In the last two seasons, only six teams have a win total higher than Michigan State's 22: Boise State, LSU, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford and TCU. Ohio State and Michigan are both 18-8, Nebraska is 19-8 and two-time defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin can only match the Spartans at 22-5. State performed at a top 10 level last year, and it returns almost its entire defense and running game.
Of course, State also lost a star quarterback, a pair of great defensive tackles and almost every receiver who caught a pass last year. So how much does depth matter over star power? Granted, in players like running back Le'Veon Bell and defensive end William Gholston, State still has some stars, but the quantity has dropped from this time last year. And it is a testament to the job head coach Mark Dantonio has done that, apparently, people aren't automatically writing off the Spartans following the turnover despite the lack of a first-tier name.
Make no mistake: Dantonio has done an incredible job. He inherited a fragile team from John L. Smith that had won just 14 games in three years, had won just two of its last 12 one-possession games and had won just two of its last 15 games after Halloween. The last two years: 22 wins, 8-1 in one-possession games, 8-2 after Halloween. He has slowly choked the life out of the Michigan State stereotype and created a healthy, interesting program. He has become the heart of Sparty nation, if you will. While Michigan has focused on catching Ohio State in recent years, Dantonio's Spartans have been busy focusing on, and beating, the Wolverines. They have done it four straight years, and they have finished with as many or more overall wins for four years as well.
Still, the maize and blue did improve significantly last year. And Michigan coach Brady Hoke is recruiting incredibly well, even by Michigan's pretty high standards. Dantonio has some work to do to maintain State's recent superiority, and if he has a Rose Bowl bid in him, he might want to get on that. State came within three points in 2011, and they lost a tiebreaker in 2010. They have benefited greatly from Michigan's significant step backwards, but it appears that ship is righting itself. State either needs to win immediately with new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell, or it needs to raise its recruiting game even more than Dantonio already has. It is not a given that State's window is closing, but the path to a title could be getting a lot bumpier soon. No pressure, Maxwell.
When the pieces are in place -- when State has sturdy linebackers who guarantee efficiency on standard downs, solid safeties preventing big plays, a deep running back unit and line capable of wearing opponents out, and a quarterback who excels as a game manager -- then State is capable of winning big under Dantonio. And with recruiting excelling in recent years, they could move more and more toward every-year success. But for now, the Spartans will need a host of sophomores to step up on defense to maintain last year's mojo. In a Big Ten Legends Division with no clear leader, they could take a step backwards in 2011 and still potentially compete for a spot in the inaugural Big Ten championship game. At least they better hope so, as they probably aren't in position to win 11 games again this fall. […]
One would think that a major conference team that managed to win 11 games despite an overall ranking of 30th (and despite getting obliterated by the best team on its schedule) got some lucky bounces along the way. And to be sure, a 4-0 record in close games suggests the same (after all, the genius fake field goal against Notre Dame was only genius because an Irish defender fell down). But in all, they weren't quite as lucky as you might think. Their YPP margin is balanced out slightly by what was rather poor fumbles luck, and as their Adj. Score suggests above, they really were quite consistent. State succeeded in ways they can duplicate in the future -- punishing run game, play-action, and an aggressive, fundamentally sound defense. But while there is a lot to like about the offense (basically the same things one would have liked last year, minus some line depth), the defense looks as if it is probably a year away from regaining its 2010 form. You can succeed counting on sophomores, but it's difficult to plan on it. [...]
[I]t appears as if the Legends division is going to be a complete free-for-all, with Nebraska, State, Michigan and Iowa all having a chance at the crown. State gets Michigan at home but has to head to both Lincoln and Iowa City, and that will probably preclude them from taking the title. But with underclassmen in the backfield and a super-young defense, State should be able to build for making serious noise in 2012.
Turns out, I was indeed selling State short. The Spartans were drubbed by Notre Dame in mid-September, but took out Ohio State (in Columbus), Michigan (in East Lansing) and Wisconsin (via Hail Mary) to start 3-0 in conference. They laid a post-Hail Mary egg in Lincoln (Nebraska 24, State 3) and still looked hungover versus Minnesota (State 31, Gophers 24), but they won out and took the inaugural Legends Division title. They narrowly lost to Wisconsin in the conference title game, then narrowly beat Georgia in overtime in the Outback Bowl.
In all, the Spartans were mediocre for three weeks, great for four, hungover for two, great for five. They finished 10th in the final F/+ rankings, 11th in the AP poll, 21st in Off. F/+, 13th in Def. F/+ and 19th in Special Teams F/+. In other words, Michigan State was one of the best, most well-rounded schools in the country last year. And two of the three units should be as good in 2012.
So the defense should be as good as or better than it was last year, and special teams should still be solid. Michigan State's 2012 fate, then, will be determined by how quickly it can rebuild a passing game. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, one of the best quarterbacks in school history: gone. Receivers B.J. Cunningham (1,299 yards, 10.6 per target, 65 percent catch rate), Keshawn Martin (777 yards, 7.9 per target, 67 percent catch rate), Keith Nichol (359 yards, Hail Mary recipient) and tight end Brian Linthicum (364 yards): gone. And while we're at it, starting guard Joel Foreman (four-year starter, first-team all-conference): also gone.
For what it's worth, the running game should be fine. Eight offensive linemen with starting experience return (74 career starts), as do backs Le'Veon Bell (948 yards, 13 touchdowns, plus-16.1 Adj. POE), Larry Caper and Nick Hill. Edwin Baker (665 yards, minus-13.2 Adj. POE) is gone, but he had an awful year in 2011. Michigan State was beautifully balanced in 2011, and the run game will certainly be a key piece. But at some point, they will have to pass, and who knows what happens then?
Here's what we know about the passing game:
- Quarterback Andrew Maxwell was a highly touted recruit in high school. Rivals ranked him the No. 142 overall prospect in the country in the 2009 class. He completed 18 of 26 passes last year (against Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan and Indiana), and the bar is set awfully high.
- State returns three wideouts who have seen the field in the green and white: junior Bennie Fowler (14 receptions in 2010 before struggling with injuries in 2011), sophomore Tony Lippett (four catches in 2011) and sophomore Keith Mumphrey (two catches in 2011). It bears mentioning that in their freshman seasons, these three players combined to average a decent 7.8 yards per target.
- Sophomore receiver DeAnthony Arnett, a Tennessee transfer, was a high-four-star recruit, the No. 84 player in the country (according to Rivals) in the 2011 class. He was the Vols' No. 4 target in 2011 and was granted a waiver to play immediately in East Lansing in 2012.
- Tight end Dion Sims is also a former four-star recruit and should step into Linthicum's shoes. He was only marginally effective in 2011 (99 yards, 4.5 per target, 55 percent catch rate) but does have a bit of a pedigree.
- Newcomers beyond Arnett will play a role. Four-star freshman Aaron Burbridge is expected to be eligible after some summer school while redshirt freshman Juwan Caesar and Andre Sims, Jr., each had solid springs.
The foundation is in place for a solid passing game. Maxwell, Arnett and Fowler have reasonably high ceilings, and there is depth of options. The issue, of course, is how long it takes for potential to become production. Three teams with potentially solid pass defenses visit East Lansing before October (Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State).
If the offense can offer only a minor step backwards, the defense could make up the difference. The Spartans' defense was incredibly well-rounded last year -- eighth in Rushing S&P+, 11th against the pass, fifth on standard downs, sixth on passing downs, 13th in Adj. Line Yards, eighth in Adj. Sack Rate -- and returns all of its defensive ends, all of its linebackers and almost all of its secondary. Attrition at tackle might be costly, however.
Let's start with the lone question mark. Tackles Jerel Worthy (10.5 tackles for loss, second-round draft pick) and Kevin Pickelman (7.5 tackles for loss) are both gone, as is backup Johnathan Strayhorn. The returning cast of characters is interesting but unproven: enormous senior Anthony Rashad White (4.0 tackles for loss), sixth-year converted end Tyler Hoover (3.5 tackles for loss in 2010), and a pair of interesting redshirt freshmen (Brandon Clemons, Damon Knox). As with the receiving corps, there does seem to be interesting potential here, but it is mostly unproven.
If the tackle position isn't a liability, though, there might not be one. Ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush (combined: 28 tackles for loss, nine sacks, seven passes broken up) are fantastic, linebacker Denicos Allen (18.5 tackles for loss) is destructive, the entire three-deep of linebackers returns, corners Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard (combined: 5.0 tackles for loss, six interceptions, nine passes broken up) are solid, and some four-star newcomers (defensive back Demetrious Cox, linebacker Jamal Lyles) join the mix.
The Michigan State defense has made tremendous strides in recent years under coordinator Pat Narduzzi. It is difficult to even elaborate much on how they were good or what made them good in 2011 -- they were simply strong at just about everything. The Spartans have improved from 63rd in Def. F/+ in 2009, to 42nd in 2010, to 13th in 2011. Recruiting has certainly improved in this time as well (Gholston was a five-star get, while players like strong safety Isaiah Lewis, and starting linebackers Max Bullough and Chris Norman were four-star recruits), and that certainly doesn't hurt. But while tackle is a concern, this should still very much be a Top 20 defense -- a unit that can win games if the offense meets a minimum standard.
When you win your division one year and return almost your entire defense and running game the next, you're going to keep the bar pretty high. It seems all but unanimous that Michigan is the division favorite, and the Spartans do travel to Ann Arbor (and Madison), but we'll say that if they don't at least make a run at another title, it was disappointing. We'll set the bar at 6-2 and 9-3.
Mark Dantonio has brought a level of stability to East Lansing that had been lacking for quite a while. And if the offense can settle in despite a pretty rough early schedule, then he should have Michigan State in competition for the conference title once again. But Michigan's recent recruiting successes, if paired with a Michigan victory over State this fall (it would be their first since 2007), would provide quite a bit of urgency for the green and white. One of the cruelest aspects of college football is that the best way to become powerful is to have already been powerful once. A rise by Michigan could damage Michigan State's upward trajectory. There's a chance that the window of opportunity could be closing for State, and that makes 2012 very, very important.