Mark Dantonio enters his seventh season at Michigan State.
Michigan State's 7-6 football season in 2012 was a far cry from what was expected.
In 2010 and 2011, the Spartans grew accustomed to competing for division and Big Ten conference championships. However, in 2012, they fell flat without the services of quarterback Kirk Cousins and his great stable of receivers: Mark Dell, Keith Nichol, Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham.
In 2013, Michigan State could face a similar storyline: lots of talent, but issues at quarterback and receiver. To avoid a tailspin, head coach Mark Dantonio has to find that comfortable pace that allowed for his team's great success in 2010 and 2011.
This season, the Spartans are without star running back Le'Veon Bell, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. But they return a defense that is among the best in the nation, spearheaded by senior linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen. Senior defensive tackle Tyler Hoover also figures to be a powerhouse for a defense that ranked No. 4 nationally in total production a year ago.
Senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell is expected to manage the games, providing some sort of offensive assistance to relieve the pressure on Bullough and Co.
Entering his second year as starter, Andrew Maxwell has to find consistency in order to become a threat.
Topping off the Spartans' 2012 season was a 17-16 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over TCU, which just a few years ago was a national title contender.
Opening last fall with a Friday night home game against Boise State was supposed to catapult the Spartans toward a magical finish. However, not even that 17-13 win over the No. 24 Broncos was enough to get Michigan State on the straight and narrow.
Late miscues, not to mention 14 combined points, separated the Spartans from a 10- or 11-win campaign. In order to stay in the hunt for the Big Ten championship in 2013, the Spartans, who finished 3-5 in the conference last year, have to emerge from the close battles as winners.
Easier said than done, right?
A junior last season, quarterback Andrew Maxwell struggled to find his stride in the absence of Kirk Cousins, who many considered the greatest signal-caller in Michigan State history. This time around, more experience and familiarity with the offense should make Maxwell's job easier.
Plus, Maxwell is now two years removed from Cousins, so the comparisons should start to dwindle.
Michigan State's O-Line had issues in 2012. Dan France has moved from LT to guard.
(Depth chart information via SpartanMag current as of Aug. 14. The team's official preseason depth chart differs and is cited as such below)
1. RS SR Andrew Maxwell 6'3", 212
2. RS SO Connor Cook 6'4", 215
3. RS FR Tyler O'Connor 6'3", 215
Now a possible four-way battle, freshman Damion Terry, a 4-star rated 2013 recruit, is turning heads due to a strong scrimmage
1. RS FR Riley Bullough 6'2", 225
2. RS JR Jeremy Langford 6'0", 208
3. RS JR Nick Hill 5'9", 190
4. FR Gerald Holmes 6'0", 212
Fullback (according to MSU preseason depth chart)
1. SO Trevon Pendleton 5'11", 248
2. JR Niko Palazeti 6'1", 252
3. JR Ty Hamilton 6'0", 236
4. JR Matt Rea 6'1", 247
1. RS SR Bennie Fowler 6'1", 218
2. RS JR Tony Lippett 6'3", 192
3. RS FR Monty Madaris 6'1", 190
4. RS FR Tres Barkdale 6'2", 182
1. SO Aaron Burbridge 6'1", 190
2. SO MacGarrett Kings 5'10", 183
1. RS JR Keith Mumphrey 6'0", 208
2. JR DeAnthony Arnett 5'11", 170
3. RS SO Andre Sims 5'9", 187
1. RS JR Andrew Gleichert 6'5", 256
2. RS SO Paul Lang 6'5", 247
3. RS FR Evan Jones 6'5" (no weight reported)
4. RS FR Josiah Price 6'4", 238
Offensive tackle (left)
1. RS FR Jack Conklin 6'6", 300
2. RS SO Donavan Clark 6'3", 295
3. RS JR Michael Dennis 6'6", 309
Offensive tackle (right)
1. RS SR Fou Fonoti 6'4", 300
2. RS FR Kodi Kieler 6'5", 315
3. FR Dennis Finley 6'6", 305
Offensive guard (left)
1. RS SR Blake Treadwell 6'3", 299
2. JR Henry Conway 6'6", 325
3. RS JR Connor Cruse 6'4", 306
4. RS FR Zach Higgins 6'4", 307
Offensive guard (right)
1. RS SO Jack Allen 6'1", 292
2. RS SR Dan France 6'5", 316 (MSU preseason depth chart: starting at left tackle).
3. RS FR Benny McGowan 6'3", 315
4. RS JR Shawn Kamm 6'7", 312
1. RS JR Travis Jackson 6'3", 280
2. RS FR Kodi Kieler 6'5", 315
3. RS SO Kyle Lints 6'3", 278
The defense doesn't have DE Will Gholston, but it still has LB Max Bullough (No. 40).
(Depth chart information obtained from SpartanMag)
1. RS JR Marcus Rush 6’2”, 250
2. RS SR Denzel Drone 6’2”, 260
3. RS SO Joel Heath 6’6”, 277
1. RS SO Shilique Calhoun 6’4”, 240
3. RS FR Jamal Lyles 6’3”, 230
1. RS SR Micajah Reynolds 6’5”, 320
2. RS JR James Kittredge 6’4”, 271
3. RS SO Damon Knox 6’4”, 280
4. RS SO Brandon Clemons 6’3”, 300
1. RS SR Tyler Hoover 6’7”, 310
2. RS SO Lawrence Thomas 6’3”, 280
3. RS SO Mark Scarpinato 6’3”, 280
4. RS FR David Fennell 6’2”, 270
1. JR Taiwan Jones 6’3”, 232
2. RS SR Jairus Jones 6’1”, 205
3. RS SO Ed Davis 6’3”, 220
1. RS SR Denicos Allen 5'11", 232
2. RS SO Ed Davis 6'3", 220
1. SR Max Bullough 6’3”, 252
2. RS SR Kyler Elsworth 6’1”, 225
3. RS SO Pat Rhomberg 6’0”, 225
1. SR Darqueze Dennard 5’11”, 190
2. RS FR Jermaine Edmondson 6’0”, 175
3. RS FR Mark Meyers 6’0”, 175
1. RS SO Trae Waynes 6’1”, 175
2. RS FR Ezra Robinson 6’0”, 170
1. SR Isaiah Lewis 5’10”, 195
2. RS SO R.J. Williamson 5’10”, 200
3. RS SO Arien Colquhoun 6’1”, 189
1. RS JR Kurtis Drummond 6’1”, 197
2. RS FR Demetrius Cox 6’1”, 195
3. RS JR Mylan Hicks 5’11”, 190
1. JR Mike Sadler 6’0”, 183
1. RS SR Kevin Muma 6’0”, 191
1. RS SR Andrew Maxwell 6’3”, 212
1. SO Taybor Pepper 6’4”, 185
Kickoff and punt returner
1. RS JR Nick Hill 5’8”, 190
2. RS SR Bennie Fowler 6'1", 218
Bennie Fowler (No. 13) has fought off foot problems for two years.
It's a good thing that wide receiver is a deep position for Michigan State, which has seen transfers, injuries and bad rap songs take its toll on the group.
However, the Spartans will miss A.J. Troup, a walk-on sophomore who suffered a season-ending knee injury in July. Later that month, Troup underwent surgery.
Bennie Fowler, who contends with a lingering foot issue, leads a gallery of wide receivers struggling to reach the heights set by their predecessors in 2011.
Senior Tyler Hoover has dealt with various injuries throughout his career. The 6'7", 310-pound defensive tackle has been banged up from his shoulder to his calf. In 2012, he missed five games because of a lower-leg strain.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio told Diamond Leung of MLive.com that Hoover, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility, has set the bar for himself:
Tyler's got to remain healthy, but I think that from a consistency basis, maybe he was our most consistent defensive lineman of the year last year when you go back and look at the film and the cutups. Tyler going into his sixth year, he knows what to do. He plays with a high motor, and he'll continue to push forward.
Skyler Burkland played a little left tackle during his time at Michigan State. However, during the offseason, the husky lineman retired from the game due to continuous injuries.
Other than the standard bumps, bruises, nicks and cuts, the Spartans enter 2013 relatively healthy and intact.
Kyler Elsworth is an under-the-radar player, but not at MSU.
Kyler Elsworth is one of the most underrated linebackers in the Big Ten.
Now a senior, the former Goodrich High (Mich.) star chose a career as a walk-on football player, leaving behind a sure Division I wrestling scholarship. Trading the mat for the football field was a great choice for Elsworth, who has continuously demonstrated an ability to make plays when Michigan State needs them most.
In 2011, he burst onto the scene with a huge blocked punt against Wisconsin to earn Big Ten special team honors for that week.
Although he is behind senior Max Bullough in the depth chart, expect Elsworth to be one of the top run-stoppers for the Spartans. Strong linebacker play has been a staple of the Mark Dantonio era, and Elsworth has been around the block, so fulfilling high expectations shouldn't be a problem for him.
On offense, Bennie Fowler is a threat from anywhere on the field. He hasn't had consistent stretches due to injury, but he's most certainly a wideout capable of heavy production. This past season, Fowler led Michigan State with 524 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He finished second for the Spartans with 41 catches, right behind Keith Mumphrey, who had 42.
Aaron Burbridge made a name for himself last fall by averaging 12.6 yards per catch. Now a sophomore with more experience, he should have another solid year.
Redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor is pushing for playing time, according to Diamond Leung of Mlive.com. He's in a three-way battle for the No. 1 job with Andrew Maxwell, the starter last year, and Connor Cook, who played later in the year.
Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi head MSU football.
Head coach: Mark Dantonio, seventh year
Offensive coordinator: Dave Warner, seventh year with team, first as co-OC*
Defensive coordinator: Pat Narduzzi, seventh year
Secondary: Harlon Barnett, sixth year
Quarterbacks: Brad Salem, fourth year
Wide receivers: Terrence Samuel, third year
Offensive line: Mark Staten, seventh year; Jim Bollman, first year (formerly of Ohio State)
Spartans are in second season without former OC Don Treadwell, who now coaches at Miami (Ohio).
For a full list of assistants and associates, visit CoachDantonio.com.
Brady Hoke is searching for his second win against Mark Dantonio.
Fri. Aug. 30 vs. W. Michigan
Sat. Sept. 7 vs. South Florida
Sat. Sept. 14 vs. Youngstown State
Sat. Sept. 21 @ Notre Dame
Sat. Oct. 5 @ Iowa
Sat. Oct. 12 vs. Indiana
Sat. Oct. 19 vs. Purdue
Sat. Oct. 26 @ Illinois
Sat. Nov. 2 vs. Michigan
Sat. Nov. 16 @ Nebraska
Sat. Nov. 23 @ Northwestern
Sat. Nov. 30 vs. Minnesota
Most important games: The Spartans don't play Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin, making their Big Ten slate a little easier to stomach. A strong start is necessary if they're going to down Notre Dame in Week 4.
An early test of wills, Michigan State's collision with the Irish on Sept. 21 should tell Mark Dantonio everything he needs to know about his 2013 team.
Starting and ending the 2012 season with a two-game winning streak, Michigan State has to find a way to put together consecutive victories. This season's first three games are certainly winnable and a 7-1 or 6-2 record prior to meeting Michigan is possible. The Wolverines snapped a four-year losing streak to Michigan State in 2012, and it's safe to say that the Spartans aren't going to give away another one. Michigan leads the series, 68-32-5.
Losing, 28-24, to Nebraska in 2012 was a heartbreaker for the Spartans. Look for them to put extra emphasis on this budding rivalry.
The Spartans are still getting used to not having Don Treadwell as their offensive coordinator.
In 2011, their offense was efficient and high scoring. In 2012, the year after Treadwell's departure, they averaged 20 points per game, about 11 points fewer than the previous season.
Last year, the Spartans led the Big Ten in average time of possession, keeping the ball for 33:17 per game. First downs were few and far between—about 19 per game for eighth in the Big Ten—so controlling the clock is paramount until their offense becomes more consistent.
The best-case scenario would be for a quarterback to immediately claim the starting job, and the sooner, the better. The offense has weapons. Receivers Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphrey and Aaron Burbridge are a year wiser and a solid trio of targets for an accurate thrower.
Without Le'Veon Bell, the rushing yards may not come as easily. An early experiment in the backfield should prove whether Nick Hill and Gerald Holmes can spell Riley Bullough. Opening with Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State, Michigan State's first three contests are prime time for running back development.
After that, it's Notre Dame, and that's not a time to tinker.
As one of the Big Ten's heaviest hitters, Max Bullough does the Bullough name proud. The senior has been a productive linebacker since Day 1 and he's primed to end his career as one of the program's defensive greats on his way to the NFL.
In 2012, he ranked No. 9 among the Big Ten's tacklers with an average of 8.5 per game and had 2.5 sacks.
Tyler Hoover's five-year stay at Michigan State hasn't been a cakewalk. As one of the top defensive linemen of the Mark Dantonio era, the sixth-year senior undoubtedly wants to go out a winner. Despite surgeries and uncertainty, he continues to be a cornerstone for the defense.
Denicos Allen led Spartans linebackers with three sacks in 2012. He's one of his team's most athletic defenders and makes plays.
Senior Darqueze Dennard has developed into a shutdown corner. Seeing the field as a freshman certainly helped, and by his junior year, he was among the best in the Big Ten. He's one of the last lines of defense for coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
Entering his final season in college, Dennard transformed from a relative unknown—he was a 2-star recruit, per Rivals.com—to the No. 4 corner prospect of the 2014 NFL Draft, according to NFLDraftScout. He's a testament to the Spartans coaching staff's commitment to player growth.
As mentioned earlier among the players to watch, Kyler Elsworth could be a major contributor this season. Like his linebacker brethren, his relentless pursuit of ball-carriers hardly takes a break.
The Spartans used to have the X-factor in Keshawn Martin, who enters his second year with the Houston Texans.
A weapon in all aspects, Martin scored every way possible. Playmakers such as Martin don't come along often.
However, the Michigan State backfield may have a player capable of providing a slice of Martin's excitement in running back Nick Hill, one of the team's fastest and most elusive athletes.
If more power is required, there is another option. Redshirt freshman Riley Bullough's linebacker genes complement his aggressive running style. At 6'2" and 225 pounds, he's difficult to tackle and should prove valuable in short-yardage situations and beyond.
"He’s versatile enough that he can do a lot of things, including line up at a slot receiver,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner told Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press. “He’s versatile enough, and he’s smart enough.”
As a senior, the starting QB job is Andrew Maxwell's to lose.
The premier home date of the year will be when Michigan State hosts Michigan on November 2. The plan for Mark Dantonio is simple: Beat Brady Hoke.
In 2012, the Spartans lost, 12-10, to the Wolverines, snapping a four-year winning streak. Obviously, another win this year would validate that recent dominance while a loss could prove that the four-year spree was nothing more than a passing trend never to be repeated.
Michigan State's 2013 season can be boiled down to one question: How will the Spartans play before meeting Notre Dame on Sept. 21. That duel will serve as a barometer.
Will the offense fall flat or will it be picked up by the coaching staff's desire to play faster and cleaner? Settling on a quarterback should help answer that.
The Michigan State defense has gained national attention, but can it perform without former stars such as Will Gholston? He had 4.5 sacks in 2012. The pressure is on to replace that production.
Agony in defeat or pleasure in victory? The choice belongs to MSU.
Michigan State's strength of schedule is ranked No. 61 in the nation, according to college football guru Phil Steele of PhilSteele.com.
After playing a schedule in 2012 that was No. 21 in those same rankings, a lighter load should lead to success, prompting optimism for Spartans' fans.
Mark Dantonio has the program on the uptick. He's likely looking to prove that 2012 was a minor slip rather than a sign of things to come. Michigan State's previous share of a conference title in 2010 was a great starting point, but Dantonio has unfinished business. His job won't be done until Michigan State is consistently mentioned alongside Michigan and Ohio State as elite Big Ten programs.
The Spartans figure to be in the race for a Legends title until November. Losses against the Wolverines and Huskers could quickly derail any hopes of winning the division. Assuming Michigan State takes care of its prior schedule, that pair of games could be the difference between a New Year's Day bowl or some December bowl sponsored by a chain of motels.
Hope for a 10-2 season, cross your fingers for 9-3, but prepare for 7-5. Too many variables at important positions make it difficult to see Michigan State as a threat to Michigan and Nebraska.
Follow Bleacher Report's Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81