Losing Kirk Cousins was going to be tough for Michigan State, no question about it, but few saw just how rough 2012 actually was going to be coming at the start of the season. Michigan State went from preseason title contender to pretender by season's end.
A 7-6 finish was not what the players, fans and most in the media had in store for the Spartans in 2012, but, that's exactly what they got and ultimately the team had one person to thank for any semblance of a weapon on offense—running back Le'Veon Bell.
He rushed for 1,793 yards on 382 carries last season for an average of 137.9 yards a game.
Those are impressive numbers to say the least. Problem is, he isn't on the 2013 version of the Spartans and that could be a major problem for a team that is still struggling to find consistency in the passing game and looking to get back to conference championship contention.
How big of a problem is not having Bell in the backfield this year? Try returning all of 48 yards from your leading returning rusher from last season. That's the total for Nick Hill, who sits third on the depth chart heading into Friday's game against Western Michigan.
As a team, the Spartans return all of 71 yards worth of experience from the running back position, with the other 23 coming from the named starter to open the season, Jeremy Langford.
The depth and lack of experience is so bad that former linebacker Riley Bullough (brother to star linebacker Max) sits in a position to see significant minutes behind Langford at running back this season.
With those facts staring you in the face, one would expect the team to lean on the passing game instead, right? Well, not so fast for the Spartans.
Michigan State will run out on to the field Friday night with Andrew Maxwell under center once again, but that may not last, as the quarterback battle in fall camp lasted right up to week one preparations this season.
The battle was so up in the air that instead of whittling down the competition as camp went along, head coach Mark Dantonio actually added two quarterbacks to the mix.
That's not exactly confidence personified in your returning starter from a season ago. So, that means once again the running back position could take on a significant role.
Last year the Spartans ran the ball 492 times compared to just 465 pass attempts on the season. That is some balance to strike to say the least, but it also shows just how important having a lead rusher was to what little success the MSU offense had.
With the cast of characters in the passing game, and along the offensive line virtually the same heading into 2013, it's clear that the rushing game is going to have to play a significant role once again.
However, asking a group of green running backs to find a way to replicate what Bell did for this team a season ago may be asking a bit too much. Unless someone comes out of nowhere to surprise us all, the 2013 version of the Spartans offense could produce similar results as last year and that would mean not being a contender once again.
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