Big Ten Football Previews – Part IX
Editor's Note: This is the ninth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back often to see who’s next...
Team: Michigan State Spartans
Tidbits ... No coach has won more games in his first two years at MSU than Mark Dantonio. 2008 the most regular season wins for the program since 1999 and only the third 9+ win season since 1966.
2008 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-2nd), Outback / 9-4, 6-2 (3rd), Capital One
2007 Prediction / actual: 6-6, 3-5 (T-7th), Insight / 7-6, 3-5 (T-7th), Champs
2006 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (5th), Champs / 4-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2005 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 5-3 (4th), Sun / 5-6, 2-6 (9th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Sun / 5-7, 4-4 (T-5th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 6-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 8-5, 5-3 (T-4th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 4-8, 2-6 (T-8th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 8-3, 6-2 (T-1st) / 7-5, 3-5 (T-8th)
*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense, 2 kickers
Key Returnees: C Joel Nitchman, WR Blair White, TE Charlie Gantt, DE Trevor Anderson, LB Greg Jones
Key Losses: QB Brian Hoyer, RB Javon Ringer, DT Justin Kershaw, S Otis Wiley
Looking Back ... 2008 has to go down as the year the Spartans started to learn how to finish. After tormenting fans for decades with "close but no cigar" losses or snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (think Michigan game in 2007), the green and white learned how to close out games in '08. The next step is the mantra for 2009 - step up and win the big ones. Seems like a logical next step for a program that was dormant for so long but suddenly is locking up the personnel to compete in the upper tier of the Big Ten for years to come...
Outlook - Offense ... The first thing the outside observer will say is "No way MSU can come close to what it accomplished in 2008 after losing both its quarterback and one of the best tailbacks in school history." I beg to differ. Yes, Brian Hoyer did what his much ballyhooed predecessor (Drew Stanton) could not in leading State to back-to-back winning seasons and bowl berths, but he was a game manager. Michigan State has two signal callers - three when freshman Andrew Maxwell hits camp - that have star potential. Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol shined bright in the spring game and both will play early in the season, perhaps all season long. While there isn't one guy to replace Ringer, there is a log jam of talent in the backfield and frankly, the over-reliance on Ringer last year probably hampered the offense a tad. MSU must replace the right side of the offensive line, but center Joel Nitchman is one of the best in the country. The wide receiving and tight ends corps is deep and talented. Look for State to be better on this side of the ball than a season ago.
Outlook - Defense ... Michigan State should be rock solid on defense this fall, with legitimate next level talent in Greg Jones, Trevor Anderson and Eric Gordon. The secondary returns three starters and loads of depth. The linebackers are among the best units in the Big Ten, boasting talent, depth and some eye-popping freshman talent. The only question is whether or not someone can emerge opposite Trevor Anderson to consistently pressure the quarterback. The defensive tackles are good but young and a bit untested. State should be sound against the run and the pass, but needs to avoid the occasional big play that seems to have been a thorn in the side for the past several years. Look for an aggressive defense with a strong rotation of bodies to provide a unit that will be fresh and solid from opening kickoff to the final gun.
Outlook - Special Teams ... No one ever really talks about the MSU kicking game, but between Brett Swenson and Aaron Bates, the Spartans have one of the best tandems in the nation. Swenson should surpass several school records and Bates has gotten steadily better in his first two seasons. The key will be to find a return game that can add another dimension to this team. There is ample talent, but who will emerge remains in question.
9/5 - MONTANA STATE
9/12 - CENTRAL MICHIGAN
9/19 - at Notre Dame
9/26 - at Wisconsin
10/3 - MICHIGAN
10/10 - at Illinois
10/17 - NORTHWESTERN
10/24 - IOWA
10/31 - at Minnesota
11/7 - WESTERN MICHIGAN
11/14 - at Purdue
11/21 - PENN STATE
9/19 - at Notre Dame, 10/3 - MICHIGAN, 11/21 - PENN STATE
Prediction ... Michigan State has a decent conference schedule, which trades Ohio State for Illinois and Indiana for Minnesota. The Spartans also play Iowa at home again this fall - a nice bonus. The OOC slate is tougher than it looks. Montana State is preseason No. 17 in FCS, while Central and Western Michigan are among the best teams in the MAC. Can that six game South Bend win streak extend to seven? Can State win two straight over Michigan for the first time since the 1960s? Too bad MSU had to delve into 1-AA (FCS), as the Spartans were one of just a few remaining division one schools to not go that route. I expect good things for this team, with more talent than last year in all phases of the game.
OOC: 4-0 (None of them will be easy)
B10: 6-2 (wins over Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue and Penn State)
Overall: 10-2, 3rd in the conference, Outback Bowl