The Michigan State Spartans are looking to make their third straight season with double-digit wins and a second straight making it to the conference's championship game in 2012.
In order to achieve these goals and also make it to the coveted Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the Spartans must have their key players step up and take over leadership on a team that lost its leader, Kirk Cousins.
Michigan State players would tell you that anything less than a Rose Bowl birth would be a disappointment after two straight seasons of proving they belong in the conversation of the Big Ten's top teams.
Many experts have Michigan winning the Legends Division and advancing to the Big Ten Championship over last year's division champ, Michigan State. I have compiled a list of six players that won't let the in-state rival Wolverines take the title away. They will prove the Spartans are the best team, not only in the state, but in the Big Ten Conference.
Johnny Adams has been trying to prove himself as a quality cornerback ever since arriving on campus just three years ago.
The senior cornerback has been receiving high praise as of late. ESPN College Football Analyst Mel Kiper ranked Adams No. 14 on his list of top prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft. Although it is quite early for a ranking like this before the season has even been played out, Adams—a two-time All-Big Ten selection—has shown he is capable of great things.
Adams has started 28 career games for the Spartans, so be brings a wealth of experience to the table. He finished his junior season with 51 tackles—eighth on the team—three sacks and three interceptions.
He has the potential to be one of the best corners in the country, and this is his year to prove it.
Isaiah Lewis enters is third season as a Spartan and his second year as the starting strong safety. He finished the 2011 season as an All-Big Ten second team selection and one of the conference's bright young stars.
He has started 15 career games, 14 of those coming in the 2011 season. He has become one of the most reliable defensive stoppers on the team, and it is rare to see anything get past the young safety.
Lewis tied for second in the Big Ten in interceptions last season with four and returned two for touchdowns. He also ranked fourth on the team in tackles with 74 and received the team's Most Outstanding Underclass Back award for his defense.
He has the ability to swing the momentum of a game with his defensive prowess and soft hands, but he is infamous for his lack of quality defense against Wisconsin in the 2011 Big Ten Championship Game.
Look for Lewis to prove that the Big Ten title game was a fluke, and that's not the Isaiah Lewis that the Spartan faithful will see this year.
Max Bullough is former-Spartan linebacker Greg Jones' predecessor. He has taken over the defensive leadership role and has been doing a great job with it.
The Spartan defense is as strong as it has been in years; Bullough is one of the main reasons for that. The defense ranks in the top three in the Big Ten in almost every major category and is also ranked top ten in the nation in many aspects.
Bullough is the middle linebacker for the Spartans and just another in a long line of greats. He was a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011 and started all 14 games. Bullough led the team with 89 tackles last season to go along with 3.5 sacks.
He is also an Academic All-Big Ten selection, which proves he has smarts both on and off the field.
Max will surely lead the team in tackles again this season and improve from his number of 89 last season, barring injury. He will lead the defense to another top ten finish and the Spartans to a Rose Bowl.
Let's face it: Andrew Maxwell is standing in an enormous shadow right now. He's standing in the shadow of last year's Spartan quarterback, Kirk Cousins, and rightfully so. Cousins led the Spartans to their second consecutive eleven-win season and brought them to within a game of the Rose Bowl.
Maxwell used Cousins as a mentor last year, and that was the best thing for the sophomore quarterback. Cousins broke many Michigan State passing records, and although Maxwell won't have the same amount of time to do so, he hopes to leave his own footprint on the program.
Maxwell only saw action in four games in 2011, completing 18 of 26 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown. Yeah, these numbers don't have the ideal sample size to make a judgement on a player, but he seems to have the touch on his passes that Cousins had, maybe even better.
Coming out of high school, the young quarterback was highly touted and thought to be one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, even participating in Nike's Elite 11 Quarterback Camp in 2008.
Although there is a lack of experience with Maxwell, Spartan nation is in good hands going into the 2012 season. Maxwell learned enough from Cousins that will translate in his leadership and his play. He is hungry for a Rose Bowl appearance and will get a shot at one next season.
There is only one word that I can think of when I watch Le'Veon Bell play: wow. This guy could not be any more explosive if he tried.
Spartan fans have seen this explosiveness up close for two seasons, and now the entire nation is starting to take notice. Mel Kiper ranked Bell No. 21 on his big board of 2013 draft prospects, which is a high honor for the former 2-star running back.
Le'Veon Bell does not have many weaknesses, but if I had to name one it would be his speed. Although he has been working on speed in this offseason, he needs to prove he has it on the field if he wants to make it at the next level.
With that being said, Bell has great field vision and can spot a hole from a mile away. He also possesses a devastating spin move that leaves defenders scratching their heads.
Watching Bell play almost makes you feel bad for the defense. He runs people over, jukes people out of their shoes and breaks countless tackles. He finished the 2011 season with 948 yards on 182 carries while splitting time with running back Edwin Baker.
Now that Baker is an NFL running back, Le'Veon will carry the rushing load for the Spartans and that will translate into a career year for the back.
Let's just say he will have the Spartans smelling roses for the first time since 1988.
Defense has dominated my list so far, and it shouldn't surprise you that the No. 1 player on the list is a member of the dominating Spartan defense.
William Gholston is the best player on Michigan State and possibly the best defensive player in the Big Ten. Mel Kiper has Gholston No. 14 on his big board for the 2013 Draft and believes the defensive end will enter the draft after his junior season.
Gholston stands at a towering 6'7" and 275 pounds, but that size doesn't mean that Gholston is slow. Gholston is one of the quicker defensive ends in the conference and definitely one of the most dominating. He has the size and strength to make a smooth transition to the NFL and will be a top pick in the draft, no matter which year he decides to enter.
He was named second-team All-Big Ten last season as a sophomore and led all Spartan defensive lineman with 70 tackles and five sacks. He also led the team in tackles for loss with 16.
This man is an absolute beast and shows it every game.
He will have another career year as a junior and follow former teammate Jerel Worthy into the NFL. Gholston will finish his Spartan career with one thing Worthy never experienced: a Rose Bowl.