The 2014 Big Ten season will look a lot different with new divisions and new schools attempting to fit in. However, one thing will look very familiar in the conference—the title will go through East Lansing and the Michigan State Spartans.
No, it's not as simple as saying "to be the man, you've got to beat the man," even if the Spartans are coming into the season as defending champions.
Sure, being the defending champions helps in saying the title runs through East Lansing. However, there are unique reasons for that statement being made this season—four of them to be exact.
What are those specific reasons? Let's explore why the Big Ten title will be decided in East Lansing.
This is a team that has been through the best of times (see last season) and the worst of times (see a 7-6 season in 2012), and in 2014, the MSU defense is going to go through some changes. The ability of those replacements to draw on the experience of the past two years is a big help.
The vast majority of players looking to make an impact remember what it was like to struggle, along with the joys of hoisting championship trophies.
It's no secret as to how the Spartans have gone from mediocre to annual Big Ten contenders. It's all about the culture head coach Mark Dantonio has built in East Lansing.
That culture is all about confidence—confidence inside themselves and confidence in each other. At least that's how Dantonio sees it, according to Mike Griffith of MLive.com.
I've continually said this: we have great players and great coaches, but we've won big here because of chemistry. We have players here who believe in themselves, we have an environment where our players can be productive and they can thrive, and they feed off each other. We have good people. There's a culture of confidence here.
It's that culture that has been passed down from the top to the first-year freshman, and it seems to be working. Michigan State has won nine or more games in four of Dantonio's seven seasons in East Lansing.
Before he arrived in 2007, the Spartans won nine-plus games just once in the decade prior to Dantonio's hire.
Clearly, the culture that has been created in East Lansing is special, and it has made a huge difference in reversing the decade-plus run of mediocrity around the program.
That culture and the steady message MSU provides to its players can only help in a year of transition for them and the Big Ten as a whole.
Paying the Price
Being successful comes at a price, and no, we aren't talking about the grueling hours in the weight room or studying film—we're talking actually paying the price, as in dollars and cents.
Michigan State's defense has become a national power, and it has drawn the attention of many programs throughout the country. This offseason, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi nearly left for a head coaching job at UConn.
Instead, he returned, and the Spartans saw the need to make sure his services were valued as much as possible. Michigan State opened up the checkbook and are now paying Narduzzi $904,583 per year, which makes him the highest paid assistant in the Big Ten.
He wasn't the only one rewarded for winning a title, as Dantonio also got a significant pay raise from $1.9 million to $3.64 million for this upcoming season.
Keeping the two biggest architects of the Spartans' success is a huge help to the ability of this season to run through East Lansing.
All About the Schedule
One look at the new Big Ten East Division, and most assume Michigan State is screwed. After all, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are also in the division—and that's a scary proposition from the outside looking in.
However, when you look at 2014 on it's own, the Spartans have a big-time advantage in the division race thanks to the scheduling folks at the Big Ten office.
Yes, MSU gets Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State on its schedule, but what is important is that two of the three are being played in East Lansing. The Spartans also get Nebraska out of the Big Ten West Division at home as well.
One set of games could be the biggest determining factor in who does represent the East Division in Indianapolis as the Spartans play host to Ohio State and then following a bye week will also host Michigan.
Should MSU win both of those contests, it will sit in pretty good position to win its division. On the flip side, should one or both of the visitors win in East Lansing, their title hopes increase significantly.
After all, we're talking about four of the six teams considered front-runners coming to East Lansing. The only two major contenders not to see Spartan Stadium are Wisconsin and Iowa, who aren't on the MSU schedule.
Come December 6, 2014, the chances are rather high whoever is hoisting the Stagg Championship Trophy will have been affected by a game played in East Lansing.
Look Who's Returning
A lot of the focus of this offseason has been on what the Spartans will be missing on the defensive side of the ball. With seven starters having to be replaced, it's easy to see why most would fixate on that.
However, that fixation also ignores who is returning to Michigan State this season. MSU returns eight players named All-Big Ten by the coaches and media.
That's a good place to start building from regardless of what team you are. It helps when you are building from a position of strength.
MSU's strength will be on the offensive end of the ball, at least early on. That's because second-team All-Big Ten quarterback Connor Cook and honorable mention All-Big Ten running back Jeremy Langford return for a second year as starters.
Both were amongst the best at their positions last season, with Cook being a steady hand most of the year until breaking out against Ohio State and Stanford—setting career highs for passing yards in those back-to-back games (304 and 332 yards, respectively).
Langford finished the year fifth in rushing yards (1,422) and led the conference in rushing touchdowns (18).
The offensive line loses three starters, but the two returning players (center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin) were rising stars last year as a sophomore and redshirt freshman, respectively. Allen was even recognized as honorable mention All-Big Ten by the coaches last season.
Despite the departing players on defense, there's still plenty to build around as well. Both defensive ends, Marcus Rush and Shilique Calhoun, return after a season in which they combined for 12.5 sacks and were both recognized as All-Big Ten players (Calhoun on the first-team and Rush as honorable mention).
Kurtis Drummond, an All-Big Ten safety (first-team by coaches and second-team by media) also returns to help solidify a secondary that needs two new starters. Oh, and the other returning starter, Trae Waynes, also happened to be named honorable mention All-Big Ten as well.
The popular story may be to focus on what is gone from the Spartans roster this offseason, but the reality is there is plenty of talent left over in East Lansing for this team to be just fine.
When you combine all of those factors, it's hard to see how the Big Ten championship doesn't come directly through East Lansing.
Now the question is, will it be the Spartans or one of the big-name visitors that end up with the Stagg Trophy when it's all over in Indianapolis?
*Andy Coppens is a college football featured columnist. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.