By Adam Hoge-
While Big Ten training camps are underway, Adam Hoge will devote an entire day to each of the 12 teams in the conference. He will include a preview on each team, plus news, notes and analysis on Twitter. He will also take your questions on Twitter and 670TheScore.com. Follow him at @AdamHogeCBS.
(CBS) Despite beating Wisconsin in the regular season each of the last two seasons, the Spartans have had to watch the Badgers play in the Rose Bowl instead of them.
Last year, Michigan State had their chance to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and failed, but Spartans fans still felt like they deserved a BCS bowl more than Michigan, who they beat in the regular season.
MSU took care of business in the Outback Bowl, beating Georgia to give the Big Ten a coveted win over the SEC. Still, that was hardly satisfying. This is a program that has reached new heights under Mark Dantonio and is seeking the Rose Bowl at the very least this season.
Let’s a take a look at Michigan State’s chances:
1. DE William Gholston (Jr.) – Legitimate All-American candidate racked up five sacks and 11 TFLs last season.
2. LB Denicos Allen (Jr.) – Another playmaker on a great defense, Allen had 11 sacks last season and 7.5 TFLs.
3. S Isaiah Lewis (Jr.) – Lewis led Michigan State with four interceptions last season.
4. RB Le’Veon Bell (Jr.) – With Edwin Baker gone, Bell will shoulder an even bigger load after leading the Spartans with 948 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
5. CB Johnny Adams (Sr.) – Adams is one of the better corners in the country and is an All-American candidate.
Is this the best defense in the Big Ten?
In my opinion, yes. The Spartans will have to replace two defensive tackles — including Jerel Worthy — and a safety, but pretty much everyone else is back. Max Bullough and Chris Norman join Allen to form arguably the Big Ten’s best group of linebackers. The secondary is among the best in the country and sophomore defensive end Marcus Rush (fitting name) will wreak havoc with Gholston on the line.
The scary part about this defense is that only two of the returning starters on the unit are seniors. This is an SEC caliber unit and if the offense produces, this team is capable at a surprise run at the BCS National Championship Game.
Is there enough left on this offense though?
This is the big question. Gone is quarterback Kirk Cousins and four very productive receiving options, most notably B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. All the reviews out of East Lansing about the replacements have been great however, and that seems to be enough to have most experts thinking that this team could be even better than last year’s group.
That is indeed possible if quarterback Andrew Maxwell is as good as advertised. He’s a good leader, much like Cousins was, but is he a winner? Cousins won 27 games at MSU — the most in school history. Maxwell has the size and the arm to be even better than Cousins, but we won’t really know until we see him in a game this season.
It looks like sophomore wideout Tony Lippett will lead a new receiving group. I can’t be sold on anyone until I see them perform against Boise State Aug. 31, but it’s definitely a good sign when Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett — who has more career catches than the rest of the group combined — looks to be behind on the depth chart. There’s a lot of competition at the position.
My skepticism, however, comes from the fact that I think Michigan State’s offense was a little overrated last season. The Spartans only managed 13 points against Notre Dame, 10 against Ohio State and three against Nebraska. Overall it averaged 31 points a game, but that was largely from racking up big point totals against bad defenses.
That said, if Maxwell ends up being better than Cousins and reliable options emerge at wide receiver, this offense should be more than good with an experience offensive line up front. And if it is, the defense will make Michigan State one of the best teams in the country.
Why doesn’t Mark Dantonio get more respect?
Honestly, I don’t know. Dantonio has built a monster the right way and has done it at a place that traditionally has been a tough place to win consistently. Sure, he benefitted a little bit from the Rich Rodriguez disaster in Ann Arbor, but so what? Brady Hoke has turned Michigan around quickly and Dantonio is still bringing in good recruits to East Lansing. The fact that his defense is so good with so few seniors is a testament to Dantonio’s scouting ability.
If Michigan State matches the 11 wins it posted in both 2010 and 2011, Dantonio is going to be one of the most sought after coaches in the country. If there are any surprise openings at big time programs, he could be at the top of the list. Of course, he’s the kind of guy who would stay at Michigan State and continue building on the foundation he has built.
Michigan State has a tough, but favorable schedule. Actually, it’s brilliantly built in a way that will put the Spartans in the middle of the BCS conversation if they win games. It will be hard to turn them down this year after the Spartans got snubbed the last two seasons.
MSU opens against Boise State at home on a Friday night. It’s the kind of game that will bring exposure, but is more than winnable because the Broncos are sort of rebuilding this season. They also host Notre Dame. Both are must-win non-conference games. Early Big Ten home games against Ohio State and Iowa are key, but this season is going to come down to a brutal three-game stretch that includes back-to-back road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin and a home game against Nebraska. If the Spartans want to go 2-1 in those games, the Michigan and Nebraska games are the more important ones.
Maxwell is more than capable and wide receiving options emerge. The Spartans get off to a great start by going 4-0 in the non-conference portion of the season. They then win a defensive battle against Ohio State and go into Ann Arbor with a 3-0 Big Ten record. This is the big one and they know it. Michigan State pulls out their fifth straight win over the Wolverines and continue the momentum by rolling into Madison to get their first win there since 2001. At that point, nothing can stop Sparty. Michigan State beats Nebraska to put a stranglehold on the Legends Division.
All that’s standing in the Spartans’ way of the BCS National Championship Game is another rematch against the Badgers in Indianapolis. Imagine the drama.
The offensive concerns are realized. While this is still a pretty good team, the Spartans lose to Notre Dame for the second straight season and then get nearly shutout by the Buckeyes to open the Big Ten season. The defense is still good enough to beat the teams they should beat, but the offense isn’t good enough to win at Michigan and Wisconsin. Michigan State finishes the regular season with an 8-4 record (5-3 in the Big Ten).
Check out Adam’s final verdict on the Spartans when his Big Ten preview concludes later this month. Up next in the series are the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Tweet your questions to Adam at @AdamHogeCBS.
Catch up on the series:
Aug. 8 – Illinois Fighting Illini
Aug. 10 – Indiana Hoosiers
Aug. 15 – Ohio State Buckeyes
Aug. 16 – Penn State Nittany Lions
Aug. 17 – Purdue Boilermakers
Aug. 20 – Wisconsin Badgers
Aug. 21 – Iowa Hawkeyes
Aug. 22 – Michigan Wolverines
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.