The big 2014 Michigan State football preview: Will a step back even matter?

Michigan State has to replace a few defensive difference-makers and probably won't be quite as good in 2014 after a magical 2013 campaign. But if the Spartans beat Ohio State at home, that might not make a difference.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. This is how it's supposed to work

Mark Dantonio has pretty much ruined it for all other coaches taking on rebuilding jobs. Rebuilding is a very difficult thing, often frought with fits and starts, surges and stumbles. But while there have been a couple of setbacks in Dantonio's seven years in East Lansing, they have been minimal and rather easy to explain. Dantonio's tenure at State has been as smooth and forward-moving as you'll ever see.

When Dantonio took over for John L. Smith, State had fallen apart. The Spartans were 4-8 and 72nd in the F/+ rankings in 2006, their worst season in probably 15 years. This program is rarely elite but even more rarely bad. In the 14 seasons between 1992 and 2005, MSU had won between five and eight games 12 times, once going over (10-2 in 1999, Nick Saban's last year) and once going under (4-8 in 2002, Bobby Williams' last year).

While the record has fluctuated a bit, State has only regressed in the F/+ rankings twice in Dantonio's seven seasons, and those have been tiny stumbles. The Spartans improved from 72nd to 39th in 2007, stayed at 39th in 2008, slipped to 46th in 2009, surged to 25th in 2010, surged again to 11th in 2011, and slipped to 15th in 2012. Five one-possession losses led to a 7-6 record in 2012, but it was clear that the pieces were still in place for a strong season in 2013.

It was just hard to fathom "strong" meaning "13-1, sixth in F/+, third in the polls."

2. Never disagree with the numbers ... EVER

I hedged on the numbers in 2013.

Michigan State is the kind of team a stat nerd dreams of calling underrated.

A ranking that exceeded the record last year? Check. The 7-6 Spartans came in at No. 15 in the year-end F/+ rankings, ahead of 9-4 Oregon State (No. 18), 10-4 Nebraska (No. 19), 11-2 Boise State (No. 21), 11-2 Clemson (No. 22), and 11-2 Louisville (No. 28). [...] A ton of close losses? Check. State did win four games by one possession, but they also lost five by a combined 13 points.

A ton of experience? Check. Fifteen starters return. [...] Sustained success? Check. [...] It's all there. From a numbers perspective, Michigan State has everything you need to become a sleeper top-10 team (or better) in 2013. But because I actually watched Michigan State play last year, I am struggling to move forward with the Spartan hype. [...]

[T]o field a top-10 team, you have to be able to at least pretend to throw the ball, right? And my eyeballs can't shake the memory of last season's wretched attack. Without dramatic improvement in that single area, I don't see how this team could crack the top 10.

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

For the first month of the season, I felt good about my half-skepticism. The defense was even better than I imagined, but the offense was horrid. Along with a handful of pass interference penalties, a dud offense cost the Spartans in a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame, and it threatened to cost them if not for defensive touchdowns in the first two games.

But the offense came around. And when it did, this was every bit the top-10 team the numbers suggested it could be, and then some.

The Spartans continued the trend of teams seemingly ranked too highly by F/+ one year, then living up to the stats the next year. Notre Dame went 8-5 in 2011 but ranked 13th, ahead of 10-4 Georgia, 11-2 Arkansas, etc. Texas A&M went 7-6 and fired its coach but ranked 15th. The next year, the Irish and Aggies finished 23-3 and ranked seventh and third, respectively. Michigan State and Oklahoma State were 2012's biggest "What?" standouts; MSU went 7-6 but ranked 15th while OSU went 8-5 and ranked 12th. In 2013, they were sixth and eighth, respectively, with a 23-4 record.

(In 2013, the "What?" standouts weren't as obvious, but it's worth pointing out that USC and Arizona each lost four games while ranking 11th and 13th, respectively. So 2014's unexpected surges might come out West.)

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 13-1 | Adj. Record: 12-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 6
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
30-Aug Western Michigan 117 26-13 W 13.0 - 8.8 W
7-Sep South Florida 99 21-6 W 18.8 - 7.8 W
14-Sep Youngstown State N/A 55-17 W 35.7 - 10.5 W
21-Sep at Notre Dame 26 13-17 L 16.4 - 11.1 W
5-Oct at Iowa 29 26-14 W 32.3 - 15.5 W 12.5
12-Oct Indiana 56 42-28 W 26.3 - 16.3 W 13.7
19-Oct Purdue 114 14-0 W 15.2 - 20.3 L 10.5
26-Oct at Illinois 71 42-3 W 35.4 - 7.7 W 11.0
2-Nov Michigan 37 29-6 W 25.2 - 6.8 W 13.5
16-Nov at Nebraska 39 41-28 W 23.7 - 31.4 L 8.6
23-Nov at Northwestern 59 30-6 W 36.6 - 18.0 W 10.4
30-Nov Minnesota 55 14-3 W 30.2 - 12.4 W 15.0
7-Dec vs. Ohio State 9 34-24 W 31.4 - 20.1 W 11.7
1-Jan vs. Stanford 3 24-20 W 32.6 - 13.3 W 11.9
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +4.8% 43 +25.3% 2 +2.0% 29
Points Per Game 29.4 63 13.2 3
Adj. Points Per Game 26.6 76 14.3 1

3. Winning ugly, then just winning

Basically, State's offense was a horror show in September. The Spartans averaged a combined 3.8 yards per play and 272 yards per game in their first three games against FBS defenses while the defense carried it on its back. Against WMU and USF, the defense scored four of the team's six touchdowns. That's magnificent and embarrassing at the same time.

September offensive ineptitude turned into October competence, however, followed by November brilliance.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): State 21.0, Opponent 9.6 (plus-11.4)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 6 games): State 26.4, Opponent 16.3 (plus-10.1)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 4 games): State 32.7, Opponent 16.0 (plus-16.7)

The defense was allowed to take the foot off of the accelerator a bit, and by December, this was one of the two or three best teams in the country.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.08 93 IsoPPP+ 104.5 39
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 41.6% 73 Succ. Rt. + 90.7 91
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 25.8 4 Def. FP+ 108.4 2
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.3 59 Redzone S&P+ 97.7 73
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 16.2 ACTUAL 15 -1.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 81 77 92 79
RUSHING 59 78 82 54
PASSING 84 71 101 89
Standard Downs 103 111 82
Passing Downs 32 42 20
Q1 Rk 107 1st Down Rk 99
Q2 Rk 46 2nd Down Rk 85
Q3 Rk 78 3rd Down Rk 30
Q4 Rk 88

4. Field position and finishing drives

Once the offense stopped getting outscored by the defense and actually began moving the ball a bit, its primary strengths came in what it didn't do. The Spartans didn't handcuff their defense with bad field position, and they didn't blow as many opportunities to score.

Regarding the former: Michigan State had by quite a bit the best field position in the country in 2013. The Spartans were in the top five on both sides of the ball, averaging a start at the 33.5 on offense (fifth) and 25.8 on defense (fourth). A lot of that was the result of a brutally efficient defense and turnovers, but the offense played its role, moving the chains and, again, after a ridiculously awful start, avoiding horrible turnovers. The defense probably isn't going to be quite as dominant in 2014, but it will be good, and the offense's primary job will once again be setting the table nicely.

Regarding the latter: Michigan State asked Dan Conroy to attempt 32 field goals in 2012. Field goals are basically admissions of failure; on average, an FBS offense averaged around four points per trip inside the opponent's 40, and settling for field goals means you're losing ground more often than not. (Granted, field goals mean more when your defense is allowing so few points, but it's still a losing proposition, as evidenced by State's awful close-game record in 2012.)

In 2013, State was still in the upper echelon of field goal attempts -- the Spartans' 22 attempts ranked 34th in the country -- but they averaged 4.3 points per trip inside the 40. That's not great, but it's at least average, and it's still an improvement.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Connor Cook 6'4, 218 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 223 380 2755 22 6 58.7% 16 4.0% 6.6
Andrew Maxwell 15 33 114 0 0 45.5% 1 2.9% 3.3
Tyler O'Connor 6'3, 219 So. 3 stars (5.7) 9 14 90 0 0 64.3% 0 0.0% 6.4
Damion Terry 6'3, 230 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)

5. I was there

As part of my Big Ten road trip piece last September, I happened to be in the stands for State's win over USF. IT was even worse than I expected.

When the game actually starts, it is a caricature. It is what you'd imagine if you were jokingly talking about how awful this game would be. "The State defense will probably outscore the offense again." "USF will probably complete, like, 30 percent of its passes and go nowhere with them." "[Random Michigan State QB] will probably suffer an egregiously ridiculous turnover." "There will be, like, 200 or fewer yards of offense in the first half."

The less said about the actual game, the better, though I will note that State fans are very earnest, if scarred. There was no Bronx in their cheers following the rare good offensive play, even though they had to know a silly mistake was forthcoming. With each increasingly hilarious miscue, the meltdowns around us became louder. My favorite victim was a couple of rows ahead of us; he went through each stage of fan madness, from "WE CAN'T EVEN FIND A KICKER WHO CAN MAKE A CHIP SHOT" to "TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS. I WASTED TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS ON THESE SEATS. THIS TEAM OWES ME MONEY." But when fortunes improved for the team (a 7-6 halftime lead turned into a 21-6 coast with, yes, two defensive touchdowns to one offensive touchdown), he was puffing his chest and looking around, trying to make semi-cocky "I knew we were going to be all right, and I bet you feel stupid for doubting them" eye contact with those around him. Fans are great.

Connor Cook was the administrator of the game's egregiously ridiculous turnover. After a 19-yard rush by Riley Bullough both lit up the crowd and moved State into USF territory with the game scoreless in the first quarter, Cook basically tripped over the midfield logo and lost a fumble. It was a lowlight, but it was also indicative of a performance that saw him go 6-for-11 for 32 yards (25 net yards in 12 attempts including this "sack") and get benched on a couple of different occasions. Cook started, but three quarterbacks played a decent amount, and none of them looked even reasonably decent.

I was continuously reliving this game as I watched Cook complete 24 of 40 passes for 304 yards and three scores against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.

Improvement happens. Players learn and grow, obviously. But the dichotomy of September Connor and December Connor was stunning. In his first three games against FBS opponents, Cook completed 28 of 59 passes (47 percent). But State coaches stuck with him, and in his last four, which included games against Ohio State and Stanford, he completed 72 of 119 (61 percent). He had a nearly four-to-one TD-to-INT ratio, and he proved wonderfully adept at rollouts, which kept linebackers more honest than they had to be early in the year. He showed just enough mobility and just enough efficiency to help State move the ball and set up the defense. And I didn't even remotely see it coming.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Jeremy Langford RB 6'0, 206 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 292 1422 18 4.9 3.8 43.2%
Nick Hill RB 5'8, 198 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 67 344 1 5.1 4.1 38.8%
Connor Cook QB 6'4, 218 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 53 213 1 4.0 2.6 35.8%
Delton Williams RB 6'1, 232 So. 3 stars (5.7) 38 238 1 6.3 7.2 36.8%
Riley Bullough LB 22 83 0 3.8 3.4 31.8%
R.J. Shelton RB 5'11, 200 So. 3 stars (5.7) 21 153 2 7.3 7.8 47.6%
Tyler O'Connor QB 6'3, 219 So. 3 stars (5.7) 8 24 0 3.0 2.0 37.5%
Nick Tompkins RB 5'9, 185 So. 3 stars (5.7) 6 16 0 2.7 1.4 16.7%
Bennie Fowler WR 5 20 0 4.0 6.0 40.0%
Aaron Burbridge WR 6'1, 203 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 4 62 0 15.5 15.2 75.0%
Gerald Holmes RB 6'0, 216 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Madre London RB 6'1, 210 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Bennie Fowler WR-Z 77 36 622 46.8% 18.7% 55.8% 8.1 103 8.1 69.4
Macgarrett Kings, Jr. WR-F 5'10, 186 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 70 42 509 60.0% 17.0% 39.1% 7.3 -18 7.4 56.8
Tony Lippett WR-X 6'3, 191 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 66 44 613 66.7% 16.0% 46.8% 9.3 89 8.9 68.4
Aaron Burbridge WR-X 6'1, 203 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 51 22 194 43.1% 12.4% 49.0% 3.8 -139 3.9 21.7
Jeremy Langford RB 6'0, 206 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 34 28 157 82.4% 8.3% 38.2% 4.6 -145 4.2 17.5
Keith Mumphery WR-Z 6'0, 212 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 29 18 299 62.1% 7.0% 50.0% 10.3 77 8.6 33.4
Josiah Price TE 6'4, 244 So. 3 stars (5.7) 23 17 210 73.9% 5.6% 38.1% 9.1 18 8.1 23.4
Andrew Gleichert TE 6'5, 264 Sr. NR 12 6 49 50.0% 2.9% 100.0% 4.1 -34 3.9 5.5
Trevon Pendleton FB 5'11, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 9 8 127 88.9% 2.2% 55.6% 14.1 44 14.1 14.2
Andre Sims, Jr. WR-F 5'9, 193 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 8 7 55 87.5% 1.9% 75.0% 6.9 -18 5.9 6.1
Jamal Lyles TE 6'3, 250 So. 4 stars (5.8) 8 5 58 62.5% 1.9% 60.0% 7.3 -3 7.4 6.5
Nick Hill RB 5'8, 198 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 7 3 22 42.9% 1.7% 14.3% 3.1 -24 2.6 2.5
R.J. Shelton WR-Z 5'11, 200 So. 3 stars (5.7) 6 4 6 66.7% 1.5% 50.0% 1.0 -42 1.7 0.7
Delton Williams RB 6'1, 232 So. 3 stars (5.7) 4 2 13 50.0% 1.0% 50.0% 3.3 -15 3.4 1.5
DeAnthony Arnett WR-H 5'11, 189 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 2 1 7 50.0% 0.5% 0.0% 3.5 -7 1.6 0.8
Mack Macksood WR-F 5'11, 197 So. NR
Trey Kilgore WR-Z 6'1, 175 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 99.3 2.96 3.05 40.9% 74.5% 19.4% 147.9 3.9% 3.5%
Rank 77 62 82 48 27 69 16 43 14
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Blake Treadwell LG 30 2nd All-Big Ten
Dan France RG 38
Jack Allen C 6'1, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 24
Fou Fonoti RT 24
Travis Jackson LG 6'3, 286 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 17
Jack Conklin LT 6'6, 330 So. NR 13
Donavon Clark RT 6'3, 310 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 6
Kodi Kieler RT 6'5, 309 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Connor Kruse RG 6'4, 317 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Zach Higgins LG 6'4, 315 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Benny McGowan RG 6'3, 319 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Dennis Finley LT 6'6, 307 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Miguel Machado OL 6'6, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Brian Allen C 6'2, 285 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

6. Short yardage and blitzes

There is talent in State's supporting cast.

Jeremy Langford is a strong and durable back, and he's backed up by an experienced Nick Hill and a pair of sophomores (Delton Williams and R.J. Shelton) who showed explosive potential in minimal carries.

And of the 13 players targeted by at least six passes in 2013, 12 return, including explosive senior Tony Lippett, who served as one of basically three No. 1 targets. And really, State's offense was more explosive than efficient in 2013, even though the opposite might have been as or more effective for the defense. Cook and the offense bailed themselves out of passing-downs jams more than one would expect (and also found themselves in a ton of passing downs).

The biggest question mark for the offense, when it comes to whether it can sustain the gains of the final few games or regress again, probably comes up front, where three two- or three-year starters (including all-conference guard Blake Treadwell) are gone. The line wasn't particularly great last fall, but it was basically good at two things: short-yardage run conversion (with help from the powerful Langford) and passing-downs blitz pickup (with help from rollouts). If it can maintain competence in these two areas, the offense will be fine. Not great, but fine.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.16 70 IsoPPP+ 97.7 74
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 29.1% 1 Succ. Rt. + 142.9 1
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 33.5 5 Off. FP+ 104.5 17
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.4 7 Redzone S&P+ 123.8 7
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.3 ACTUAL 28.0 +2.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 2 1 1 2
RUSHING 2 2 1 3
PASSING 3 1 2 6
Standard Downs 1 1 25
Passing Downs 7 3 118
Q1 Rk 4 1st Down Rk 3
Q2 Rk 12 2nd Down Rk 4
Q3 Rk 1 3rd Down Rk 2
Q4 Rk 1

7. Maybe big plays don't matter as much as we think

Michigan State has, to a degree, helped to change the way I look at effective football. Because yards per play is easily the most effective, descriptive box score stat, we have tended to value efficiency over all else when discussing college football. Avoid big plays and win. And to be sure, this has a lot of basis in reality. Just look at the number of teams that go as far into bend-don't-break mode as possible and win games.

But there's some nuance that we've been missing. The number of big plays does matter. The size of the big plays? Not as much.

Michigan State quite clearly had one of the best defenses in the country in 2013. It might have been the best. The Spartans lingered close to the line of scrimmage and challenged opponents to make plays they couldn't make.

Michigan State packs the line of scrimmage with everyone on the team, rarely lining a defensive player deeper than eight yards off the ball and channeling the offense into constricted space. [...]

All in all, the Spartans are designed to be strong against everything college offenses are good at and vulnerable only to plays which college offenses rarely execute with consistency. They invite deep sideline fade routes into minuscule windows. "By all means, waste a down!" They encourage drives based on hitting short out routes or back shoulder hitches with limited yards after catch, or deep throws on well leveraged safeties. They clamp down on the run and option games and swallow up the quick hitting inside routes that all collegiate quarterbacks can throw.

As we see above, when they allowed a big play, it was quite large -- MSU was 74th in IsoPPP+, an opponent-adjusted measure of the magnitude of successful plays. And on passing downs, the big plays were enormous. It's just that there were almost none of them. State wasn't worried about giving up a 40-yard gain instead of a 15-yard gain; the Spartans were simply focused on beating you far more frequently than you beat them.

This sounds simple and logical. Everybody should do it! But to pull off State's defensive approach, the opposite of bend-don't-break in every way, you have to have incredible cornerbacks, an oustanding defensive line, and linebackers who don't miss tackles very often. A lot of teams probably want to do this but can't because they can't identify, land, and develop defensive talent like Dantonio and coordinator Pat Narduzzi can.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 132.2 2.27 2.13 30.1% 44.4% 25.2% 129.5 6.0% 9.0%
Rank 2 3 3 2 2 7 17 27 23
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Shilique Calhoun DE 6'4, 257 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 14 28.5 4.6% 14.0 7.5 1 0 2 2
Micajah Reynolds NT 14 26.0 4.2% 3.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Marcus Rush DE 6'2, 255 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 14 21.5 3.5% 7.5 5.0 0 3 1 0
Tyler Hoover DT 11 20.5 3.3% 4.5 4.0 0 2 2 0
Damon Knox NT 6'4, 275 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 14 15.5 2.5% 2.5 1.0 0 1 0 0
Denzel Drone DE 14 11.0 1.8% 5.0 2.5 0 1 0 0
Mark Scarpinato NT 14 9.5 1.5% 1.0 1.0 0 2 0 0
James Kittredge DT 6'4, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.6)
Lawrence Thomas DE 6'3, 294 Jr. 4 stars (5.9)
Brandon Clemons NT 6'3, 295 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)
Joel Heath DT 6'6, 289 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Evan Jones DE 6'5, 249 So. 3 stars (5.6)
David Fennell DT 6'2, 272 So. 2 stars (5.4)
Demetrius Cooper DE 6'5, 239 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Noah Jones NT 6'3, 285 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Tyler Topolinski DE 6'3, 242 RSFr. NR
Malik McDowell DE 6'6, 292 Fr. 5 stars (6.1)
Enoch Smith, Jr. DT 6'2, 275 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Craig Evans DT 6'3, 305 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Denicos Allen SAM 14 71.5 11.6% 16.5 5.5 0 1 1 1
Taiwan Jones MIKE 6'3, 252 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 14 52.5 8.5% 7.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Max Bullough MIKE 13 50.5 8.2% 9.5 1.5 0 2 1 0
Ed Davis SAM 6'3, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 14 12.5 2.0% 4.0 4.0 0 0 0 0
Kyler Elsworth MIKE 14 9.5 1.5% 1.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Jairus Jones LB 4 8.5 1.4% 1.0 0.0 2 1 0 0
Darien Harris STAR 6'0, 228 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 14 8.0 1.3% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Mylan Hicks STAR 5'11, 199 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 14 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Riley Bullough SAM 6'2, 233 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Jon Reschke MIKE 6'2, 232 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)
Shane Jones SAM 6'1, 238 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Chris Frey STAR 6'1, 223 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Byron Bullough LB 6'2, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

8. This defense isn't going to sink very far...

...but it will almost certainly sink.

State's 2013 defense was the perfect combination of talent, experience and system. The Spartans had a line that could get to the passer with minimal blitzing (and when they did blitz, it was incredibly effective), they had the most sure-tackling set of linebackers in the game, and they had probably the best cornerback in college football in Darqueze Dennard.

Now Dennard, two of the three primary linebackers, and three of the top four tackles are gone. There is all sorts of talent and potential in the new batch of defenders, but it is, to a certain degree, a new batch.

With this core group of talent, State ranked fifth (plus-17.9 percent), third (plus-20.8 percent), and second (plus-25.3 percent) in Def. F/+ over the last three years. There is more than enough proven talent here to lead a likely top-10, or even top-five, defense: ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, Taiwan Jones (who moves to middle linebacker to replace Max Bullough), safety Kurtis Drummond, corner Trae Waynes, etc. And State has recruited increasingly well on the defensive side of the ball recently, which makes sense. With Narduzzi still calling the shots and Dantonio leading the way, State's defense is going to be very good. It just probably won't be as good as last year.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Kurtis Drummond FS 6'1, 200 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 14 70.0 11.3% 3.5 0 4 6 1 0
Darqueze Dennard CB 14 47.5 7.7% 3.5 0 4 10 2 0
Isaiah Lewis SS 13 43.5 7.0% 1 0 2 8 0 0
Trae Waynes CB 6'1, 183 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 14 42.5 6.9% 1.5 0 3 5 0 0
R.J. Williamson SS 6'0, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 14 30.5 4.9% 3 0 1 2 0 0
Mark Meyers FS 6'0, 180 So. 3 stars (5.5) 14 7.5 1.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jermaine Edmondson CB 6'0, 178 So. 3 stars (5.5) 13 4.5 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Demetrious Cox FS 6'1, 200 So. 4 stars (5.8) 14 4.5 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Arjen Colquhoun CB 6'1, 193 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 10 3.0 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Darian Hicks CB 5'10, 181 So. 3 stars (5.6) 14 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ezra Robinson CB 6'0, 178 So. 3 stars (5.6) 12 1.5 0.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jalyn Powell SS 5'11, 206 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Justin Williams CB 6'1, 175 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Montae Nicholson DB 6'2, 202 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)
T.J. Harrell S 6'1, 210 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Vayante Copeland CB 6'0, 186 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

9. Beware defensive injuries

Maybe there are healing powers in the MSU Dairy Store ice cream, but State got pretty lucky from an injuries standpoint last season. Of the 14 players who averaged at least 1.0 tackles per game in 2013, only three missed a game with injury. Starting tackle Tyler Hoover missed three games with a calf injury, starting safety Isaiah Lewis missed the Youngstown State game, and second-string linebacker Jairus Jones played in only four games because of an MCL injury.

Hoover's injury could have been costly if State hadn't had such strong depth up front, but otherwise this was about as injury-free a season as you could hope to have. The problem is that the odds of being mostly injury-free for two straight years are not great. State could have all the depth in the world and could be ready to account for any injury that takes place -- hell, it's not hard to imagine that being true when you look at the list of potential options above -- but we won't know that until or unless the Spartans have to prove it. They got away with basically playing six linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs in 2013. They'll probably have to cast the net wider this time around.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Mike Sadler 6'0, 170 Sr. 76 42.5 9 19 33 68.4%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Kevin Muma 80 62.3 35 0 43.8%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Michael Geiger 5'8, 186 So. 36-38 7-8 87.5% 8-8 100.0%
Kevin Muma 12-13 4-6 66.7% 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
R.J. Shelton KR 5'11, 200 So. 9 22.1 0
Nick Hill KR 5'8, 197 Sr. 5 19.0 0
Macgarrett Kings Jr. PR 5'10, 186 Jr. 20 10.3 0
Andre Sims Jr. PR 5'9, 193 Jr. 15 8.6 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 29
Field Goal Efficiency 26
Punt Return Efficiency 91
Kick Return Efficiency 38
Punt Efficiency 37
Kickoff Efficiency 36
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 55

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
29-Aug Jacksonville State NR
6-Sep at Oregon 3
20-Sep Eastern Michigan 121
27-Sep Wyoming 105
4-Oct Nebraska 40
11-Oct at Purdue 108
18-Oct at Indiana 47
25-Oct Michigan 32
8-Nov Ohio State 4
15-Nov at Maryland 51
22-Nov Rutgers 78
29-Nov at Penn State 37
Five-Year F/+ Rk 19.3% (16)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 26
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 9.1
TO Luck/Game +1.4
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (7, 5)

10. Ohio State comes to East Lansing

From the devastating defense, to the out-of-nowhere offensive competence, to the Rose Bowl bid, to Rich Homie Quan, Michigan State's 2013 season was one of the most unique and memorable in the program's history.

State was perhaps a smidge lucky when it came to injuries and turnovers, but they only won one game by single digits; the offense stepped up when it needed to, the defense was stunning, and this was just a really damn good team.

It won't be as good in 2014. The offense line is a question mark, and the defense must replace just enough breakthrough talent that, while it will be excellent, it probably won't be transcendent.

And that might be just fine. Granted, State's probably not winning in Eugene on September 6, but when it comes to winning the Big Ten, three of the four most highly projected opponents on the schedule come to East Lansing; that includes Ohio State on November 8. Granted, the schedule isn't without its trickiness -- two huge home games (Michigan, Ohio State) are sandwiched by two tricky road games against explosive (and flawed) opponents (Indiana, Maryland). The slate isn't easy, but if State is still a top-15 team, it's manageable. And if they stifle the Buckeyes, they could reach the Big Ten title game again.

Turnarounds aren't supposed to work this well, but one has in East Lansing.

More from SBNation.com

In This Article

Teams
Players
X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.