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1. Easing away from the pack
Mark Dantonio has pretty much ruined it for all other coaches taking on rebuilding jobs. Rebuilding is a difficult thing. But while there have been setbacks in Dantonio's seven years, they have been minimal and easy to explain. Dantonio's tenure has been as smooth and forward-moving as you'll ever see.
Sixteen years ago, Nick Saban left East Lansing for Baton Rouge, starting a seven-year period of frustration and the "Sparty, No!" meme. Under Bobby Williams and John L. Smith, the Spartans put a lot of individual talent on the field, dropped hints of excellent play, and went 38-45. From 2002-06, they went 4-14 in games decided by one possession. Nobody snatched disappointment from the jaws of hope as frequently as early-aughts Sparty.
"Sparty, No!" is dead. Seven years of sadness have been swallowed up by eight years of growth. Sure, there have still been disappointments, but from a quality standpoint, the job Dantonio has done has been stunning. He inherited a team that had ranked 75th in the F/+ rankings in 2006 and engineered the following run: 26th, 32nd, 31st, 31st, 14th, 20th, 12th, 11th.
Like most teams, Dantonio's Spartans have gone through ups and downs based on which way the close-game winds have blown; they went 6-12 in one-possession games from 2007-09, then went 8-1 in 2010-11 before settling into a nice 7-6 groove since. But after going 22-17 in his first three years, Dantonio's gone 53-14 since, and that's including a 7-6 campaign in 2012.
In a conference laden with parity -- Monday's Big Ten power rankings are going to feature seven teams bunched together in one tier and five in another -- State is likely to stand alone in second place, a couple of steps behind Ohio State and a few ahead of everybody else. As James Franklin (Penn State) and Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) attempt to turn Big Ten East blue bloods back into contenders, they'll have to clear the Michigan State hurdle before they can even think about catching Urban Meyer. And that's not going to be easy.
There are questions: can the running game remain steady without Jeremy Langford and two starting guards? Who steps up to fill receiver Tony Lippett's shoes after his breakout? Does the pass rush suffer without end Marcus Rush? Does the defensive playmaking drop off without Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes?
All told, that's not a bad list, and the potential answers are cause for optimism. The rest of the Big Ten pack isn't going to wait for Michigan State to fall; good hires and investment mean schools are coming after what is currently the second-best program in an improving conference.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 11|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|29-Nov||at Penn State||45||34-10||W||87%||25.9||98%|
|Points Per Game||43.0||7||21.5||21|
2. Blip and recovery
Good Michigan State was great Michigan State. In six of the Spartans' 12 wins, they performed at the 94th percentile (like a top-eight team) or better. Nobody's spectacular in every game, and this is as steady a performance as most could have asked for.
But there were blips, and three happened in the middle of the year.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 5 games): 85% (~top 20 | record: 4-1)
Yards Per Play: Michigan State 6.5, Opponent 4.8 (plus-1.7)
- Average Percentile Performance (next 4): 64% (~top 50 | record: 3-1)
Yards Per Play: Michigan State 7.0, Opponent 5.6 (plus-1.4)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 4): 86% (~top 20 | record: 4-0)
Yards Per Play: Michigan State 6.1, Opponent 5.0 (plus-1.1)
Michigan State's defense under Dantonio and former coordinator Pat Narduzzi (now the head coach at Pitt) has long been about being aggressive. The Spartans would risk big plays to force turnovers and three-and-outs, and as the talent level grew, the D went from good to incredible. State ranked between 20th and 37th in Def. S&P+ each year from 2008-10, then surged to eighth in 2011 and second in 2012 and 2013.
Regression was expected in 2014, when the Spartans had to replace all-world cornerback Darqueze Dennard and half of their front seven, and they sank to 22nd last fall. They still suffocated lesser offenses, but the good ones were able to break the D a few too many times. Oregon, Ohio State, and Baylor, three top-10 offenses, combined to average 7.9 yards per play and 45.3 points against the Spartans. Everybody else averaged only 4.1 and 14.4, respectively.
Still, teams like Indiana and Purdue were also able to find more success than expected in the middle of the year. The Spartans rebounded after the Ohio State game, and even in the Baylor game, in which they allowed 41 points and 583 yards, they made enough stops down the stretch to pull off a dramatic comeback win.
By the way, did you notice that State's defense regressed, and the Spartans still improved overall in F/+? I don't think we talked enough about how awesome Michigan State's offense was.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||48.2%||14||Succ. Rt. +||122.2||11|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.8||45||Def. FP+||106.0||13|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.8||29||Redzone S&P+||118.6||23|
|Q1 Rk||7||1st Down Rk||22|
|Q2 Rk||15||2nd Down Rk||19|
|Q3 Rk||72||3rd Down Rk||32|
3. Wanted: new big-play guys
For years, the job of the Michigan State offense was to get out of the way. The Spartans won 11 games in 2011 with an offense that ranked 41st in Off. S&P+; in 2013, they won 13 with an O that ranked 73rd. But that No. 73 ranking was deceiving; State was abysmal early but clicked when Connor Cook took over at quarterback.
State averaged at least 6 yards per play in five of its final nine games of 2013, then in 10 of 13 last fall, ranking 10th in Off. S&P+. Cook completed the shift from scattershot to one of the country's best QBs, and he found one hell of a battery mate in Tony Lippett, who went from an explosive No. 3 option to an even more explosive No. 1.
The strength of Michigan State's offense was its explosiveness. Lippett and Keith Mumphery combined to average 18.6 yards per catch, and primary running backs Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill combined to show jets in the open field, each averaging at least 5.5 yards per carry. Despite a slow tempo, the Spartans ranked 18th in the country with 75 gains of 20-plus yards.
That the Spartans return three of last year's four most frequent targets and some well-regarded (young) running backs is exciting. Cook will have familiar names, even if the running back is new. But Lippett, Mumphery, Langford, and Hill are all gone. State might have to raise its efficiency to offset potential regression.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Connor Cook||6'4, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8367||212||365||3214||24||8||58.1%||11||2.9%||8.4|
|Damion Terry||6'3, 230||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9177||12||19||88||0||0||63.2%||0||0.0%||4.6|
|Tyler O'Connor||6'3, 222||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8820||12||16||151||2||1||75.0%||0||0.0%||9.4|
|Brian Lewerke||6'3, 195||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8779|
|Delton Williams||RB||6'1, 228||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8682||54||316||5||5.9||8.3||35.2%||0||0|
|Connor Cook||QB||6'4, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8367||40||133||2||3.3||2.3||37.5%||3||1|
|R.J. Shelton||WR||5'11, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8609||21||148||2||7.0||4.0||66.7%||1||0|
|Gerald Holmes||RB||6'0, 218||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8568||15||44||0||2.9||1.2||40.0%||0||0|
|Macgarrett Kings Jr.||WR||5'10, 186||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8676||12||71||0||5.9||8.3||33.3%||2||1|
|Damion Terry||QB||6'3, 230||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9177||12||62||0||5.2||3.2||50.0%||1||0|
|Aaron Burbridge||WR||6'1, 208||Sr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9557||8||39||0||4.9||6.8||25.0%||0||0|
|Tyler O'Connor||QB||6'3, 222||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8820||6||22||2||3.7||4.5||16.7%||0||0|
|Madre London||RB||6'1, 220||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8731|
|T.J. Harrell||RB||6'1, 210||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8680|
|Gerald Owens||RB||6'2, 260||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8825|
|LJ Scott||RB||6'1, 215||Fr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9710|
4. Who gets the carries?
Despite the loss of Lippett and Mumphery, it's not hard to figure out whom Cook will turn to.
Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge each caught at least 20 passes in both 2013 and 2014, and tight end Josiah Price has had plenty of reps. And between veterans like Andre Sims Jr., DeAnthony Arnett, and AJ Troup and youngsters like Trey Kilgore, the odds are good that at least one more weapon emerges.
Still, State is a run-first team on standard downs, and we don't know who will be running. That's a little bit off-putting.
Delton Williams showed serious jets in limited opportunities, but he also showed off a gun in public in March, got himself charged with brandishing a weapon, and got suspended indefinitely. I assume he is eventually reinstated (to the extent that it matters, he did have a permit), but until otherwise noted, the job looks like it might go to either redshirt freshman Madre London or sophomore Gerald Holmes. [Update: Williams was reinstated and is back at practice.] (Both are "smaller" backs by State standards -- they're about 220 pounds each.). But even if Williams is eventually the guy, the running position is far less seasoned.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Aaron Burbridge||WR-X||6'1, 208||Sr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9557||53||29||358||54.7%||13.6%||47.2%||6.8||-4||7.1||59.8|
|Josiah Price||TE||6'4, 250||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8725||47||26||382||55.3%||12.1%||66.0%||8.1||58||8.4||63.9|
|Macgarrett Kings Jr.||WR-F||5'10, 186||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8676||44||29||400||65.9%||11.3%||27.3%||9.1||51||9.7||66.9|
|R.J. Shelton||WR-F||5'11, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8609||21||16||173||76.2%||5.4%||66.7%||8.2||-15||8.4||28.9|
|Jamal Lyles||TE||6'3, 260||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8927||12||5||74||41.7%||3.1%||16.7%||6.2||7||8.3||12.4|
|AJ Troup||WR-X||6'2, 218||Sr.||2 stars (5.1)||NR||9||7||113||77.8%||2.3%||55.6%||12.6||31||12.5||18.9|
|Monty Madaris||WR-Z||6'1, 198||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9100||6||5||56||83.3%||1.5%||66.7%||9.3||-2||8.8||9.4|
|Andre Sims Jr.||WR-F||5'9, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8465||4||3||26||75.0%||1.0%||50.0%||6.5||-9||7.1||4.3|
|Trevon Pendleton||FB||6'0, 250||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||NR||4||1||2||25.0%||1.0%||75.0%||0.5||-14||0.4||0.3|
|DeAnthony Arnett||WR-Z||5'11, 182||Sr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9761||3||2||11||66.7%||0.8%||33.3%||3.7||-13||4.2||1.8|
|Trey Kilgore||WR-Z||6'1, 187||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8453|
|Dylan Chmura||TE||6'4, 245||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.7941|
|Matt Sokol||TE||6'5, 244||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8600|
|Felton Davis III||WR||6'3, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8717|
|Darrell Stewart Jr.||WR||6'2, 195||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8585|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Jack Allen||C||6'2, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.861||35||All-American, 2014 1st All-Big Ten|
|Travis Jackson||LG||29||2014 2nd All-Big Ten|
|Jack Conklin||LT||6'6, 317||Jr.||NR||NR||26||2014 2nd All-Big Ten|
|Donavon Clark||RG||6'4, 317||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8782||19|
|Kodi Kieler||RT||6'6, 310||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8382||7|
|Brian Allen||LG||6'2, 306||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8915||1|
|Brandon Clemons||RG||6'3, 305||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8747||0|
|Benny McGowan||LG||6'3, 316||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8723||0|
|Miguel Machado||RT||6'6, 300||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8271||0|
|Dennis Finley||LT||6'6, 305||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8913||0|
|Devyn Salmon||C||6'1, 313||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8225||0|
|Chase Gianacakos||RG||6'6, 300||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8432|
|Kyonta Stallworth||OL||6'4, 270||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9199|
|Noah Listermann||OL||6'7, 285||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8751|
|Tyler Higby||OL||6'5, 285||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8631|
5. "The biggest question mark probably comes up front"
Big Ten offensive line coaches earned their pay checks. Ohio State replaced just about everybody and dominated on the ground anyway. Nebraska replaced almost everybody and improved.
Michigan State lost three multi-year starters, and I felt it would be a concern heading into 2014.
The biggest question mark for the offense probably comes up front, where three two- or three-year starters are gone. The line wasn't great last fall, but it was good at two things: short-yardage run conversion and passing-downs blitz pickup. If it can maintain competence, the offense will be fine. Not great, but fine.
The offense was more than fine. With help from a late-blooming Langford, the Spartans improved their line stats dramatically, from 77th in Adj. Line Yards and 69th in stuff rate to 28th in both. And despite plenty of downfield passing, State ranked seventh in Adj. Line Yards as well. Cook's rollout ability helped, but the State line produced an All-American and two more all-conference performers.
Two of the three postseason honorees are back. So is line coach Mark Staten.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||33.1%||4||Succ. Rt. +||138.2||3|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||34.4||6||Off. FP+||107.0||13|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.2||47||Redzone S&P+||108.6||37|
|Q1 Rk||14||1st Down Rk||18|
|Q2 Rk||32||2nd Down Rk||36|
|Q3 Rk||17||3rd Down Rk||55|
6. Staying in-house
The upgraded Spartans D
The Upgraded Spartans D
Dantonio spent five years under Jim Tressel at Youngstown State and three more as Ohio State's defensive coordinator. He was at varying levels a defensive assistant for 20 years before beginning his head coaching career, and he's probably not going to lose his mind and forget his principles now that he has lost his coordinator, no matter how good Narduzzi was.
Still, Narduzzi was Dantonio's coordinator for each of his 11 seasons at Cincinnati and Michigan State. This is going to be a change.
Dantonio aimed for the smallest change possible, promoting linebackers coach Mike Tressel (who's been with Dantonio for 11 years, too) and DBs coach Harlon Barnett (ditto) to co-coordinators. Continuity has been Dantonio's friend, and in Narduzzi's absence, he still has it.
Thanks to that, it's hard to imagine the overall style changing. The Spartans have carved out a niche as the least bend-don't-break unit in the country, aiming for efficiency above everything else and showing a willingness to get burned a few times in the process. As efficiency is the most important thing in college football, this makes sense, even if the approach backfired against really good offenses in 2014.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Shilique Calhoun||DE||6'5, 250||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8389||13||33.5||5.7%||12.5||8.0||0||0||1||1|
|Joel Heath||DT||6'6, 296||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8720||13||20.0||3.4%||5.0||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Lawrence Thomas||DE||6'4, 300||Sr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9733||13||19.5||3.3%||4.5||3.0||0||1||0||0|
|Malik McDowell||NT||6'6, 285||So.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9843||13||12.5||2.1%||4.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Demetrius Cooper||DE||6'5, 245||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8603||13||7.5||1.3%||2.0||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Montez Sweat||DE||6'6, 239||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8222||2||3.0||0.5%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Damon Knox||NT||6'5, 280||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8400||8||1.5||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Evan Jones||DE||6'5, 252||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8530|
|Craig Evans||DT||6'2, 328||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9116|
|Enoch Smith Jr.||NT||6'2, 282||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8777|
|Robert Bowers||DE||6'4, 235||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8519|
|David Beedle||DT||6'5, 315||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8438|
|Raequan Williams||DT||6'5, 270||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9146|
|Cassius Peat||DE||6'3, 235||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8795|
|Mufi Hunt||DE||6'6, 215||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8560|
7. #Elite up front
The depth Dantonio and his staff have built is remarkable. The Spartans' D is overflowing with former star prospects and excellent three-star athletes who slapped on 20 or 40 pounds since moving to East Lansing. [Update: Knox is out an undisclosed amount of time with injury.]
While Ohio State's Joey Bosa is the best lineman in the conference, Michigan State has the best line. Losing Marcus Rush is a little bit scary considering his pass-rushing prowess, but the Spartans still return Shilique Calhoun and ace blitzer Ed Davis, and the line is teeming with potential Rush replacements, from big senior Lawrence Thomas to sophomore Demetrius Cooper.
Assuming the pass rush doesn't regress much, the run defense will again shine. State ranked first in Rushing Success Rate+ and first in opportunity rate in 2014, and every tackle on the roster (including blue-chip sophomore Malik McDowell) and almost every linebacker return. Rush was excellent, and middle linebacker Taiwan Jones was a stalwart, but until State doesn't replace strong players with more strong players, the Spartans get the benefit of the doubt, especially considering how well they've recruited here.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ed Davis||SAM||6'3, 233||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8600||13||44.5||7.6%||12.0||7.0||0||2||1||0|
|Darien Harris||STAR||6'0, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8581||13||37.0||6.3%||3.5||0.5||1||1||2||0|
|Riley Bullough||MIKE||6'2, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8700||13||22.0||3.7%||4.0||3.5||2||0||0||0|
|Chris Frey||SAM||6'2, 226||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8597||13||13.5||2.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jon Reschke||MIKE||6'2, 230||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9194||8||9.5||1.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||2||0|
|Jalyn Powell||STAR||5'11, 195||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8622||9||4.0||0.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Shane Jones||MIKE||6'1, 228||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9030||8||3.0||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|T.J. Harrell||STAR||6'1, 210||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8680|
|Byron Bullough||MIKE||6'1, 230||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8763|
|Drake Martinez||LB||6'2, 215||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8617|
|Tyriq Thompson||LB||6'1, 220||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8865|
|Andrew Dowell||LB||6'1, 210||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8894|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|RJ Williamson||FS||6'0, 214||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8715||13||46.5||7.9%||0.5||0||3||5||0||0|
|Montae Nicholson||SS||6'2, 216||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9174||13||24.5||4.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Darian Hicks||CB||5'10, 178||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8628||13||23.5||4.0%||1||0||2||3||0||0|
|Demetrious Cox||CB/FS||6'1, 200||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9225||13||22.5||3.8%||2||1||0||2||1||0|
|Arjen Colquhoun||CB||6'1, 197||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8359||11||9.5||1.6%||0||0||1||2||0||0|
|Mark Meyers||FS||6'0, 185||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8279||13||6.5||1.1%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Jermaine Edmondson||CB||6'0, 181||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8500||11||6.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jalen Watts-Jackson||FS||5'11, 200||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8241|
|Vayante Copeland||CB||6'0, 200||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8885|
|Matt Morrissey||SS||6'2, 200||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8432|
|David Dowell||S||6'1, 180||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8933|
|Josh Butler||CB||5'11, 175||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8912|
|Tyson Smith||CB||6'0, 177||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8805|
|Kaleel Gaines||CB||6'0, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8550|
|Khari Willis||S||5'11, 200||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8522|
8. Got cornerbacks?
As good as your front seven is, your cornerbacks better be phenomenal if you're going to play the Michigan State way. Losing 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard could have hurt, but State slid 2015 first-rounder Trae Waynes into the role; easy peasy. But now Waynes is gone, too.
In R.J. Williamson and Montae Nicholson, State seems to be set at safety. Williamson is a playmaker, and while Nicholson wasn't very disruptive, he held his own as a freshman. If they're set, then the spring move of Demetrious Cox to corner could be permanent, and all eyes will shift to the other corner position.
Darian Hicks was mostly strong but struggled to move past bad plays and ended up losing his spot opposite Waynes, first to Cox, then, strangely enough, to Tony Lippett (the receiver who's turning heads in the NFL as a DB). If Hicks is more stable, then State is ready to dominate in the secondary again. But if not, or if Cox cannot play as steady at CB as he did at safety, then the Spartans could get burned a few too many times.
It's hard to worry about this defense, but cornerback is a potential red flag.
|Kevin Cronin||6'1, 220||Jr.||99||63.4||46||2||46.5%|
|Michael Geiger||5'8, 188||Jr.||72-72||11-14||78.6%||3-8||37.5%|
|Kevin Cronin||6'1, 220||Jr.||1-1||0-0||N/A||0-0||N/A|
|R.J. Shelton||KR||5'11, 200||Jr.||31||25.6||1|
|Macgarrett Kings Jr.||PR||5'10, 186||Sr.||20||6.1||0|
|Special Teams F/+||18|
|Field Goal Efficiency||96|
|Punt Return Efficiency||72|
|Kick Return Efficiency||15|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||40|
9. Return-proof coverage
The Big Ten was a returns-heavy conference. Nearly every team had a great return man, and consequently, most teams had bad coverage numbers. That didn't apply to Michigan State. Spartan punt returns were pretty shaky, but R.J. Shelton proved strong on kick returns, and, most importantly, MSU coverage units were among the best in the country.
Losing punter Mike Sadler is a little scary, but State boasts a solid kickoffs guy in Kevin Cronin and a good-inside-40 place-kicker, and returns and coverage shouldn't change much (as long as the new punter isn't a line-drive specialist).
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk|
|4-Sep||at Western Michigan||65|
|21-Nov||at Ohio State||2|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||32.7% (15)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||22 / 24|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||19 / 8.8|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+3.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||14 (7, 7)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||9.9 (1.1)|
10. A legacy year
Scouting the enemy
Scouting the enemy
It's a strange year for Michigan State. The Spartans are clearly the second-most proven team in the conference and should have an excellent shot at double-digit wins again. But with defending national champion Ohio State returning a monstrous load of talent and playing host to Sparty in late-November, the odds of any serious conference title run are minimal.
So we'll call this a legacy season, likely one without any newfound achievements but one that further burnishes the résumé. Win another 10-plus games, go to another big bowl, and hope Ohio State loses enough talent after the season that you can strike again (albeit without Connor Cook).
Of course, the Spartans better figure out answers at running back and cornerback. The conference schedule is tricky, with not only Ohio State on the road, but also Nebraska and Michigan (i.e., the next two highest-ranked conference opponents). Getting Oregon early (and at home), while the Ducks are still breaking in a new QB is nice, but even a top-15 squad could slip to 9-3 if the breaks don't go right.
Still ... I just mentioned 9-3 as a potentially disappointing result for Michigan State. That says everything you need to know about where Dantonio has taken this program. The Spartans are going to be awesome again, even if they slip up here or there.