Spartans Looking for Bigger Step in 2014: College Football Playoff

Blake BaumgartnerContributor IJuly 25, 2014

Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio interviewed by ESPN's Chris Fowler Jan. 1 following Michigan State's 24-20 win over Stanford in 2014 Rose Bowl.
Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio interviewed by ESPN's Chris Fowler Jan. 1 following Michigan State's 24-20 win over Stanford in 2014 Rose Bowl.Harry How/Getty Images

Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio’s message to his 2013 team was simple and to the point.

“You will be the ones,” Dantonio told those remaining from 2012’s 7-6 outfit at their team banquet following Michigan State’s 17-16 victory over TCU in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Selected by many to not even win the Legends Division in its final year of existence, as the Big Ten has gone to East and West Divisions with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014, Michigan State’s 13-1 season surprised many.

Snapping No. 2 Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak last December with a 34-24 victory in the Big Ten Championship Game before coming back to top Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl, Dantonio’s charges set a school record with the 13 victories.

Armed with double-digit wins in three of the last four years, highlighted by finishing No. 3 in both major polls following their 24-20 win over the Cardinal, how will the Spartans respond in 2014?

As the College Football Playoff enters its first year of existence after the Bowl Championship Series has come and gone, motivation to get a spot in the four-team playoff shouldn’t be an issue.

In The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s fourth annual media poll before Big Ten media days in Chicago, Doug Lesmerises shows only nine of the 29 Big Ten writers the paper contacted for the poll picked Michigan State to repeat.

Ohio State led the way in the East by garnering 195 points, including 23 first-place votes, while Michigan State finished with 180 points, including 10 first-place votes.

Can Michigan State take the first step toward entry into the College Football Playoff in 2014 by aiming to repeat in the Big Ten?

The answers start with the firepower the offense returns before focusing on defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s defense.

With quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and a stable of wide receivers led by the likes of Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings all back, the Spartan offense should rival the unit that averaged 29.4 points in 2013.

Langford, who came on strong as the season progressed, ran for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns last year and is one of two Spartans predicted to be the conference’s scoring leader in 2014, according to the Big Ten Network.

Meanwhile, all Cook did was throw for a combined 636 yards and five touchdowns in the back-to-back wins over Ohio State and Stanford in the midst of throwing for 2,755 yards and 22 TDs on the year.

Certainly, Cook will have to cut down on his propensity to try to do too much in being somewhat careless with the football at times, but he only threw six interceptions last year.

Being able to take care of the ball is paramount for him to take the next step in his development at the helm of the Spartans offense.

Detroit Free Press MSU beat writer Joe Rexrode says Nick Hill, Delton Williams and a pair of incoming freshmen, Madre London and Gerald Owens, will all be in the mix to help take some pressure off Langford:

Langford is back for his senior season and a logical candidate for preseason/early-season mentions for major awards. He will have to do his work, though, behind an offensive line that lost three significant players. And he’ll be working in an offense that may be better off spreading things around a bit. There’s a lot of talent behind Langford, and co-coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman have the opportunity to throw some different running styles at defenses while keeping Langford fresh.

Despite losing Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Isaiah Lewis off of a defense that finished second in total defense in 2013, Narduzzi and Dantonio, a former defensive coordinator at Ohio State from 2001 to 2003, should have another strong unit to work with.

Shilique Calhoun, who had 7.5 sacks in 2013, will spearhead a unit that brings back Marcus Rush, Trae Waynes, Taiwan Jones and R.J. Williamson as returning starters from a defense that gave up 13.2 points a game last year.

But as the now-departed Kyler Elsworth proved in coming through on the pivotal fourth-down play in the fourth quarter against Stanford in the Rose Bowl while filling in for the suspended Bullough, Narduzzi and Dantonio do an unbelievable job of developing their guys.

Demetrious Cox came in highly regarded as a freshman last year and should compete for a spot in the defensive backfield, while a pair of highly recruited freshmen in Malik McDowell and Montae Nicholson could see immediate playing time.

In a column earlier this month, Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg said all the love Ohio State is getting is understandable.

After all, Ohio State has yet to lose a Big Ten regular-season game under third-year coach Urban Meyer, going 16-0 in conference and 24-0 overall.

But Rittenberg astutely points out a case for Michigan State, a program that became the first team in conference history to go undefeated in conference play while winning every game by at least 10 points in 2013:

I guess I'm trying to figure out where a significant gap exists between Ohio State and Michigan State. I understand the risk of basing too much on a previous season. MSU has to rise up again. But it's not like the Spartans are a one-year marvel. They have averaged 10.5 wins over the past four seasons.

Maybe the perceived gap is based on talent and recruiting. Ohio State has advantages in those areas and a roster that now includes several classes of Meyer recruits. But MSU also has made upgrades in the quality of players it brings in, and its ability to develop players can't be questioned at this point.

If you can make a case why Ohio State is well ahead of Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten, be my guest. But don't base it on Ohio State being Ohio State and Michigan State being Michigan State. That type of lazy, it-is-how-it-is-because-it-always-has-been thinking enters too many college football conversations.

Ohio State could storm through the Big Ten en route to its first recognized league title since 2009. But the Buckeyes don't look like world-beaters on paper. They have significant questions (offensive line, linebacker, secondary, running back) and likely must get through East Lansing on Nov. 8 to return to Indianapolis.

They aren't entitled to the pedestal they have occupied in the past.

Go ahead and list the Buckeyes as your favorite. I might, too. But this year's Big Ten preseason buzz involves two teams, not one.

Having possibly its three toughest Big Ten games at home by virtue of hosting Nebraska Oct. 4, Michigan Oct. 25 and Ohio State Nov. 8, the Spartans’ schedule looks favorable after their Sept. 6 meeting at Oregon.

Bye weeks are nicely scattered, after the game at Oregon and after the Michigan game on Oct. 25, so Michigan State will have two weeks to prepare for its prime-time showdown with Ohio State.

While entering the hostile environment of Autzen Stadium will be difficult, many people believe the Spartans match up with Oregon somewhat because they’re similar to the team that has consistently given Oregon problems in the Pac-12—Stanford.

Comcast SportsNet Northwest Ducks beat writer Aaron Fentress gave his early look at the Ducks’ schedule in May and has the team going 10-2 overall—with a loss to Michigan State:

In what could be considered the biggest non-conference game ever played at Autzen Stadium, the Ducks will face a serious foe with a defense capable of giving them fits. This will be the first test to see if last year’s four-game stumble by the offense at the end of the season has been rectified. The Spartans were 13-1 last season and ended the year with wins over No. 2 Ohio State (34-24) and a 24-20 victory against No. 5 Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The same Stanford that has owned Oregon the past two seasons. Oregon will need young wide receivers to emerge in order to win this game. For now, I'm calling this game a loss. MSU 31-27.

Given the returning talent and the somewhat favorable conference schedule with Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State all coming to Spartan Stadium this fall, a berth in the first College Football Playoff is plausible.

But Michigan State will have to continue to heed the message Dantonio offered as a motto for last year: Chase It.

It just has a different meaning this year.


Blake Baumgartner, who has covered prep events as a freelancer for both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, can be reached on Twitter @BFBaumgartner.