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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. 51: Michigan State

Spartans on the left, Wolverines on the right. Over the last two seasons, at least.

The bloom is not off the rose, in my opinion. Despite some off-field missteps, Michigan State has still taken great strides forward under Mark Dantonio, who has led the Spartans to three consecutive bowl trips since replacing the underwhelming John L. Smith in 2007. Dantonio has preached toughness — and the resulting consistency — but a few of last season’s losses resembled the frustrating Smith era: Iowa, Central Michigan and Notre Dame, most notably.

Conference
Big Ten

Location
East Lansing, Mich.

Nickname
Spartans

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 31

2009 record
(6-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 58

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Western Michigan
  • Sept. 11
    F.A.U. (in Detroit)
  • Sept. 18
    Notre Dame
  • Sept. 25
    Northern Colorado
  • Oct. 2
    Wisconsin
  • Oct. 9
    at Michigan
  • Oct. 16
    Illinois
  • Oct. 23
    at Northwestern
  • Oct. 30
    at Iowa
  • Nov. 6
    Minnesota
  • Nov. 20
    Purdue
  • Nov. 27
    at Penn St.

Last year’s prediction

I really like the Spartans: I admire the process by which Dantonio has rebuilt the program, and respect how rapidly the team has closed the gap on rival Michigan (though the Wolverines have helped speed up this process). A somewhat tougher schedule (in my mind, even without O.S.U.) may cost the Spartans one regular season victory, but I don’t have this team losing more than four games heading into bowl play.

2009 recap

In a nutshell This team was very close to putting forth another nine-win season, losing by single digits to Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. The Spartans also lost by only 10 points to Texas Tech; only one loss, obviously, came by more than that 10-point margin. Blame the defense, which despite several talented performers failed to live up to expectations: seven opponents scored at least 29 points, with the Spartans allowing 26.3 points per game altogether. The offense, on the other hand, certainly did its job. Thanks to steady play from previously-unproven commodities at quarterback and in the backfield, M.S.U. scored 386 points, the third-most in school history. One year after making its bones on the ground, the offense was led by a talented passing game; the Spartans would like to balance the pass with the run, but Dantonio would love a little bit of defense even more.

High point Wins over Western Michigan and Purdue in successive weeks in November, the latter of which clinched bowl eligibility. Trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter, the Spartans outscored Purdue by 17-3 in the final 11 minutes to take a 40-37 win. Of course, the Spartans also beat the Wolverines.

Low point If I remove any ski mask-related incidents, Michigan State’s low point was on Oct. 24 loss to then-No. 6 Iowa. The Hawkeyes scored a touchdown with no time left on the clock to earn the 15-13 win. That loss was one of three that recalled the John L. Smith days, joining a 29-27 loss to Central Michigan (nine C.M.U. points in the final 32 seconds) and a 33-30 loss to Notre Dame.

Tidbit The Spartans have landed back-to-back wins over rival Michigan, with some credit going to Dantonio, some to Rich Rodriguez. This marks only the sixth time Michigan State has mounted an extended winning streak against the Wolverines, joining 1934-37, 1950-53, 1956-57, 1959-62 and 1965-67.

Tidbit (Nebraska edition) The newest member of the Big Ten has experienced nothing but success against M.S.U., landing five wins in five tries over the Spartans. The most recent encounter came in the 2003 Alamo Bowl, when the Cornhuskers pulled out a 17-3 win. In fact, Michigan State is only B.C.S. program to have met Nebraska at least five times and lost each time; L.S.U. has likewise failed to put out a victory over the Cornhuskers, though the Tigers did pull a 6-6 tie in Baton Rouge in 1976.

Former players in the N.F.L.

29 DE Trevor Anderson (Indianapolis), TE Chris Baker (Seattle), DE Ervin Baldwin (Indianapolis), FB Jehuu Caulcrick (San Francisco), OT Peter Clifford (Tennessee), C Kyle Cook (Cincinnati), P Brandon Fields (Miami), LB David Herron (Kansas City), S Renaldo Hill (Denver), QB Brian Hoyer (New England), WR Derrick Mason (Baltimore), DT Brandon McKinney (Baltimore), C Chris Morris (Oakland), DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo (San Diego), DT Domata Peko (Cincinnati), LB Julian Peterson (Detroit), K Dave Rayner (Cincinnati), RB Javon Ringer (Tennessee), DT Clifton Ryan (St. Louis), S Eric Smith (New York Jets), QB Drew Stanton (Detroit), K Brett Swenson (Indianapolis), WR Devin Thomas (Washington), DT Kevin Vickerson (Seattle), CB Jeremy Ware (Oakland), CB Ross Weaver (Miami), WR Blair White (Indianapolis).

Arbitrary top five list

Greek city-states
1. Sparta.
2. Athens.
3. Thebes.
4. Ithaca.
5. Corinth.

Coaching

Mark Dantonio (South Carolina ’79), 22-17 after three seasons with Michigan State. The former Spartans 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 were able to make up ground among 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.

Players to watch

This is why I love college football, among countless other reasons: a highly-touted quarterback transfer loses his grasp on the starting role, and instead of moping — or even transferring, something he’s done already — relishes the opportunity to make a position change. How well Keith Nichol takes to his new position remains to be seen, though it helps that the junior began the transition to receiver during the 2009 bowl season. One thing is sure, however: Nichol is a superb athlete, with the size and physical acumen to be Michigan State’s top possession receiver. Keep an eye on how rapidly the former Oklahoma transfer — who earned significant action under center last fall — acclimates to his new role.

Depth at receiver will be augmented by the return of senior Mark Dell and junior B.J. Cunningham, two players cited for their roles in the troubling off-field incident last November. With Dell (26 receptions for 449 yards), Cunningham (48 for 641), Nichol and the dangerous Keshawn Martin, Michigan State is in great shape at receiver. Don’t sleep on Martin: he can score in a multitude in ways — receiving, rushing, returning — at a moment’s notice. Throw in tight ends like senior Charlie Gantt and sophomore Dion Sims, and you get the deepest M.S.U. receiver corps of the Dantonio era.

Nichol’s move to receiver opens up the starting quarterback job to junior Kirk Cousins; this is a very good thing. He’s the best passing quarterback in the Big Ten, an honorable mention all-conference pick last fall after throwing for 2,680 yards and 19 scores despite sharing time under center. What can he do for an encore? Well, I think it will only help Cousins to not have to look over his shoulder. It will also help to have four talented receivers to work with, and last year’s experience will only pay dividends. To be sure, the 3,000-yard mark is certainly within reach; so is, say, 25 touchdowns — yes, Cousins has that type of ability. There’s also no accounting for his leadership: he was a team captain last fall, only the second sophomore in program history to earn such a designation. In a conference leaning towards more spread-first signal callers, it’s nice to see that yes, there remains is a place for pocket passers like Cousins.

Sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker split carries in the backfield last fall; expect a similar story in 2010. As was the case a year ago, however, look for Caper to have a slightly larger role: he led the team in carries (120), yards (468) and touchdowns (4) as a rookie, though Baker — 427 yards rushing — also played a sizable role. Expect some improvement as this pair gains experience, though with Michigan State’s emphasis on the passing game, neither — barring injuries — is poised for more than a slight gain in production. With Caper and Baker in place, the Spartans could stand to redshirt incoming freshmen LeVeon Bell and Nick Hill in order to create some separation at the position. Michigan State doesn’t ask too much from its backs: keep defenses honest, convert on short yardage and move the chains.

Any list of the top defensive players in the nation must include all-American Greg Jones, the wonderfully talented linebacker whose decision to return to East Lansing for his senior season delighted the Michigan State coaching staff. Jones is truly superb: a ferocious, rock-steady tackler; a top-notch pass rusher; and a developing talent in pass coverage, though that certainly stands as the facet of his game that needs the most improvement. He was the conference defensive player of the year last fall, thanks to his 154 tackles (13 for loss) — third in the nation — and nine sacks, the latter total good for fifth in the Big Ten. Jones is a clear contender — if not a favorite — for multiple national defensive awards in 2010.

Jones’ play overshadows that of fellow senior Eric Gordon, who alternated starts on both the strong and weak sides a year ago. His junior campaign was his finest yet: 92 tackles (7.5 for loss) and 3.5 sacks, all new career bests, while extending his starting streak to 27 games; that ties Jones for most on the defense. Gordon will likely remain full-time on the strong side in his final season, opening up the weak side to talented sophomore Chris Norman, a one-game starter at the spot as a freshman. If Michigan State opts to dabble in a 3-4 look — all signs point towards this being the case — true freshman William Gholston could fill a need for edge rushers; the five-star recruit would be asked to get to the quarterback, an easier task for a rookie than figuring into the mix on a three-down basis. Additional depth will come from Jon Misch, Steve Gardiner and Max Bullough, making linebacker the unquestioned strength of the defense. Heck, Jones alone makes this the strength of the defense.

The defensive line has equal depth; unfortunately, much of that depth is unproven. Here are the sure things: sophomore Jerrel Worthy is poised for all-conference accolades after a sterling debut season; fellow sophomore Blake Treadwell came on strong over the second half of 2009; and if healthy, senior end Colin Neely is a consistent presence against the run. Neely missed the spring due to injury, however, and his availability for the fall is somewhat in doubt. Keep an eye on several young linemen ready to break into the rotation. Redshirt freshmen Dan France and Micajah Reynolds performed ably during the spring, and should provide bodies on the interior. End Tyler Hoover has the talent to excel on the college level: big, strong and fast, it might just be a matter of time before the lights turn on for the sophomore. If he doesn’t surpass Hoover — and if Neely returns to full health — junior end Johnathan Strayhorn will be a key reserve.

The secondary is a concern. The Spartans will need to land a bounce-back season from senior Chris L. Rucker, who despite landing honorable mention all-conference honors a year ago did not play up to his full abilities. If Rucker can match his potential — serving as a stopper on the edge — the defensive backfield will take a significant step forward; if not, the Spartans will again rank near the bottom of the Big Ten in pass defense. The secondary will receive a boost, however, from the return of sophomore Johnny Adams, who missed last season due to some off-field issues. He was missed: after a strong debut campaign, Adams was to be counted on for meaningful action at cornerback in 2009. In order to have optimum depth, M.S.U. will need thus-far unproven commodities like Mitchell White, Dana Dixon and Chase Parker to step into the rotation.

While junior Trenton Robinson returns at free safety, the Spartans will push senior Marcus Hyde into the starting lineup on a full-time basis at strong safety. Hyde is an experienced hand: a seven-game starter last fall, when he split time with Danny Fortener, and a multiple-year contributor in the secondary. Hyde played well enough last fall (a career-high 46 tackles) to expect a solid senior season; along with Robinson, he gives the Spartans a capable back end of the defense.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line More specifically, from center through right tackle; the left side of the line ranks among the best the Big Ten has to offer. This is mainly due to junior Joel Foreman, a freshman all-American in 2008 and an all-Big Ten pick last fall, though senior D.J. Young has been a fixture at tackle — on the right side, however — since transferring into East Lansing from Bowling Green. Question marks exist at the remaining three spots, though the situation is not altogether dire — we are nearing the top 50, after all. My largest concern lies at center, where the Spartans lost three-year starter Joel Nitchman. Not to say that the cupboard is bare, as senior John Stipek has starting experience — three games in Nichtman’s stead a year ago. But it will be difficult to match Nitchman’s production: the departed starter was one of the premier interior linemen in the Big Ten a year ago. There’s also a hole at right guard, where Brendon Moss started every game last fall. The Spartans have options: one is mammoth junior Antonio Jeremiah, a former defensive tackle with the potential to be a force in the running game; another is sophomore Chris McDonald, who held a slight edge over Jeremiah as the team entered the summer. The Spartans could also go with junior Jared McGaha at right guard, where he started a game a year ago; however, it looks like McGaha will move out to right tackle, where he’ll step in for Young. Again, there’s little reason to think the offensive line will be an Achilles heel in 2010. Still, it’s just the nature of the game: starters leave, players must step up. Outside of Nichtman, I don’t think the Spartans will struggle replacing any of last year’s starters up front.

Game(s) to watch

The easy start, followed by the difficult slate of Big Ten road games. Those should balance each other out, meaning Michigan State’s season may be decided by how the Spartans fare in conference home games against Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell We’ll see an improved team in 2010: better on defense — though not world-beaters, to be sure — and strong on offense. What most bothers me about this season? The schedule, of course, the one factor outside of Michigan State’s control. No, the schedule isn’t deadly, particularly outside of conference play; the Spartans even miss Ohio State, which always helps. The road slate, on the other hand, is deadly: Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State. Landing two wins from that quartet could allow the Spartans to finish as high as second in the Big Ten, particularly with three very winnable games coming in East Lansing. A tall task, of course. However, 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.

Dream season Though outside the Rose Bowl conversation, Michigan State impresses with a 9-3 finish, 6-2 in the Big Ten. One of those six wins comes against the Wolverines, of course.

Nightmare season For the second consecutive year, Michigan State finishes below the .500 mark. This time, however, the Spartans stay home for bowl season.

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. A great group of options. As per a loyal reader’s suggestion below, be sure to check out Joe Rexrode’s blog over at the Lansing State Journal.

Up Next

Who is No. 50? When visiting our next university, take note of the area’s high concentration of art deco architecture.

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Comments

  1. Jack says:

    1) Don’t forget the Lansing State Journal’s superb coverage over at http://www.greenandwhite.com. Joe Rexrode, their beat writer, is really good and his blog Hey, Joe is a must-read for Sparty fans IMO. Lots of hoops chatter recently what with the Izzo and Chris Allen drama, but I expect more football soon. (Thr LSJ is leaps and bounds better than any of the Detroit papers’ coverage or any of the West Michigan newspapers…. I think the Freep and DetNews leans more towards U-M, at least for football. Which is understandable given the distances.)

    2) So this means Michigan is really better than MSU this year?

    3) I’ll take a huge stab and guess UCLA for No. 50.

    Paul: Thanks for the link. Adding it now. As for Michigan, I am expecting a revival of sorts for the Wolverines in 2010. I hope that I was able to indicate that I’m high on the Spartans, however. And no, not U.C.L.A. tomorrow.

  2. Zaboo says:

    Tulsa?

  3. Mohammad Sakar says:

    Northwestern?

  4. Greg says:

    Paul, thanks for producing the list, I really enjoy the genuine insights and perspective.

    Is it Kansas tomorrow?

  5. Greg says:

    Whoops, I missed KU at #67. Only other campus architecture that comes to mind is Cal.

  6. Glenn says:

    South Florida should be 50. Their campus is known for its art deco buildings. And, the team isn’t better than 50th…..

  7. wildcat6 says:

    Zaboo had it right. Tulsa is known for its art deco buildings. Note that Paul mentioned the “area” had the art deco buildings, not necessarily the campus.

  8. george howley says:

    At first I thought the previous commentator was confusing South Beach with South Florida. But I tend to agree that South Florida is no better than a 50 projection and the university’s architecture has a hint of art deco.

  9. KK says:

    @ Mohammad Sakar: Yes, Northwestern. Now considered deadly. Get used to it. Here’s to hoping Sparty keeps using that line of thought, though. Iowa does and look what it gets them.

  10. My name 1s MUD says:

    Sorry folks, but Northwestern has built up a good program. In terms of competitiveness, they are in the “second tier” now. I believe, Illinois has now claimed the spot with Indiana as the doormats of the Big 10.

  11. witless chum says:

    Impressive write up. Seems to indicate a lot of good research was done on my Spartans. I’ll have to check out more on the site.

    The only thing I’d suggest is that referring to Johnny Adams’ redshirt last year as “off-field issues” might leave the false (as far as I’ve heard) impression that he got in trouble.

    The story that came out was that he had family stuff to deal with, specifically the death of his grandmother. It’s accurate the way you wrote it, sure, but it seems to me that most people use that as a euphemism for, say, roughing up some frat boys. Adams was pretty good as a true freshman in 2008, too.

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