develop into a star. Waynes is the more physical cornerback while Hicks is a little bit more athletic and will definitely make some plays. At free safety, expect senior Kurtis Drummond to have a huge 2014. Drummond picked off four throws last season and has incredible range to make the big plays. The question is at the other free safety slots, where the Spartans will look for someone to replace Lewis. Junior R.J. Williamson and redshirt freshman Jalyn Powell are the two top candidates to take over at that strong safety position. Although Williamson is more experienced and has been very impressive in reserve opportunities, Powell has been extremely impressive the past two springs and could start.
Special Teams: The return of senior punter Mike Sadler should definitely help Michigan State, he was great in 2013. He averaged 42.3 yards per punt last year and led the nation in punts down inside the 10-yard line. Sophomore Michael Geiger returns at kicker after also putting together a strong season in 2013.
The last time expectations were this high in East Lansing, the Spartans did not meet expectations at all. This year's team has the offensive weapons that weren't there last season and although the defense has some major losses they are still great. The schedule is worrying with a trip to Oregon in early September but most of the Spartans' tough games are at home. This time around, MSU has all the talent, leadership and a schedule to meet expectations and win their second straight Big Ten title.