Confused? Check out the glossary here.
1. I'm supposed to love this team
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). The Spartans looked every bit as out-of-place as Notre Dame (8-5 and No. 13) and Texas A&M (7-6 and No. 15) did in 2011, and 2012 worked out quite well for both of those teams, to say the least.
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. The quarterback's back, along with four of the top five receivers, seven offensive linemen with starting experience, six of the top eight defensive linemen, five of the top six linebackers, four of the top five defensive backs, and, for what it's worth, a pretty good punter.
Sustained success? Check. Mark Dantonio has done some pretty impressive things in his six years in East Lansing, inheriting a program that had crumbled to 4-8 and 72nd in 2006 and slowly but surely building a winner. The Spartans ranked between 39th and 46th each year and went 22-17 from 2007-09, then jumped to 25th and 11-2 in 2010, then jumped again to 11th and 11-3 in 2011. That they held mostly steady in the rankings despite having to rebuild a good portion of their offense last year typically says very good things about the team in the near future.
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.
Make no mistake: I love this defense. The Spartans ranked third in Def. F/+ last year -- theirs was the best non-SEC defense in the country -- and the linebacking corps and secondary could be incredible enough to offset the loss of a stud end. And I'm not even slightly worried about the loss of running back Le'Veon Bell. When your most impressive talent is the ability to take a beating, you can probably be replaced. The running back stable is potentially deep, and the Spartans should have a top-40 offensive line as well. There are a lot of pieces in place.
But to 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.
2. There's been a leap
Top 20, however? You bet. With decent recruiting, good development, and outstanding defensive coaching, Dantonio has built something impressive at State. Even despite all the close losses last year, the Spartans have still won 29 games in three seasons. Their best three-year stretch under John L. Smith: 18-18. Nick Saban: 23-13. George Perles: 22-12-2. Not since Duffy Daugherty was on his incredible 1960s run have the Spartans been this consistently good.
Dantonio has proven he can field a top-30 offense (No. 24 in Off. F/+ in 2010, No. 27 in 2009) and a top-five defense. You can win a lot of games with that mix, and Michigan State should continue to do just that. I'm just not sure the offense is up for the challenge in 2013.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 15|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|31-Aug||Boise State||17-13||W||32.1 - 8.6||W|
|8-Sep||at Central Michigan||41-7||W||30.6 - 12.1||W|
|15-Sep||Notre Dame||3-20||L||12.2 - 14.0||L|
|22-Sep||Eastern Michigan||23-7||W||22.8 - 9.5||W|
|29-Sep||Ohio State||16-17||L||22.7 - 24.9||L|
|6-Oct||at Indiana||31-27||W||21.5 - 20.1||W|
|13-Oct||Iowa||16-19||L||18.0 - 16.7||W|
|20-Oct||at Michigan||10-12||L||24.8 - 17.8||W|
|27-Oct||at Wisconsin||16-13||W||24.5 - 8.4||W|
|3-Nov||Nebraska||24-28||L||25.9 - 25.2||W|
|17-Nov||Northwestern||20-23||L||28.0 - 20.4||W|
|24-Nov||at Minnesota||26-10||W||29.6 - (-0.3)||W|
|29-Dec||vs. TCU||17-16||W||14.8 - 17.7||L|
|Points Per Game||20.0||110||16.3||9|
|Adj. Points Per Game||23.7||101||15.0||2|
3. The offense rallied, at least
It seemed like Michigan State had found the blueprint early on. The Spartans became the first BCS conference team in seven tries to beat Boise State in the opener, then crushed Central Michigan, with a pretty easy formula: defense plus timely offense. Against Boise State, Le'Veon Bell rushed an unsustainable 44 times for 210 yards (he caught six passes as well); against CMU, quarterback Andrew Maxwell completed 20 of 31 passes for 275 yards. State was an above-average offensive team and crippling defensive team. That works pretty well. But it wouldn't last.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 2 games): Michigan State 31.4, Opponent 10.4 (plus-21.0)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Michigan State 19.4, Opponent 17.0 (plus-2.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Michigan State 26.6, Opponent 14.3 (plus-12.3)
Maxwell completed 61 percent of his passes in the first two games, but he completed just 52 percent in his next five games. Bell erupted against Eastern Michigan (36 carries for 253 yards) but averaged just 3.8 yards per carry against Notre Dame, Ohio State, Indiana, and Iowa. State just had nothing working, but while the passing game never came around (in his last four games, Maxwell incredibly completed just 43 percent of his passes), Bell found his legs, averaging 34 carries per game and gaining 732 yards in the final four games.
State's offense improved down the stretch, but it was mostly due to a player who wisely elected to go pro. Running backs' legs only have so many carries in them, and State used a lot of Bell's last year. His meager explosiveness numbers don't portend a great pro career, but he still made a smart decision to start that journey before another 380-carry season in East Lansing.
|Q1 Rk||111||1st Down Rk||114|
|Q2 Rk||51||2nd Down Rk||42|
|Q3 Rk||90||3rd Down Rk||57|
4. State should have … run more?
I had to check the data to make sure it was right. Despite Bell averaging 29 carries per game for the season, despite him carrying the ball more than any back in the country (only two other backs averaged even 25 carries: Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson and Wisconsin's Montee Ball), Michigan State's offense actually skewed slightly toward the pass. State ran a perfect 60 percent of the time on standard downs (exactly the national average) but actually passed 71 percent of the time on passing downs (four percent higher than average). Since they couldn't actually pass, on standard or passing downs, this wasn't the best use of resources.
How can those numbers be right? How could Bell grind and grind for a team that was almost pass-first? Easy: because there was no backup. Running backs Nick Hill, Larry Caper and Jeremy Langford combined for 48 carries all season, just four more than Bell had against Boise State alone. That's ridiculous.
It's also not a great show of confidence for this season's running backs. Hill and Langford return after averaging just 2.0 yards per carry last year, which means that youngsters -- be it redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins or any of a trio of true freshmen with solid recruiting rankings -- could see plenty of opportunity. In fact, addicted to the big guys, State has apparently named converted linebacker Riley Bullough its starter heading into the preseason.
No matter how the carries are divvied, it would be very good news to find State running more frequently, as crazy as that sounds. Because while the primary pieces of the passing game return -- quarterback Andrew Maxwell, receivers Keith Mumphery, Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett, and Aaron Burbridge -- they just weren't connected last season. Things change, but ... how much can they change in this regard?
Maxwell just had a terrible 2012. Despite throwing 70 percent of his charted passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, he managed an awful 53 percent completion rate. Adjusting his completion percentage to account for the types of passes he was throwing, his was the worst of any quarterback we charted last year. Yes, the receivers absolutely had a role to play in that (I didn't even know it was possible to have 66 dropped passes in 13 games), but again, he's got the same receivers this year. The emergence of somebody new to the rotation, like junior DeAnthony Arnett (upon whom quite a few expectations were heaped last year with disappointing results), would be incredibly welcome.
And hey, if backup quarterback Connor Cook wanted to have a ridiculously good August and overtake Maxwell, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Andrew Maxwell||6'3, 209||Sr.||**** (5.9)||234||446||2,606||52.5%||13||9||21||4.5%||5.2|
|Connor Cook||6'4, 215||So.||*** (5.7)||9||17||94||52.9%||1||1||1||5.6%||4.6|
|Tyler O'Connor||6'3, 212||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Damion Terry||6'4, 210||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Nick Hill||RB||5'8, 193||Jr.||*** (5.7)||21||48||2.3||4.1||1||-4.2|
|Andrew Maxwell||QB||6'3, 209||Sr.||**** (5.9)||16||55||3.4||2.2||0||-1.9|
|Jeremy Langford||RB||6'0, 206||Jr.||*** (5.6)||9||23||2.6||0.9||0||-2.6|
|Keith Mumphery||WR||6'0, 208||Jr.||*** (5.7)||6||38||6.3||2.8||0||+1.2|
|Riley Bullough||RB||6'2, 232||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Nick Tompkins||RB||5'9, 185||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Gerald Holmes||RB||6'0, 205||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Delton Williams||RB||6'2, 225||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|R.J. Shelton||RB||5'11, 185||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Keith Mumphery||WR-Z||6'0, 208||Jr.||*** (5.7)||81||42||515||51.9%||6.4||18.5%||55.6%||6.4||57.5|
|Bennie Fowler||WR-Z||6'1, 212||Sr.||*** (5.6)||68||41||524||60.3%||7.7||15.5%||48.5%||7.5||58.5|
|Tony Lippett||WR-X||6'3, 185||Jr.||*** (5.5)||63||36||392||57.1%||6.2||14.4%||49.2%||6.0||43.7|
|Aaron Burbridge||WR-F||6'1, 195||So.||**** (5.9)||62||29||364||46.8%||5.9||14.2%||50.0%||5.7||40.6|
|Lawrence Thomas||FB/DT||6'3, 300||So.||**** (5.9)||8||7||78||87.5%||9.8||1.8%||75.0%||9.3||8.7|
|Andre Sims, Jr.||WR-Z||5'9, 185||So.||*** (5.7)||6||3||23||50.0%||3.8||1.4%||33.3%||2.9||2.6|
|Paul Lang||TE||6'5, 260||So.||** (5.4)||6||3||8||50.0%||1.3||1.4%||66.7%||1.3||0.9|
|DeAnthony Arnett||WR-Z||5'11, 175||Jr.||**** (5.9)||5||3||69||60.0%||13.8||1.1%||80.0%||12.6||7.7|
|Macgarrett Kings, Jr.||WR-F||5'10, 185||So.||*** (5.7)||5||4||25||80.0%||5.0||1.1%||60.0%||5.0||2.8|
|A.J. Troup||WR-X||6'2, 205||So.||NR|
|Monty Madaris||WR-X||6'1, 199||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Josiah Price||TE||6'4, 243||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Evan Jones||TE||6'5, 248||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Chris McDonald||RG||39 career starts|
|Dan France||RG||6'6, 315||Sr.||*** (5.7)||24 career starts|
|Blake Treadwell||LG||6'3, 300||Sr.||**** (5.8)||16 career starts|
|Travis Jackson||C||6'3, 280||Jr.||*** (5.7)||15 career starts|
|Skyler Burkland||RT||6'7, 315||Jr.||NR||14 career starts|
|Fou Fonoti||RT||6'4, 298||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13 career starts|
|Jack Allen||C||6'1, 295||So.||*** (5.6)||12 career starts|
|Ethan Ruhland||C||3 career starts|
|Donavon Clark||LG||6'3, 299||So.||*** (5.7)||2 career starts|
|Connor Kruse||RG||6'4, 315||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Michael Dennis||RT||6'7, 307||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Benny McGowan||RG||6'3, 312||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Zach Higgins||LG||6'4, 318||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Kodi Kieler||C||6'5, 316||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Jack Conklin||LT||6'6, 310||RSFr.||NR|
|Dennis Finley||OL||6'6, 285||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
5. An underrated line
State couldn't throw and catch very well, and Bell was more durable than actually effective for much of the season, but one couldn't really blame the line for the offense's struggles. The Spartans were top-40 in Adj. Line Yards and were particularly adept at keeping defenders out of the backfield. Bell didn't always get far up the field, but he was rarely caught behind the line. (And yes, his yards-after-contact ability probably helped in that regard.)
There was quite a bit of shuffling here, and thanks to the return of Fou Fonoti, State returns six players who have started at least 12 games in their career (despite losing three-year starting guard Chris McDonald). Bell's running style did State's line some favors, but the line should now be able to return the favor for this year's crops of runners.
|Q1 Rk||7||1st Down Rk||2|
|Q2 Rk||4||2nd Down Rk||2|
|Q3 Rk||1||3rd Down Rk||11|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Marcus Rush||DE||6'2, 250||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||28.5||4.8%||7.5||2||0||5||1||0|
|Anthony Rashad White||NT||13||17.0||2.8%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|Micajah Reynolds||NT||6'5, 308||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||13.0||2.2%||2||1||0||1||1||0|
|James Kittredge||NT||6'4, 275||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||12.0||2.0%||4.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tyler Hoover||DT||6'7, 290||Sr.||*** (5.7)||8||7.5||1.3%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Denzel Drone||DE||6'2, 262||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||7.0||1.2%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Shilique Calhoun||DE||6'4, 248||So.||*** (5.5)||13||5.0||0.8%||2.5||1||0||2||0||0|
|Lawrence Thomas||DT||6'3, 300||So.||**** (5.9)||13||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Damon Knox||NT||6'4, 273||So.||*** (5.5)||2||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Clemons||DT||6'3, 300||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Joel Heath||DE||6'6, 277||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Jamal Lyles||DE||6'3, 242||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Demetrius Cooper||DE||6'5, 220||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
6. Depth vs. impact
Man oh man, was this a good defense last year. Michigan State couldn't rush the passer very well at all but made up for it by constantly slicing into the backfield against the run and by blanketing receivers with what might have been the country's best back seven. (It was top-five at worst.)
The biggest name on last year's defense wasn't necessarily the best; William Gholston was a five-star signee, the marquee recruit of the Dantonio era, and he certainly thrived last fall, combining 13 tackles for loss with 10 batted passes. But he was only a decent pass rusher. Granted, it's possible the State pass rush gets even worse without him, but the depth of this defense should be able to account for the loss of a single star.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Max Bullough||MIKE||6'3, 242||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||81.0||13.5%||12.5||2.5||1||4||1||0|
|Denicos Allen||SAM||5'11, 215||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||60.0||10.0%||10||3||1||3||1||1|
|Taiwan Jones||STAR||6'3, 240||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||28.5||4.8%||5.5||1||0||3||0||0|
|Jairus Jones||STAR||6'1, 208||Sr.||*** (5.6)||7||14.5||2.4%||0||0||0||0||1||1|
|Kyler Elsworth||SAM||6'1, 222||Sr.||NR||13||8.0||1.3%||3.5||2.5||0||2||0||1|
|Darien Harris||SAM||6'0, 215||So.||*** (5.7)||13||2.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ed Davis||SAM||6'3, 220||So.||*** (5.7)||13||2.5||0.4%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Pat Rhomberg||MIKE||6'0, 225||So.||NR|
|Matthew Eleweke||SAM||6'3, 205||RSFr.||NR|
|Jon Reschke||LB||6'2, 229||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Shane Jones||LB||6'1, 220||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
7. Good luck running the ball
That said, there are plenty of stars still returning. The Spartans are loaded at tackle despite the loss of Anthony Rashad White; Micajah Reynolds and James Kittredge both return, and the combination of those two with Tyler Hoover and former four-star signees Lawrence Thomas and Brandon Clemons should keep State in the Adj. Line Yards top-10.
The tackles were so good at occupying blockers last season. There's no reason to think that will change in 2013, and that's great news for an incredible set of linebackers. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen combined for 22.5 tackles for loss, and only 5.5 of them were sacks. They can defend passing lanes and pursue ball-carriers as well as anyone in the country, and while Chris Norman is gone, Taiwan Jones was actually a better play-maker last season. Throw in Kyler Elsworth and a pair of four-star freshmen, and you've got an absolutely loaded corps of 'backers.
State was No. 2 in Rushing S&P+ last year (only Alabama was better), and I don't see why it would drop this fall.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Isaiah Lewis||SS||5'10, 210||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||60.5||10.1%||1.5||0||2||6||0||0|
|Darqueze Dennard||CB||5'11, 188||Sr.||** (5.4)||13||43.0||7.2%||3.5||0||3||7||0||0|
|Kurtis Drummond||FS||6'1, 196||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||41.0||6.9%||4.5||0||2||4||1||1|
|R.J. Williamson||SS||6'0, 205||So.||*** (5.7)||11||23.0||3.8%||1||0||2||4||1||1|
|Trae Waynes||CB||6'1, 178||So.||** (5.4)||9||3.5||0.6%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Mylan Hicks||CB||5'11, 191||Jr.||*** (5.7)||8||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Arjen Colquhoun||CB||6'1, 195||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Chris Laneaux||SS||5'11, 190||So.||NR|
|Demetrious Cox||FS||6'1, 199||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Ezra Robinson||CB||6'0, 178||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jermaine Edmondson||CB||6'0, 175||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Mark Meyers||FS||6'0, 181||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Gabe Augustin||CB||5'8, 182||RSFr.||NR|
|Jalyn Powell||DB||6'1, 185||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
8. Terrible pass rush, unbelievable secondary
Michigan State ranked 91st in Adj. Sack Rate ... and first in Passing S&P+. What does that tell you about the Spartans' secondary? Losing all-conference cornerback Johnny Adams, now a Houston Texan (and, according to YouTube, a hell of a blues and gospel singer in the 1960s), hurts, but when you bring back another fantastic corner (Darqueze Dennard) and three stellar safeties, you can probably deal with that loss.
Considering the linebacking corps should be every bit as well-equipped to help in the passing game as it was last year, and considering the pass rush already wasn't that great, I again don't see why the Spartans should expect to slip much. This should once again be a top-five defense all around, which means the offense only needs to improve a little bit to make a large difference. (I'm just not sure it can.)
|Mike Sadler||6'0, 185||Jr.||79||43.3||6||21||31||65.8%|
|Kevin Muma||6'0, 199||Sr.||60||63.2||29||48.3%|
|Nick Hill||KR||5'8, 193||Jr.||31||21.6||0|
|Andre Sims, Jr.||PR||5'9, 185||So.||11||8.4||0|
|Nick Hill||PR||5'8, 193||Jr.||8||8.9||0|
|Special Teams F/+||50|
|Field Goal Pct||64|
|Kick Returns Avg||93|
|Punt Returns Avg||58|
9. Just like punters should choose terrible teams…
...a kicker should choose Michigan State, at least if the last two years are any indication. You'll get plenty of opportunities to create a highlight reel.
Michigan State has attempted 56 field goals over the last 27 games, and honestly, the prolific (and now graduated) Dan Conroy left a few points on the board last year. He missed a 42-yarder in a one-point loss to Ohio State, a 38-yarder in a two-point loss to Michigan, and a 37-yarder in a three-point loss to Northwestern. Still, that he was able to make 72 percent of his field goals despite almost half of them coming from at least 40 yards away is pretty impressive. Now we have to see if his replacement can keep up in that regard.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|21-Sep||at Notre Dame||13|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||22|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||39|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+2 / +3.0|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (8, 7)|
10. 6-1 at home won't cut it
Michigan State doesn't have to have a great offense to win a ton of games in 2013. The Spartans avoid Ohio State (and, on the flip side, the Buckeyes avoid Michigan State, too) and get Michigan at home; two of the five road games are incredibly winnable, and none are a lost cause. With this defense and at least a decent special teams unit, the Spartans should once again finish in the F/+ top 20 and win at least nine games.
But to win more than nine, two things have to happen: the offense has to stabilize, and State can't slip up at home. The Spartans will be moderate to heavy favorites in six of seven home games, and they simply have to beat the rival Wolverines to achieve what the numbers keep trying to convince me they can achieve.
On paper, State looks so much like Notre Dame did a year ago, from the higher-than-expected ratings the year before, to the insanely good linebacking, to the significant question marks at quarterback. Notre Dame figured out answers and rolled to a 12-0 regular season.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Spartans could do the same. But I just don't think they will. Top 20? Definitely? Anything better? Probably not.