2010 was a dream regular season for the Michigan State Spartans.
It all started in Week 2. Trailing Notre Dame by three in overtime, Mark Dantonio elected to pass on a 46-yard field goal attempt. Literally. Holder Aaron Bates hit Charles Grantt for a 29-yard walk-off. The play—called "Little Giants"—was actually drawn up for Le'Veon Bell, but Bell was covered up by an Irish defense that was expecting the fake.
Then there was the loss of Dantonio for the next two weeks due to a heart attack suffered the morning after "Little Giants" defeated the Fighting Irish. He was expected to make his return vs. Wisconsin on Oct. 2 but was re-hospitalized after a blood clot. His absence may or may not have been responsible for providing the inspiration necessary for the Spartans to knock off the ninth-ranked Badgers.
Dantonio returned the following week, just in time to supervise a 34-17 beat down of rival Michigan. The victory—Sparty's third in a row vs. the Wolverines—served as a huge blow to the Heisman hopes of Denard Robinson, who came into the contest as the Heisman pace setter. Robinson was picked off three times, and his campaign for the bronze statue never regained traction.
And then, three weeks after an inexplicable blow out loss in Iowa, the Spartans were once again on the ropes—trailing Purdue 31-13 in the fourth quarter. If you're like me, it was at this point that you saw that score flash across the bottom of your screen and said to yourself, "same old Michigan State." Only this time they weren't.
This time Sparty put up 22 points—including 15 unanswered—on the way to a come-from-behind victory. The win saved their season, as the Spartans went on to defeat Penn State in Happy Valley the following weekend to improve to 11-1 and grab a share of the Big Ten title.
But that sound you heard on New Years Day? That was the sound of the Michigan State Spartans crashing back to earth, to the tune of a 49-7 demolition at the hands of Alabama. The Capital One Bowl shellacking was so demoralizing that it threatens to overshadow all of the good that preceded it.
Will it, though? The Iowa loss and the Purdue deficit could have easily derailed a championship run last season. Dantonio didn't allow it. His next step on the road to building the program in East Lansing is simply to repeat that feat.
There may be better backfields in college football. But, there aren't many. Edwin Baker led the Big Ten in rushing a year ago, and he will once again spear head the three-headed monster at running back. Le'Veon Bell is a bruiser (6'2", 230lbs) that ran for 605 yards as a true freshman last season. Third string sophomore Larry Caper would be a starter at a slew of other BCS schools.
Senior signal-caller Kirk Cousins is a third-year captain. Efficient as he may be, he's an adequate passer at best. But, what he lacks in throwing ability he more than makes up for in leadership. Cousins is the type of quarterback that can lead a team to a championship in much the same way as former Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel.
So talented is the Spartan receiving corps, that former quarterback Keith Nichol looks to be the fourth option. B.J. Cunningham is 10 receptions shy of passing Matt Trannon's school record of 148. Neither are the scariest mark for opposing defenders. That designation belongs to senior Keshawn Martin, who ranked eighth in the Big Ten in all purpose yards.
If there is a hitch in the plan for the Spartans offensively, it lies in the uncertainty along the offensive line. Only the guards return for 2011, and effectively replacing the vacancies—especially at left tackle—is nothing short of crucial.
The bad news: Greg Jones is gone.
The good news: The Spartans seem to be adequately tooled to prevent a regression.
The defensive line should be very good. Jerel Worthy is the key plug in the middle. On the ends, junior Tyler Hoover and sophomore William Gholston will get the nod. Gholston is a former 4-star recruit and the younger cousin of former New York Jet, Vernon Gholston.
Jones' replacement is sophomore Max Bullough. Flanking him will be sophomore Denicos Allen and junior Chris Norman. Norman could be poised for a break-out season.
The secondary should be solid, with Johnny Adams and Trenton Robinson returning at corner and free safety, respectively. Robinson is Jones' likely successor as the leader of the defensive side of the ball. Joining them will be promising sophomore corner Darqueze Dennard and sophomore bell ringer Isaiah Lewis.
Junior kicker Dan Conroy only missed one field goal attempt in 2010 (14-of-15).
Redshirt freshman Mike Sadler will replace Aaron Bates as the punter.
Keshawn Martin will be among the best return men in the Big Ten in 2011. He'll return kickoffs and punts for the Spartans.
Sept. 17 at Notre Dame
Last season's meeting set the tone for both schools for the remainder of the season. The Spartans made a habit of winning big games—several times with late game heroics. While Notre Dame stumbled to a forgettable 8-5 record.
Michigan State needs a win in South Bend to boost their confidence heading into the October gauntlet that awaits them.
There may only be two draftable players on this team, but there could be as many as five with the potential to help out.
Kirk Cousins shouldn't be drafted by anyone unless you're in a league of 20 teams. That seems unlikely. But keep an eye on him. He has has a superb running game and excellent receivers. The possibility of him helping you in your quarterback's bye week is there.
B.J. Cunningham is a top 100-caliber player that can be of great assistance to those of you in PPR leagues. You can scoop him up in the middle portion of your draft. Keshawn Martin will go undrafted and could serve as a beneficial sleeper acquisition if you lose some skill players to injury.
Needless to say, the Spartan you want is Edwin Baker. The Big Ten's leading rusher in 2010 will see bulk carries in an offense geared towards the ground. Le'Veon Bell hurts Baker's value to an extent, but the fact remains that there was a time last season when a team could win games by starting both backs. I know, because I saw it happen.
Baker will leave the board in the fourth to sixth round range. Bell will likely go undrafted in most league's but could make for an excellent acquisition for an owner looking to handcuff Baker at the end of the draft.
The Spartans bolster as much talent at the offensive skill positions as anyone in the Big Ten. Defensively, they were able to weather the loss of Greg Jones reasonably well. On talent alone, there is no reason to expect Michigan State to take a step backwards this season.
But, the Spartans' October slate is murder. Ohio State-Michigan-Wisconsin-Nebraska (including road trips to Columbus and Lincoln). That follows a visit to South Bend in September. Michigan State could be realistically 3-5 (0-4) without even playing poorly.
Projection: 9-3 (6-2)