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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 41: Michigan State

Is it better to be lucky than good? Who knows. It most definitely is better to be lucky than a little better than average, however. Michigan State ended last season ranked among the top 25 nationally in two significant categories: passing efficiency and punt returns. The Spartans ranked higher than fourth in the Big Ten in only four categories: passing offense, pass efficiency defense, net punting and punt returns. The Spartans tied for the conference title yet led the Big Ten in only net punting and punt returns. Not to hammer the point home, but Michigan State finished fifth or lower in the 11-team Big Ten in the following categories: rush offense, total offense, scoring offense, rush defense, pass defense, total defense, turnover margin and kickoff returns. Regardless: 11 wins.

Big Ten, Legends

East Lansing, Mich.


Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 51

2010 record
(11-2, 7-1)

Last year’s

No. 14

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Youngstown St.
  • Sept. 10
    Florida Atlantic
  • Sept. 17
    at Notre Dame
  • Sept. 24
    Central Michigan
  • Oct. 1
    at Ohio St.
  • Oct. 15
  • Oct. 22
  • Oct. 29
    at Nebraska
  • Nov. 5
  • Nov. 12
    at Iowa
  • Nov. 19
  • Nov. 26
    at Northwestern

Last year’s prediction

There is no question that these Spartans are improved, from the skilled offensive skill players to an improved front seven; from the potential of the offensive line to what should be a more stout pass defense. What’s the ceiling on this team? Nine wins, with the potential for 10 victories should the secondary take a significant step forward. Even if the defense does not improve, in fact, this team — thanks partly to the schedule — should at least match last season’s win total. I’m willing to go a little farther: at least seven wins, with the potential to finish as high as third in the Big Ten. It’s hard to project the latter to occur until the defense proves it’s ready to help carry the load. For now, I have the Spartans in a virtual tie for fifth-place in the Big Ten. A better team, without question.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Few teams did more with less. No other team overcame more, as the Spartans battled through — and won — close game after close game, not to mention fought through a very difficult month-long stretch without Mark Dantonio, who suffered a mild heart attack after a win over Notre Dame on Sept. 19 and did not return to coaching on the sidelines until Oct. 23. Regardless of who was leading the team on the field, whether Dantonio or since-departed assistant Don Treadwell, Michigan State won. Perhaps not convincingly, but the Spartans won: eight straight to start the year before being trounced by Iowa, three more to end the regular season before being blitzed by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. Despite the way the year ended, this was clearly the program’s best team since 1999 and, considering how the Spartans fought and clawed their way through the year, one of the most beloved teams in program history. But were the Spartans really that good? Wins are all that matter. I count 11 of them.

High point Back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and Michigan to open October. It was Wisconsin’s only regular season loss on the year. The win over Michigan gave the Spartans three straight victories in the series, a program-best since notching three in a row from 1965-67. In all, Michigan State went a school-record 7-0 at home, went 6-1 against bowl teams and went 5-0 in games decided by 10 points or less.

Low point Iowa took care of business quickly against the Spartans, taking a 17-0 first quarter lead and cruising to a 37-6 win. That was Michigan State’s first loss of the season. Alabama embarrassed the Spartans, pure and simple: 28-0 at halftime, 42-0 in the third quarter, the Crimson Tide gained 546 yards of total offense and limited State to -48 yards on the ground.

Tidbit Was the recently-graduated senior class the finest four-year class in Michigan State history? Well, no. This group didn’t win a pair of national titles, as did classes in the early 1950s and mid-1960s. But the 2011 senior class — the group that played during the 2007-10 seasons — did account for 33 wins, the most by one class in school history. These seniors were also part of two nationally-ranked teams; the Spartans finished No. 24 in 2008 and No. 14 last fall. These seniors also constituted the heart of two Dantonio-coached teams that won at least nine games, making him the first coach in program history to win at least nine in two of his first four years.

Tidbit (Michigan edition) The Spartans have won three straight over Michigan, two by at least 14 points. Prior to 2008, Michigan State hadn’t topped the hated Wolverines by at least 14 points since 1967, when the Spartans blanked Michigan, 34-0. The last time State won three straight was, once again, form 1965-67, which was also the last time State won two games by at least 14 points over a three-year span. Michigan State went 7-1-1 against Michigan from 1959-67, winning six games by at least 13 points. Bo Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor in 1969, and it’s been downhill since for the Spartans, minus the Rich Rodriguez era. By the way, at what point does State make a days-since calculator for the rivalry with Michigan? If you’re wondering, it has been 1,359 days since the Wolverines last beat the Spartans.

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 OT Flozell Adams (Pittsburgh), FB Jehuu Caulcrick (Buffalo), C Kyle Cook (Cincinnati), TE Kellen Davis (Chicago), P Brandon Fields (Miami), S Renaldo Hill (Denver), QB Brian Hoyer (New York Giants), LB Greg Jones (New York Giants), LB Brandon Long (New York Jets), WR Derrick Mason (Baltimore), DT Brandon McKinney (Baltimore), DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo (San Diego), DT Domata Peko (Cincinnati), K Davis Rayner (Detroit), RB Javon Ringer (Tennessee), CB Chris Rucker (Indianapolis), DT Clifton Ryan (St. Louis), DE Robaire Smith (Cleveland), S Eric Smith (New York Jets), QB Drew Stanton (Detroit), K Brett Swenson (Indianapolis), WR Devin Thomas (New York Giants), DE Kevin Vickerson (Denver), CB Jeremy Ware (Oakland), CB Ross Weaver (Dallas), WR Blair White (Indianapolis).

Arbitrary top five list

College coaches with shared last name with M.S.U. player
1. HC June Jones, S.M.U.
2. HC Butch Jones, North Carolina.
3. HC Don Treadwell, Miami (Ohio).
4. Co-OC Jarrett Anderson, T.C.U.
5. OC Randy Sanders, Kentucky.


Mark Dantonio (South Carolina ’79), 33-19 after four seasons with Michigan State. As noted above, this four-year stretch has been among the most fruitful in program history. The former Michigan State assistant (1995-2000) was hired to replace John L. Smith, whose four-year career in East Lansing ended with three straight losing seasons. Dantonio’s impact was immediate, both on the field and off; beyond merely returning the Spartans to bowl play, he instilled a sense of discipline and toughness that was highly lacking during Smith’s difficult tenure. Due to Michigan’s slide under Rich Rodriguez, Dantonio and the Spartans have been able to make up ground in the historically one-sided rivalry. Dantonio became a candidate for a big-time job during his three-year stint as the coach at Cincinnati, where he finished with a record of 18-17, including 7-5 in 2006. The Bearcats were bowl eligible in two of those three seasons; in 2004, Dantonio became the first Bearcats coach in 23 years to finish with a winning record in his first season: 7-5, plus a victory over Marshall in the Forth Worth Bowl. Though Dantonio’s six years as a Michigan State assistant certainly played a large role in his early success as a head coach, it was during his time as an Ohio State assistant that he became a truly made his name in the coaching ranks. Dantonio served three seasons as the Buckeyes defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel, earning acclaim for his stingy defenses, most notably during a national title run in 2002. The Buckeyes went 32-6 during his three years as coordinator. His connection to Tressel dates back to Youngstown State, where Dantonio served as a Tressel assistant from 1986-90. What must be reassuring to Michigan State fans is that Dantonio doesn’t coach with smoke and mirrors: he preached to his team a more traditional philosophy – scrapping Smith’s spread attack – illustrating an overall recommitment to the style of play that propelled the program to five straight non-losing seasons from 1995-1999. After being singled out by many publications as the national coach of the year in 2010, Dantonio is beginning to receive the acclaim he so greatly deserves.

Players to watch

With another strong season, Kirk Cousins will end his career as the finest passer in Michigan State history: he enters his senior year ranked fourth in the record books in passing yards (5,815), sixth in touchdowns (41), sixth in completions (456) and eighth in attempts (709). As those latter two totals suggest, Cousins is as accurate a passer as you’ll find in the Big Ten; his career completion percentage of 64.3 is first all-time in program history, and his 66.9 percent completion rate in 2010 ranked third in the conference. In short, Cousins is one of the best quarterbacks in all the days of Michigan State football, not to mention a national award and all-American candidate heading into 2011.

He should be getting more attention. Some touted him as a Heisman dark horse midway through last season, thanks to Michigan State’s 8-0 start — best quarterback on the best team, remember — and his own solid play, which found him with 2,825 yards passing with 20 scores at year’s end. I never went that far, though I certainly could agree with the sentiment. There are better quarterbacks in the country, there may be quarterbacks more vital to their team’s success in his own conference, but Cousins is a terrific fit in East Lansing. Without fanfare, Michigan State has gotten pretty solid quarterback play for the last half-decade or so.

The running game is spearheaded by the three-monster of Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper, with Baker the workhorse. He was the breakout star of last season’s offense: 1,201 yards rushing and 13 scores, totals that would have accounted for a significant portion of the entire team’s output in 2009. Looking for a reason why this offense came together in 2010? Check out the running game, which was highlighted by this trio but really pushed forward by a very good offensive line. Baker will again lead the way, but Bell (605 yards, 8 scores) and Caper (144 yards) are too good to keep off the field. The offensive line needs to come together, but if it does, the running game should continue to flourish.

Michigan State must replace its leading receiver and a productive tight end, but don’t fret: this group shouldn’t miss a beat. Senior B.J. Cunningham steps into the role as State’s top receiver, one year after making 50 catches for 611 yards and a team-best 9 scores. Cunningham is more than ready to ascend to the top of the depth chart. Now that he’s two years into his move, former quarterback Keith Nichol (22 catches for 262 yards) should be more comfortable at receiver. Do-everything receiver Keshawn Martin (32 for 394) will hold a more substantial role in the passing game while continuing to contribute on the ground (157 yards) and in the return game — though Martin, or another return man, needs to do more on kickoffs. Sophomore Bennie Fowler rounds out the top quartet.

The Spartans have a few nice options at tight end. I don’t think this team will struggle replacing Charlie Gantt’s production, what with senior Brian Lithincum (19 for 230 yards) ready to assume a starting role. Another senior, Garrett Celek, will play a big role. Look out for sophomore Dion Sims, who has the size, at nearly 280 pounds, to be a great blocker in the run game and the athleticism to create mismatches as a receiver.

Michigan State did just about everything well defensively in 2010, though the Spartans didn’t really stand out in any one category. There are some areas for improvement, such as in the pass rush and against the more physical running games on the schedule, but if the Spartans can locate solid replacements for starters lost at linebacker and in the defensive backfield the defense should again rank among the better units in the Big Ten. That’s not a small if, however, as Michigan State looks towards 2011 without two starters at linebacker, including one of the nation’s best, and the linchpin of last year’s secondary.

While the Spartans went 2-0 last fall without Chris L. Rucker in the starting lineup, the secondary will miss his ability to match up with the opposition’s leading receiver. That task now falls to junior Johnny Adams (50 tackles, 3 interceptions), a 13-game starter in 2010. Does Adams have what it takes to keep the Spartans atop the Big Ten in pass defense? He has the talent to do, it’s safe to say. Joining him at cornerback is sophomore Darquez Dennard, a one-game starter whose freshman season was derailed by injury just as it was heating up. Like Adams, Dennard doesn’t lack for talent; unlike Adams, he does lack for experience. If Dennard does stumble, State could call on former walk-on Mitchell White, a junior, or redshirt freshman Tony Lippett — if he stays at cornerback, as Lippett’s future might lie at receiver.

Free safety Trenton Robinson looks like an all-Big Ten pick. The numbers are there: 76 tackles and 3 picks last fall, solid numbers for a senior who may just now, after starting his career elsewhere on defense, be finding his comfort zone at safety. His running mate will change, as Michigan State must find a replacement for strong safety Marcus Hyde. It’ll be one of two potential-laden sophomores, Jairus Jones or Isaiah Lewis, both of whom dabbled in the rotation in 2010.

State returns junior Chris Norman (59 tackles) on the strong side, and he’s a good one. Can Norman do what Greg Jones did over his final two years with the program? Probably not, but he won’t need to — not if sophomore Max Bullough (23 tackles) lives up to his potential in the middle. More so than his competition for the starting role, fellow sophomore TyQuan Hammock and junior Steve Gardiner, Bullough seems to have the frame to take on offensive linemen in the Big Ten. Another sophomore, the speedy Denicos Allen, will join Norman in flaking Bullough in the middle.

Any questions surrounding the back seven of the Michigan State defense might be offset by a very good defensive line. It’s a good line just based off of senior Jerel Worthy (40 tackles, 4 sacks), an all-American candidate and one of the best linemen in the Big Ten. Helping Worthy’s cause is former JUCO transfer Anthony Rashad White, a space-eater at nose tackle who can help occupy blockers and keep Worthy clean. If healthy, senior Kevin Pickelman is a nice first tackle off the bench. But he was limited during the spring with a neck injury, which could force him to take a short slide down the depth chart.

With offensive linemen forced to dote on Worthy, the potential is there for an end like sophomore William Gholston to have a big year. The talent is there, we know that: after being courted by most of the nation’s premier programs — Michigan and Michigan State, most notably — Gholston showed flashes of his ability in a reserve role as a freshman. Junior Tyler Hoover (36 tackles, 3 sacks) joins him at end. Hoover has the talent to do more.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Michigan State promoted Dan Roushar to offensive coordinator and gave Mark Staten sole duties as the team’s offensive line coach; Staten coached the tight ends and offensive tackles under Dantonio from 2008-11. So it’s Staten, surely with some help from Roushar, who will be tasked with replacing three key starters from last year’s front: left tackle D.J. Young, center John Stipek and right tackle J’Michael Deane. There is a high level of uncertainty at each open spot, either because the proclaimed new starter lacks desirable experience or, perhaps worse yet, the Spartans are still identifying a starter from a crop of options. At least State can sit back and enjoy another year from senior left guard Joel Foreman, an all-American candidate coming off back-to-back all-conference selections. Foreman and junior right guard Chris McDonald, the two returning starters, are two of the most important members of this roster: true glue guys, linemen who will be asked to continue playing at a high level while helping the Spartans break in a batch of new faces. Could a sophomore and redshirt freshman bookend the line? It seems that way, with sophomore Dan France on the left side and very promising redshirt freshman Skyler Schofner on the right. France could be pushed into a backup role by JUCO transfer Fou Fonoti, but he has to learn the system. The hope is that Fonoti will have enough of a grasp on things to start by the heart of Big Ten play. France and Schofner are linemen who were projected to start at some point during their time in East Lansing, though it is a bit surprising to see that a fifth-year senior like Jared McGaha couldn’t step up and grab a starting role outside. Junior Blake Treadwell, a former starter along the defensive line, is entangled with redshirt freshman Travis Jackson in the battle at center, with Treadwell’s larger size probably giving him the edge. So there’s your new-look Michigan State offensive line, from left to right: France or Fonoti, Foreman, Treadwell or Jackson, McDonald and Schofner. It’s a question mark.

Game(s) to watch

A tremendous number of marquee games. Notre Dame in South Bend. At Ohio State. Michigan and Wisconsin at home; a sweep seems a little less likely in 2011. A road trip to Nebraska, which has had its way with the Spartans in the recent past. At Iowa, at Northwestern — you get the idea. Eleven wins won’t be easy.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Will lightning strike again for Michigan State? Can the Spartans win in South Bend without pulling a special teams rabbit out of their hat? Top the Badgers despite committing three turnovers? Go 5-0 in games decided by 10 points or less? Sweep all comers at home? Survive one of the toughest road schedules in the country? What about win another 11 games despite issues along the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary — and with a defense that should start only one senior? You can’t predict the unpredictable, the overtime touchdowns, narrow wins, what have you: what you can predict, based on what Michigan State brings to the table, is at least a two-win decline, if not more, based on a handful of lingering concerns. The offense took off once the running game caught up with the passing attack; you can’t say with any certainty that the Spartans will again rush for nearly 2,000 yards as a team with question marks dotting the offensive line. Nor can you say that the Spartans will be as consistent against the pass, not with Rucker gone and two untested sophomores in the starting lineup. You just can’t say with any confidence that last season wasn’t anything more than one-year aberration — and I don’t mean to say that the Spartans aren’t built for eight wins and a bowl berth every year, just that 11 wins seems more extraordinary than ordinary. But there are many pieces to like, like Cousins under center and a potentially great defensive line. And you like the program as a whole, and give Dantonio and his staff credit for making hay while Michigan suffered a three-year lull. The key will be maintaining the national title-level success with Nebraska in the fold, Michigan back in the mix, Wisconsin battling for a national title and Ohio State and Iowa on the road. If Dantonio and the Spartans can go 9-3, let alone 11-1 with this schedule and this team, it’ll be one whale of an achievement. I just don’t see lightning striking twice.

Dream season Lightning strikes twice, followed by thunder, comets, meteors and other aerial phenomena: Michigan State repeats last fall’s 11-1 mark, topping Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa in the regular season to earn a B.C.S. berth.

Nightmare season Most are expecting a slide, but the Spartans drop all the way to 5-7, 3-5 in the Big Ten.

In case you were wondering

Where do Michigan State fans congregate? Begin with Spartan Tailgate, by leaps and bounds the best independent Michigan State Web site, and continue with Spartan Mag and Go Spartans. For additional coverage, check out Enlightened Spartan and The Only Colors. And don’t forget about Joe Rexrode’s blog over at the Lansing State Journal. A great group of options.

Word Count

Through 80 (80!) teams 240,237.

Up Next

Who is No. 40? The closest international airport to tomorrow’s university was first established by a native of New Zealand who passed through the city on his way to Washington.

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  1. Laurel Dein says:

    Tulsa. Duh. How about a harder question next time?

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Please have a picture of Eric Stoltz in ‘Keys to Tulsa’ for the Hurricane, Paul.

  3. Ed Feng says:

    It’s gratifying to see someone else who saw through Michigan State’s season last year. The Spartans let Florida International hang around in a game in Detroit. We had them at 37th in our rankings after the Alabama debacle.


    With your pre-season analysis, I can’t see them getting much higher this year.

  4. BruceWinters says:

    Really? 41? All of last season was pure luck? No. There is a reason the Spartans were co-Big Ten champs, sure Iowa and Alabama were nightmarish, but put any other Big Ten team against an angry Alabama team that just lost its chance at a National Title game berth to their in-state rival, and see how it goes. MSU can only gain from last season, and while this years schedule helps in no way, this is still a top 20 team and a favorite for the Big Ten Title

  5. Patrick says:

    If Michigan State had lost all/most of those close games, they would be declared a bad team.

    Because they won them, and MSU isn’t a marquee name, they were lucky.


    A team that wins despite being outplayed can certainly be called lucky. I’d love to have someone show me the games last season where MSU was outplayed and won. I may be willing to concede the Purdue game (MSU won the 4th quarter 22-3), but other than that, luck had nothing to do with it.

    Were they gutsy? Resilient? Hell, tricky? Sure.

    I think 8 wins would be very solid given the tough schedule. If they do that, can we agree there’s no way 40 teams will be better than MSU in 2011?

  6. SMD says:

    Northwestern needed a bad personal foul call to beat Vanderbilt(!), struggled against Indiana and Minnesota, lost to Purdue, and lost by more to Wisconsin than Michigan State did to Alabama. Their starting QB last year had the eighth-best QB rating amongst starters in Big Ten conference play, without facing three of the top five defenses. And he won’t be 100% healthy to start the season.

    If that team is better than Michigan State next year, I’ll eat my figurative internet hat. Or just pronounce your brilliance. But I don’t see it.

  7. Brad says:

    Big Twen, it’s weird how you fabricate statistics that can be verified so easily. Persa was 6th in conference play in qb rating. But the 2-8 group is so clumped together it’s a stupid point to try to make anyway. Shame the formula doesn’t include rushing TDs, because he had 7 of them in just 6 conference games- most rush TD/game of B10 QBs. Make a couple of those into passing TDs and you would have had to lie about a different stat altogether.


    Otherwise, yeah NU had some close wins and some close losses. One of those losses was against MSU, in fact. It’s hard to understand your outrage in light of how close it was.

    Paul: Brad, I just shortened your link so it didn’t run off the column.

  8. wildcat6 says:


    You might want to see who Northwestern lost to graduation from the 2010 offense, which was not bad – in fact, they were held under 20 points exactly once. They lost Sidney Stewart, a starter at WR, and third-string running back Stephen Simmons. WR is the deepest position on the team, and the ‘Cats can go three deep in quality across the board there. Hint: think MSU receiving corps from last year. With Persa, it’s a “wait and see” situation with the Achilles, but the young man has a monstrous work ethic, winning the Iron Cat award twice for his prodigious weight room efforts.

    Vandy would not have won that game even without the personal foul call at the end. They were out of time outs and would have had to receive a punt and drive 50 yards in under a minute with no time outs to set up a FG attempt from 45 yards. You have a point about the Purdue game, but don’t forget the Boilers’ effort vs MSU. Purdue was much better than their record, and Ryan Kerrigan was a beast. Also, if not for the Mouse Trap, MSU would have lost to NU.

    You might want to practice on a smaller hat first to work up to the big one.

  9. Warden Tressel says:

    Michigan St. was lousy last year and will be lousy again this year.

    The only difference is that this year they won’t be as lucky.

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