Part 3 of our preview of the Big Ten takes us to East Lansing, where Mark Dantonio has questions to answer on both sides of the ball, but a team that's eager to make it back on the field to answer their critics.
Dantonio will be entering his fourth season at Michigan State, and still has yet to see his Spartan team make their first BCS bowl appearance. While last year was arguably the best shot they will have for the next few years, the Spartans have a talented team returning with young players mixed in the group.
The schedule lines up almost just as well as last season, with that fifth game of the season screaming out to be a "take advantage while you can" battle against Ohio State. It still remains to be seen if the Spartans can hang with the big boys of the Big Ten.
Looking Back - 2010
Comebacks, fake field goals, dramatic endings: it was possibly not the year to jump on the Michigan State bandwagon if you were prone to cardiac arrest. Heart-stopping victories against Notre Dame, Northwestern, Purdue, and Penn State made 2010 quite the season for Michigan State.
What jumps off the page immediately when looking back is how efficient the offense was in 2010.
Go through their 13 games, and take out the blowout losses to Alabama and Iowa. You have a team that goes 11-0, scoring 30 or more points in nine of those 11 contests, with the other two scoring 26 and 28. Pretty darn solid if you ask me.
Those consistent numbers on the scoring column landed them just fifth in the Big Ten in scoring offense last year, which is a misleading stat seeing as how the Spartans held off the scoreboard in a couple games last year.
The biggest disappointment from 2010 was obviously the trouncing defeats to Iowa and Alabama, but possibly even worse was the lack of a pass rush last and season. Tyler Hoover was a non-factor, we didn't hear anything from Colin Neely, and the linebackers under-impressed with their ability to get to the quarterback.
Michigan State isn't a team that's going to blitz the heck out of you and force you into screen passes and that sort of thing, but priority number one next season will be to get more pressure on opposing QB's.
While Sparty once again finished on the outside looking in from the BCS, they earned their first Big Ten title in 20 years and answered the bell once again that they are no longer the Spartans of old. Michigan State is now a team under Mark Dantonio that can win the close games at the end and finish the season strong.
With 2011 rolling around, a strong nucleus is back but big names have departed.
2011 - What Lies Ahead
Returning Starters: Seven offense, six defense
2011 will show how Michigan State can re-tool and reload after a season of surpassed expectations.
The Spartans will have a difficult time replacing deep threat receiver Mark Dell, tight end Charlie Gantt and three offensive linemen. Throw in arguably the most productive linebacker in Spartan history in Greg Jones, tackling machine Eric Gordon and shutdown secondary players Chris L. Rucker and Marcus Hyde, and that's quite a list of Spartans that you won't see in East Lansing for 2011.
That has many in Spartan country concerned as to how this team can once again exceed expectations and finally make it into the Rose Bowl or the BCS.
One thing you can bet on heavily is that Michigan State will have to infiltrate the new guys quickly on both sides of the ball, especially in the trenches. The O-Line has major questions to answer, while the defense will need to fill two of the biggest holes left in the linebacking corps.
2011 - Offensive Outlook
Next season's offense will not be lacking in speed and talent at the skill positions in East Lansing.
Mr. Efficiency Kirk Cousins returns for his senior season and will have to once again answer to his critics that he can be counted on to win the big time battles. His TD to INT ratio hovered around the same mark that it did in 2009, with 20 TD's to 10 INT's, and that will have to improve going into 2011.
The rushing attack continues to be the most exciting aspect going into the 2011 season, with the terrifying trio of Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper.
Baker is undoubtedly going to be the No. 1 back going into 2011, but having power backs Bell and Caper behind him will only ease the load that's thrusted upon the junior's shoulders.
The three backs last season combined for nearly 2,000 yards, and if you throw in Keshawn Martin's yardage it exceeds it easily. While most teams will immediately key in on the run, those are the times Michigan State can beat you with the pass.
And there's plenty of weapons that Kirk Cousins can choose from through the air in 2011. One of which will be the speedy play maker Keshawn Martin, who can ignite a fire quickly through the air. TD receptions leader B.J. Cunningham is back for his final year in East Lansing. Throw in experienced former QB Keith Nichol and a bevy of young talent, and Cousins will have no problems tossing the rock to his skill position players.
The one thing that continues to haunt this unit at times is drops. Cunningham is getting better, but between him and Mark Dell there were too many times last season that saw either big plays negated by drops or important passes over the middle land on the turf because of ill-concentration or who the heck knows. Seniors don't drop big passes in big games, so you can guarantee that's an area being addressed in the offseason.
The loss of Charlie Gantt will be significant, but seniors Garrett Celek and Brian Linthicum are ready to step into the fold at tight end.
The biggest reason for worry on offense for next year lies on the offensive line. A unit that wasn't necessarily adept at protecting Cousins last season, by giving up nearly two sacks per game only adds more concern with the loss of three starters.
All Big-Ten tackle D.J. Young and J'Michael Deane along with starting center John Stipek have all graduated and moved on, and they leave three holes that desperately need to be filled by capable big uglies.
One tackle position appears to be taken by converted defensive lineman Dan France. France is a big, wide body that has good footwork to patrol Cousins' blind side. Converted defensive tackle Blake Treadwell is also getting a look at the center position, but over the course of the spring, there were a few too many botched snaps from the middle of the line. Freshman Travis Jackson could be the one to get the nod in the middle if the junior Treadwell isn't up to speed.
The two guard positions are filled with returnees Joel Foreman and Chris McDonald, but that still leaves one open tackle position. The likely candidate for that position would be senior Jared McGaha, who's been thrown around more on the offensive line than a wet towel. But McGaha's more geared for a left tackle position, which is where France is currently penciled in as being ahead of the senior.
That means right tackle could go in favor of junior Zach Hueter, who has battled a nagging shoulder injury that's kept him on the sidelines for the past two seasons. If he continues to battle the injury bug, freshmen Skyler Schofner or Michael Dennis are the next in line.
It's an offensive unit that has a lot to be excited about, but there's still reason to be worried with so many questions needing to be answered on the front five.
2011 - Defensive Outlook
The eye-opening points fest at the Capital One Bowl definitely leaves a negative feeling about the defense going into 2011, but last season the defense had a lot to be pleased with. Hovering right around the middle of the conference in total defense, fourth in scoring defense, and again being in the middle of the road in passing and rushing defense makes 2010 doesn't seem so bad after all.
But now the Spartans must replace two of the most productive linebackers in MSU history, and that leaves gaping holes to fill.
The defense will continue to resemble a 4-3 with a couple different wrinkles, and it's those wrinkles that defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi hopes will aid in the process of replacing a significant amount of talent.
The line begins with rising star Jerel Worthy, who is already looking towards the NFL draft once he completes his junior season. Worthy is a freak of an athlete for being 6'3", 305, and he only appears to be getting better and bigger. Throw alongside him nose tackle Anthony White, and that's a middle no one wants to run into.
The ends are the area that need to be addressed the most. The Spartans will absolutely need junior Tyler Hoover to improve on his pass rush from last season. Just three sacks and 36 tackles will have to get much better as a starter for 2011.
The other side has a couple options that will push to start on Sept. 3rd. The big name that everyone would like to see is Sophomore William Gholston, who was and still is the biggest recruit to come to East Lansing since Charles Rogers in my opinion.
The youngster is still scratching the surface on his pass rushing and run stopping abilities, but if he can blast out of the gates quickly, there's no reason to believe he can start all 12 regular season games this year.
The obvious area of concern is at linebacker, without Jones and Gordon. One starter that does return is strong side LB Chris Norman. The junior had a solid 2010 season alongside the aforementioned seniors and will now be looked to as the leader in the central defense.
Middle linebacker is anybody's guess right now, but Max Bullough would be my guess as the starter. He's the type of guy you want starting in the middle of a defense: big, physical, strong, and a solid tackler. TyQuan Hammock and Steven Gardiner will continue to give chase to the sophomore.
The Star linebacker position should be anchored by hybrid sophomore Denicos Allen. He didn't play much last season, but Allen has shown the quickness and tackling ability that will be needed by the hybrid safety/linebacker position.
In the secondary, you will see immediately how good corner Johnny Adams is going to be next year. While CLR was the guy who got most of the pub, Adams made a name for himself by making 50 tackles and 3 INT's a year ago. Don't be fooled by his 5'11", 170-lb. frame, Adams will muscle you up at the line of scrimmage.
On the other side will be sophomore Darqueze Dennard, who got a chance for some PT when Rucker was suspended last season. Trenton Robinson will hold down the fort at free safety, being another steady tackler and dependent leader. While the strong safety spot still is up in the air, with Isaiah Lewis being the front runner to start there.
It's a defense that has a lot of worries but also star talent in the middle of the D-Line and in the secondary. If the defensive minded Dantonio can figure out the linebacker situation, Michigan State may just have a dependable unit on the field to get stops.
Reason To Be Excited: Talent Returning
Even with all of the experience that's left, there's still a massive amount that returns from last year's 11-2 team. Cousins, Baker, Bell, Cunningham, Martin, Worthy, Adams, Gholston, Robinson: it's an extensive list of impressive players that are back to make another run at the Big Ten title.
And with that impressive trio of backs returning for Kirk Cousins to turn around and look at, Michigan State can be a contender in the first season of the Legends Division.
Reason To Worry: Questions in the Trenches
We know how good Jerel Worthy is, and we can count on the guard positions to be solid on the other side. But there's still a lot of questions about converting Dan France and who will be the guy called upon to anchor the middle of the O-Line.
Throw in the fact that the Spartans had a wail of a time trying to sack the quarterback last season, and it's definitely a cause for concern.
Hoover and Gholston are really going to need to step up big time to pose a formidable pass rush, and there's no doubt Worthy is going to face his fair share of double teams next year. That means Anthony Rashad White will need to be ready to break out, and that still remains to be seen.
2011 Overall Outlook
Best-Case Scenario: Michigan State answers the numerous questions about replacing Jones and Gordon by improving the stout defense from a year ago, while the running game continues to flourish behind a revamped offensive line. Record: (10-2) Legends Division Champions
Worst-Case Scenario: The pass-rush continues to be a problem with Dantonio having problems finding ends that can get to the quarterback. Opponents take advantage of the inexperience at linebacker, while the offensive line is bogged down by not breaking out the rushing game. Record: (6-6)
The schedule is interesting in itself as it actually gets easier towards the end of the season. Concluding the season with home games against Minnesota and IU with road trips to Iowa and Northwestern, and you know the Spartans want to exact some revenge after last season's debacle in Kinnick.
There's no doubt this is definitely another bowl season for Mark Dantonio, but the expectations are once again higher than ever. With a shot at winning the Legends division and a chance to finally hit the jackpot in the BCS, Michigan State will be one team that can play its way in to the big money next year.