Michigan State went from 7-6 Big Ten also-ran to 13-1 Big Ten champion last season, which on the surface made it seem like one of the most improved teams in the country.
But it wasn't.
Yes, MSU was one of the best teams in the country, but it didn't have to improve too much to get there. It was never really all that bad. The 7-6 season in 2012 was hampered by bad luck in one-score games, but according to the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, Mark Dantonio's team was still one of the 15 best in college football.
All of which is to say, well, that you shouldn't write this team off as a fluke. Last year required some magic, but in many ways it was the culmination of a seven-year building project, not some arbitrary blip on a radar. Care to guess how many teams have won 11 or more games at least three times since 2010? The answer is five.
South Carolina, Oregon, Stanford, Alabama…and Michigan State.
Dantonio has done a heck of a job turning "little brother" into a full-grown man, and this year's team, which debuted in the Top 10 of both major preseason polls, has a chance to be his best. But there isn't that much further to climb. This team either contends to make and win the College Football Playoff, or it takes a step back.
Which one do we think it will be?
|2014 Michigan State Coaching Staff|
|Title||Name||Years w/ Team|
|Head Coach||Mark Dantonio||8|
|Assistant Head Coach||Pat Narduzzi||8|
|Co-Offensive Coordinator||Jim Bollman||2|
|Co-Offensive Coordinator||Dave Warner||8|
|Defensive Coordinator||Pat Narduzzi||8|
|Quarterbacks Coach||Brad Salem||4|
|Running Backs Coach||Dave Warner||8|
|Wide Receivers Coach||Terrence Samuel||3|
|Tight Ends Coach||Jim Bollman||2|
|Offensive Line Coach||Mark Staten||7|
|Defensive Line Coach||Ron Burton||2|
|Linebackers Coach||Mike Tressel||7|
|Secondary Coach||Harlon Barnett||8|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Mike Tressel||7|
Pat Narduzzi could have been gone by now. He could have been a head coach elsewhere, most notably Connecticut, but he turned down the job. According to Dantonio, that wasn't the only one.
Instead, the eighth-year defensive coordinator and reigning Broyles Award winner (nation's top assistant coach) was rewarded internally with a massive raise. With a new annual salary of $904,583, he becomes one of the highest-paid assistants in the country.
And it's impossible to say he hasn't earned it.
Narduzzi's return is a big reason folks remain so keen on this year's defense despite some important personnel losses. As long as he and Dantonio are running the show, there is only so far it can fall.
But credit should also be given on the other side of the ball, where what started as an anemic offense eventually found its stride in the second half of the season. Former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman was a…um…let's say controversial hire last offseason, and the japes at his expense got louder when Michigan State's offense was getting outscored by its defense in the first few games of the year.
By the end of the season, Bollman had had the last laugh.
No one is going to confuse this offense for Auburn's nor Bollman and Dave Warner for Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee, but the way MSU's coordinators and position coaches—chief among them Mark Staten and Brad Salem—cobbled together a viable unit was impressive. With plenty of pieces returning, it should improve again in 2014.
The positional ranks of the coaching staff are loaded with veterans of the industry, many of whom accomplished great things at the non-FBS level under current FBS head coaches. Defensive line coach Ron Burton, for example, won a Division II national title under Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State in 2002 (before spending the next decade at Air Force), and receivers coach Terrence Samuel spent a few years under Craig Bohl at North Dakota State.
Jim Tressel's nephew, Mike Tressel, followed Dantonio from Ohio State to Cincinnati to Michigan State and does a fine job with the linebackers and special teams (two strengths of last year's team).
What to Watch for on Offense
|Michigan State 2014 Offensive Depth Chart|
|1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Connor Cook (Jr.)||Tyler O'Connor (So.)||Damion Terry (Fr.)|
|RB||Jeremy Langford (Sr.)||Nick Hill (Sr.)||Delton Williams (So.)|
|FB||Trevon Pendleton (Jr.)||Andrew Gleichert (Sr.)||Dylan Chumra Fr.)|
|WR (X)||Tony Lippett (Sr.)||Aaron Burbridge (Jr.)||A.J. Troup (Jr.)|
|WR (Z)||Keith Mumphrey (Sr.)||DeAnthony Arnett (Jr.)||Andre Sims Jr. (Jr.)|
|WR (F)||R.J. Shelton (So.)||Macgarrett Kings Jr. (Jr.)||Matt Macksood (So.)|
|TE||Josiah Price (So.)||Jamal Lyles (So.)||Andrew Gleichert (Sr.)|
|LT||Jack Conklin (So.)||Dennis Finley (Fr.)||Chase Gianacakos (Fr.)|
|LG||Travis Jackson (Sr.)||Benny McGowan (So.)||Brandon Clemons (Jr.)**|
|C||Jack Allen (Jr.)||Brian Allen (Fr.)||Devyn Salmon (Fr.)|
|RG||Connor Kruse (Sr.)*||Miguel Machado (Jr.)||James Bodanis (Sr.)|
|RT||Donavon Clark (Jr.)||Kody Kieler (So.)||Nick Padla (Fr.)|
|MSUSpartans.com / MLive.com / Author Projections|
*See: injury news
**Recently moved to defensive tackle
Andrew Maxwell took the first snap of the season for Michigan State last year. Riley Bullough was one of his featured running backs, and Aaron Burbridge was one of his most important receivers.
Man, what a difference a year makes.
Connor Cook relieved Maxwell of his duties after just a few games, and even though it wasn't all sunshine from the beginning—lest we forget Cook's own benching on the final drive in the loss at Notre Dame—it eventually worked out better than anyone could have expected.
Michigan State would have been happy finding a half-decent game manager, but instead it found a quarterback capable of winning the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl (and playing his best on those two biggest stages). It would have done fine with just a serviceable-but-forgettable college player, but instead it found a potential top-10 NFL draft pick (per Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com).
This year, along with 1,400-yard tailback Jeremy Langford, Cook returns to an offense that should be even better from start to finish than it was in the last two games of 2013.
Especially at receiver, where every impactful player besides Bennie Fowler returns and Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett finally looks ready to make a difference, the ceiling on this unit is markedly higher than before.
The one thing that might be able to derail that is the offensive line.
The first string as currently listed should be one of the better groups in the Big Ten, but depth behind that is a serious concern.
It got even more serious recently, too, after the team announced an undisclosed injury to right guard Connor Kruse (more on that below). In his absence, right tackle Donavan Clark will slide inside to guard—where he has experience playing—and sophomore Kodi Kieler will take his spot at tackle, per Mike Griffith of MLive.com.
The Spartans should be able to survive that blow, for now, but losing Kieler from the second team makes true freshman Brian Allen the most reliable backup lineman on the offense. It's never good when a true freshman is the most reliable backup lineman on your offense.
With Kruse already down, this line cannot afford a single added injury.
What to Watch for on Defense
|Michigan State 2014 Defensive Depth Chart|
|1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DE||Shilique Calhoun (Jr.)||Demetrious Cooper (Fr.)||Tyler Topolinski (Fr.)|
|DT||Joel Heath (Jr.)||Malik McDowell (Fr.)||Enoch Smith Jr. (Fr.)|
|NT||Damon Knox (Jr.)*||Lawrence Thomas (Jr.)||James Kittredge (Sr.)|
|DE||Marcus Rush (Sr.)||Evan Jones (So.)||Marquez Sweat (Fr.)|
|STAR||Darien Harris (Jr.)||Mylan Hicks (Sr.)||T.J. Harrell (Fr.)|
|MIKE||Taiwan Jones (Sr.)||Jon Reschke (Fr.)||Shane Jones (Fr.)|
|SAM||Ed Davis (Jr.)||Riley Bullough (So.)||Chris Frey (Fr.)|
|FC||Darian Hicks (So.)||Arjen Colquhoun (Jr.)||Justin Williams (Fr.)|
|FS||Kurtis Drummond (Sr.)||Demetrious Cox (So.)||Mark Meyers (So.)|
|SS||RJ Williamson (Jr.)||Jalyn Powell (Fr.)||Montae Nicholson (Fr.)|
|BC||Trae Waynes (Jr.)||Jermaine Edmondson (So.)||Jalen Watts-Jackson (Fr.)|
|MSUSpartans.com / MLive.com / Author Projections|
*See: injury news
Michigan State lost two of the most important defenders in program history from one of the most important defenses in program history: cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Max Bullough.
How the Spartans replace those two has been a subject of much debate this offseason, although it looks like their actual spots will be occupied by 2013 starters. Trae Waynes is moving over from field corner to boundary corner, and Taiwan Jones is sliding in from "Star" linebacker to the "Mike."
Even though two-thirds of the second and third strings are made up of freshmen, Michigan State's linebacking depth is actually in good shape. The third sibling of the Bullough clan, Byron, isn't listed above, but he gives MSU a 10th linebacker to feel good about.
New "Sam" linebacker Ed Davis, who takes over for Denicos Allen after showing well in limited time last season, might be the breakout star of the group.
Secondary depth, however, is a bit of a bigger concern. The top three safeties (Kurtis Drummond, RJ Williamson and Demetrious Cox) all played well last year and can be relied upon, and Waynes is a legitimate All-America candidate. But the battle for the second cornerback spot between Darian Hicks, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson lasted a little too long and seemed a little too close for comfort.
According to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press, Dantonio finally named Hicks the starter Thursday afternoon, but no player stepped up and grabbed the role the same way Waynes did last season. (We will touch on this a little bit more below.)
As far as the defensive line is concerned, there's an interesting contrast that might make the depth chart above sort of misleading.
In essence, the defensive end position has an obvious top three (Shilique Calhoun, Marcus Rush and Demetrius Cooper) that might be the three best linemen on the team. Behind them, though, the best options to play at defensive end are actually a couple of end-tackle hybrids: Lawrence Thomas and Malik McDowell.
An injury to starter Damon Knox has thrown a wrench into the defensive tackle rotation, likely pushing Thomas into the starting role. Coaches have played coy with Knox's injury, so we don't know what it is or how long he'll be out (more on this below).
The top three in the middle do not look as good as the top three at end, but the tackles have a little more depth. Impressive freshmen such as Craig Evans and David Beedle didn't even crack the third string listed above, but if something were to happen to Calhoun or Rush (knock on wood), chances are McDowell or Thomas would start seeing more snaps on the edge because there are more viable bodies inside.
(In fact, the defensive tackle rotation was so deep that projected contributor Brandon Clemons was moved to offensive guard in the wake of Kruse's injury to provide depth at a thinner position.)
Overall, the defensive line should be the strength of the defense—and, by extension, this team. Calhoun and Rush are the obvious stars, but Cooper, Thomas and McDowell are the names to watch.
Cooper was the breakout performer of spring practice, emerging in much the same way Calhoun did last offseason; Thomas is a junior and onetime blue-chip recruit who finally seems ready to reach his potential; and McDowell is the incoming 5-star recruit regarded as one of the biggest signings in program history.
How that trio performs will be the difference between a very good line and a great one. It could also be the difference between finishing near or at the top of the Big Ten standings.
|Michigan State Injuries (as of 8/22/14)|
|Player||Injury Type||Length of Injury|
|DT Damon Knox||Undisclosed||Indefinite|
|OG Connor Kruse||Undisclosed||Indefinite|
|OG Zach Higgins||Torn ACL||Out for Season|
For the most part, Michigan State has been blessed with injury luck during fall camp. It has only added two names on the report.
Unfortunately, those two names were both supposed to be starters—and new starters at that. They were supposed to be replacing Micajah Reynolds (Knox) and Dan France (Kruse), and their absence forces MSU to pull back even deeper into its depth chart.
Unfortunately, the coaches have played coy on both players' injuries, which makes it impossible to properly analyze them.
"Damon Knox has got some surgery right now, so he'll be out for a little bit of time," Dantonio said in the vaguest terms he could think of, per Griffith. On Kruse he said: "We don't talk about injuries if they aren't season-ending, and it's not season-ending."
Hopefully, MSU can get both guys back in the fold and improve its interior line play. Reading the tea leaves on Dantonio's comments, it feels like Kruse has a better shot of returning than Knox, if only because no surgery has been confirmed.
That would be big, because, as mentioned above, defensive tackle depth is far superior to offensive line depth.
Part of that scarcity along the offensive line has to do with Zach Higgins' torn ACL, which was suffered in April and will likely keep him out for the season. He would have provided a valuable extra body up front but wasn't competing for a starting job.
X-Factor: CB Darian Hicks
In Narduzzi's defense, the second cornerback is just as important as the first. He doesn't get the same type of credit or even half of the fanfare, but teammates and coaches understand how vital he is.
Two years ago, that second cornerback was Dennard, who combined with Johnny Adams to make MSU's press-man schemes work. Last year, that second cornerback was Waynes, who combined with Dennard to make MSU's press-man scheme work.
This year, that second cornerback will be Hicks, and if he doesn't combine well with Waynes, MSU's press-man schemes will not work.
Is Hicks good enough to do it? Definitely. Will he get there as soon as this season? Your guess is as good as mine. Based on how he played in limited reps last season, he should be OK. But stepping into a starter's role for a unit called the "No Fly Zone" comes with pressure, and pressure affects different people in different ways.
To Hicks' credit, Tom Dienhart of Big Ten Network called him a potential breakout player, saying he's "a perfect fit…because he's a top athlete with the cover skills to make MSU's aggressive scheme work."
Despite standing only 5'10", the physical tools are there for Hicks to have a big season. So is a coaching staff renowned for molding players just like him into stars. The only things standing in his way are inexperience and the pressure of expectations.
On that second front, let's hope he doesn't stumble across this article. Because as far as I can tell, the way he performs will be the key to this Michigan State pass defense.
|Michigan State 2014 Schedule|
|Friday, Aug. 29||vs. Jacksonville State||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Saturday, Sept. 6||at Oregon||Eugene, Ore.|
|Saturday, Sept. 13||BYE||WEEK|
|Saturday, Sept. 20||vs. Eastern Michigan||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Saturday, Sept. 27||vs. Wyoming||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Saturday, Oct. 4||vs. Nebraska||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Saturday, Oct. 11||at Purdue||West Lafayette, Ind.|
|Saturday, Oct. 18||at Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.|
|Saturday, Oct. 25||vs. Michigan||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Saturday, Nov. 1||BYE||WEEK|
|Saturday, Nov. 8||vs. Ohio State||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Saturday, Nov. 15||at Maryland||College Park, Md.|
|Saturday, Nov. 22||vs. Rutgers||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Saturday, Nov. 29||at Penn State||University Park, Pa.|
All things considered, the schedule shapes up pretty well.
Obviously, the game that sticks out off the top is a Week 2 road game at Oregon, but no matter what happens in Eugene, I wouldn't call that situation "make or break." No one knows for sure how the CFP selection committee will work, but I find it hard to believe that a 12-1 Big Ten Champion whose only loss came in a true road game at Oregon would be omitted from the field of four.
Truly, the make-or-break game comes against Ohio State. Even without Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes have the talent to beat anyone in the conference—Michigan State included—and new quarterback JT Barrett should have his feet wet by November 8.
Especially if Michigan State's offensive line is not holding up, a date with Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington and the rest of OSU's defensive line could end in disaster.
Beyond that, a couple of tricky road games stick out as ones Michigan State could lose (but should probably win).
Maryland is one of the biggest question marks in the country, because there is no way to evaluate a team that can't stay healthy, and Penn State, despite NCAA sanction-related depth problems, has a first string capable of beating Sparty in Beaver Stadium.
Last year, PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg went off in his regular-season finale, throwing for 339 yards and four touchdowns in an upset win at Wisconsin that ended the Badgers' BCS dreams.
A loss would do the same to the Spartans' with the CFP.
Michigan State is shedding the green shoulder yoke from its white road uniforms, which produces (in my opinion) a much cleaner look.
Check it out for yourself:
Like it? Hate it? Totally ambivalent toward it?
Sound off in the comments.
In 2013, Michigan State played its two best games in its last two games of the year. They were also its only two on a neutral field.
In perhaps their toughest road environment of the season, the Spartans slogged to an ugly, one-score loss at Notre Dame. Yes, that game was contentious/riddled with dubious pass-interference calls, and sure, this team has come a long way since then, but it feels remiss to not at least mention that before heading into Oregon.
I don't think this team has the wherewithal to win in Autzen Stadium. At least not by Week 2, it doesn't. That is an unfortunate reality of the schedule, but the fortunate part is that it may not matter in the end.
There's a lot of time to atone for that loss.
And atone is what I expect this team to do, winning the rest of its regular-season games and getting better as the young new starters get used to consistent playing time. The loss of Miller at Ohio State takes at least a little bit of intrigue out of the Big Ten East race, especially since Michigan State gets OSU off a bye and at home.
At 12-1 with an 11-game winning streak and a loss to an ostensible Top 10 team on their resume, the Spartans will have an intriguing case to make the CFP. A lot depends on the other conferences, but I feel with—let's call it 90 percent certainty they would get it.
From there, it is anybody's guess. This team will not be intimidated by anybody, as it proved in last year's Rose Bowl, and it has the horses to win any time, any place, against any caliber of team.
If it gets the No. 4 seed and plays, say, a Florida State or an Alabama, the smart money says it will lose. Sparty maximizes the ability of its recruits as well as (if not better than) any other team in the country, but at some point, recruiting stars and talent tend to win out.
Except, of course, in those rare cases when they don't…
Overall Record: 12-2 (loss in national semifinal)
Big Ten Record: 8-0
Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT