This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
Just like he did as defensive coordinator at Ohio State and head coach at Cincinnati, Mark Dantonio has taken another team to the top of the conference and high national rankings in East Lansing. Dantonio does it with defense, and the combination of that with a record-breaking quarterback Kirk Cousins put MSU over the top in 2010 and 2011.
Despite achieving two 11-win seasons in the past two years, the Spartans have not quite managed to win an outright conference championship or a BCS bowl selection. Nevertheless, this program has earned respect the past two seasons and people are beginning to understand that these Spartans are no fluke. This program is built to remain a contender in the Legends Division for years to come.
Throughout this series of preview articles, the Legends Division has been referred to as the clearly stronger division in 2012. Part of the major reason for this is Michigan State, which will be just as strong on defense as the stifling unit that held opponents less than 20 points per game in 2011.
The offense has some major question marks, but that should only make a big difference in the games where Michigan State needs to have everything working to win. Even without Kirk Cousins, the Spartans have enough talent remaining to play for another championship in Indianapolis in 2012.
Will Michigan State continue to dominate the rival Wolverines? Will the Spartans offense find a passing game to threaten the opposition? Will the defense put up even better numbers than the exciting 2011 unit? Let's take a look.
Last season the offense needed to replace a lot of the offensive line but nearly none of the skill position players. Having a record-setting quarterback made up for a lot of the problems, if there were any on the offensive line. This year, the line returns intact except at left guard, and that will allow the replacements at quarterback and wide receiver additional time to make plays.
Last season the Spartans looked to have two great running backs in Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell, but Baker was benched thanks to fumble problems. That let Bell put the team on his back and he contributed nearly 1000 yards for the season. This was a bit of a disappointment with the high expectations for both running backs, but Bell will find the going a lot easier in 2012 with an experienced offensive line.
The burning question for this year's offense is the passing game. Not only will Andrew Maxwell have to take over as quarterback after only seeing limited playing time in five games in 2011, he will need to find a whole new set of targets to throw to.
That may not be a bad thing though, as sometimes receivers and quarterbacks who start together get on the same page quicker than those who have to learn a new quarterback, or vice versa. The best of the new receivers and tight ends appear to be sophomore WR DeAnthony Arnett and junior TE Dion Sims. There's no doubt the passing game will take a step backward, but probably only a small step.
Look for Michigan State to really leverage Bell and his line to try and grind out some games this season. The defense is more than good enough to play the field position game, so the offense just has to take advantage of opportunities when they are presented rather than carry the team.
As alluded to above, the defense is what will make this team go far, and that is just how Coach Dantonio likes it. Eight starters return, and one of the new faces had a lot of playing time before redshirting last season. This team gave up only 277 yards per game in 2011, with 101 on the ground.
That productions all begins up front, where two new players will be plugged into the line. William Gholston and Marcus Rush with anchor the ends again and should continue to put up a lot of big plays in the backfield after a combined nine sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2011. Tyler Hoover is the senior who decided to redshirt a season ago, and he also knows how to get into the backfield.
When the defensive line is not disrupting the opposing offense, the linebackers are doing it. All three starters return and they combined for 16.5 sacks in 2011. Junior Denicos Allen was the real breakout star last year with 11 of those sacks, but offenses cannot just focus on him because Chris Norman and Max Bullough can also make big plays. This is possibly the best linebacker crew in the Big Ten, although Wisconsin might have something to say about that.
The defensive backfield also brings back three out of four starters and all four of the primary backups from 2011. All of the chaos in the backfield caused by the front seven led to some of the best numbers Michigan State has put up in over a decade (177 passing yards allowed per game).
Both cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard are lockdown coverage experts who are capable of making interceptions when the opportunity arises. They both grabbed three apiece last season and may get even more turnovers in 2012.
This defense is a well-oiled machine that should stifle opponents into frustration and mistakes in 2012. If that happens in some of the bigger games, then Michigan State might survive the gauntlet of the Legends Division and then knock off Wisconsin (or whomever else comes out of the Leaders Division) in Indianapolis.
If there's something Mark Dantonio has succeeded at even more than defense in East Lansing, it has been special teams. Michigan State is always in the top 20 special teams unit nationally, and that should be no different this year.
Senior K Dan Conroy won all-conference honors as a sophomore but then took a slight step backward with 17/23 on field goals last season. Conroy did try more longer field goals, though, and he does have the leg to connect about half the time or more from 50 yards out. That gives Michigan State a huge advantage in playing the field position game that should be the normal this year.
Sophomore P Mike Sadler is possibly even more impressive, as he is strong enough to boot 70 yard punts when necessary. Sadler dropped 25 of his 61 punts within the 20-yard line and averaged about 41 yards per punt. If that number improves in 2012, then Michigan State should never be in bad field position for a long period of time.
For the return game, a new punt returner will need to step up, but Nick Hill will continue to handle kick returns in all likelihood. Hill did not break any touchdown runs in 2011 but he does have the explosiveness to do so, should he find the right blocking on a certain kickoff.
The special teams unit is completely solid—something that is becoming expected for Michigan State.
The Spartans' schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
8/31—Boise State (win)
9/8—@ Central Michigan (win)
9/15—Notre Dame (win)
9/22—Eastern Michigan (win)
9/29—Ohio State (win)
10/6—@ Indiana (win)
10/20—@ Michigan (loss)
10/27—@ Wisconsin (loss)
11/24—@ Minnesota (win)
Projected record: 10-2, 6-2 Big Ten
Credit certainly goes to Michigan State for having the guts to schedule the very difficult opener against Boise State, which has gotten the better of teams like Virginia Tech and Georgia in similar circumstances. However, this will likely be one down year for Boise State with only seven starters back (two on defense) and so Michigan State gets the nod out of the gate.
Then the schedule shapes up nicely for the remainder of September, despite having a couple tricky home games against Notre Dame and Ohio State. It is possible that the Spartans might drop one of these early games, but that will not be the stretch that determines the season.
Much like last year, that stretch is three straight games against Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska. This time, the Spartans have to travel to Ann Arbor and Madison, and it is difficult to pick against these top caliber teams at home. If there ever were a strategy for pulling these road upsets, it is solid defense and special teams.
At best, Michigan State probably finishes 2-1 in this stretch again. The schedule is very easy after that murderer's row, so Michigan State will stroll back to Indianapolis again if they manage to defeat whomever is at the top of the standings with them at the end of the season.
Another double-digit win is definitely possible and possibly even expected. The ceiling is much higher than that though.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
That's it for the preview...thanks for reading and now the season is here!