We're counting down the weeks until kickoff by profiling a different Big Ten team each week. We decided to switch up the order to reflect 11W's predicted finish for the upcoming season, which can be found here and we'll also reach out to fellow bloggers for their inside opinion on important matters.
This week we take a look at Michigan State, a team that dodges the Buckeyes in 2009. The Spartans were 9-4 last year and made it to a second straight bowl game, losing 24-12 to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
The Spartans return 15 starters off a squad that finished third in the B10 at 6-2, but have to replace Javon Ringer and Brian Hoyer during a tough early stretch in their schedule.
COACHING: Mark Dantonio is entering his 3rd year in East Lansing, compiling a 16-10 record, including a 9-7 conference mark. Dantonio is using the Tressel blueprint for building a program back up, locking down in-state recruits (regardless of the pool size) and keeping a consistent coaching staff. His OC, Don Treadwell and DC, Pat Narduzzi followed him from Cincinnati.
OFFENSE: If you didn't realize how much MSU relied on Ringer and Hoyer last year, consider this. Andre Anderson is the leading returner at running back and he carried it 26 times for 116 yards last year, while Ringer carried it 390 times. Kirk Cousins is the leading passer after his 43 attempts a year ago, while Hoyer chucked it 353 times.
Cousins played well against OSU last year in his relief of Hoyer, completing 18 of 25 passes for 161 yards, but sophomore Keith Nichol is an Oklahoma transfer who enters the mix this season and from early reports, he might have the edge. We asked our friends at The Only Colors to lend their local expertise and I wondered if they were nervous about Hoyer and Ringer's replacements.
I'm not nervous about Hoyer's replacement. Even though he helped lead the team to a 9-4 record last year, Hoyer had a 51% completion percentage and a 1:1 TD/INT ratio. Even though Hoyer's completion percentage was deflated by numerous drops last season, either Cousins or Nichol should at least be able to match the numbers the passing game established last year. As for Ringer's replacement, I'm a little nervous. Even though Ringer's YPC wasn't anything to write home about, he was durable, didn't fumble all that much, and provided enough offense in most games to win them. Thus, Dantonio never got comfortable with a second running back such as in 2007 with Jehuu Caulcrick, thus none of the running backs competing for playing time have over 60 rushing attempts in their respective careers. Even though the running back picture is clearing (MSU's looking at four possible backs in their platoon as opposed to seven a week ago), I'm not sure it's going to matter who's carrying the ball if the right side of the line isn't replaced adequately. I'm anxious about the running game, both for the replacements for Ringer and the offensive line.
The battle at running back is an interesting one and don't be surprised to see 2 freshmen splitting the majority of the time. Edwin Baker and Larry Caper, both from Michigan, were 4-star recruits and ranked in the top 35 nationally at RB. Baker has more speed, while Caper has the size, giving Dantonio the ability to implement a thunder and lighting type rushing attack. If neither one works out, the aforementioned Andre Anderson, Ashton Legget and AJ Jimmerson will lead a group that could fight for carriers.
The receivers, including the tight ends, are a deep group. Their top 5 statistical leaders return, lead by wideouts Mark Dell and Blair White. Dell lead the team with 679 yards, while White paced them with 43 receptions. Sophomore BJ Cunningham, a Westerville product snagged 41 balls for 528 yards, while fellow sophomores Chris D. Rucker and Keshawn Martin stood out in the recent scrimmage. Tight End Charlie Gnatt could earn post season honors this year, but will be pushed by 6'6" true freshman Dion Sims, another Michigan product.
The O-Line essentially returns 3 starters this year, but the overall group has a combined 52 career starts. They will be lead by sophomore LG Joel Foreman, who earned freshmen AA honors last year. Senior Joel Nitchman, who started all 13 games at center will be joined by fellow senior Rocco Cironi at LT, while the other 2 spots will continue to be fought for throughout the fall.
DEFENSE: This unit could be one of the conference's best. They will be lead by Greg Jones, the preseason defensive POY, who registered 127 tackles last year, including 12 for a loss. He is joined at linebacker by another junior, Eric Gordon, who made 85 stops himself last season. They might be have a true freshman, Chris Norman (yes, a Michigan product) flanking them when they are in their base defense, but he will have to beat out senior Adam Decker, who was Sparty's fifth leading tackler in 2008, making 56 stops.
DE Trevor Anderson, who followed from Cincinnati is one of the two returning starters on the line, with Oren Wilson being the other. The line will be the weak spot of the defense, but they just have to hold off the opposing line and allow their linebackers to make plays.
As for the secondary, 8 players return with starting experience. You can sense the excitement surrounding this unit when I asked The Only Colors to give me a name that we will be hearing come November.
Since Greg Jones won preseason defensive player of the year, I'm going to go with cornerback Chris L. Rucker (and the "L" does matter, two Chris Ruckers are on the team). He was honorable mention All-Big Ten last year as a sophomore, and has the size (6'2", 195) and experience (19 games played in, 13 of those starts) to match up with almost anyone in the Big Ten. The Spartan secondary is deep this season, and Rucker just might be its playmaker.
KEY GAME: October 3, Michigan: The Spartans ended their 6 game losing streak to the Wolverines last year and there is a sense that Dantonio has leaped the program over RichRod and his crew. MSU plays at Notre Dame and Wisconsin in the 2 weeks leading up to the in state battle and then travel to Illinois the week after. This game could be the easiest of the 4, but MSU needs this win to keep the momentum going within the state.
BEST-CASE: Once again, we go back to the local experts.
11-1. Don't laugh, MSU doesn't play Ohio State this year, and faces Iowa and Penn State, its two toughest tests, at home. The games at Illinois and Wisconsin will be rough, but those aren't games where the Spartans will be huge underdogs. Three areas need to improve during the season for 11-1 to be possible: the receivers need to hold on to more passes, the offensive line has to improve its run blocking, and the defensive line must maintain a consistent pass rush. If those three things happen (the first might happen, the next two are pretty big ifs), MSU should be fine just about everywhere else, and that'll mean 11-1. If not, we're talking about a 7-5/8-4 regular season Spartan team. (And while we're talking about an absolute best case scenario let's add that (1) every other BCS conference has a tie for first place between multiple 2-loss teams so we get to play Utah in the national championship game and (2) every player but Nick Sheridan transfers out of Michigan's program.)
WORST-CASE: If the O-line and QB's struggle, it could be a disappointing season for MSU, but they should be no worse than 7-5. Besides ND, they take on Montana State, C. Michigan and W. Michigan in their OOC slate, while the other conference games are at Purdue and Minnesota and home against Northwestern, all winnable games. They host Penn State to close out the season, so regardless of their record, they are going to play a major hand in settling the conference race.