Michigan State is miffed about being disrespected the last two seasons. With a 22-5 record, they've twice been on the outside of the BCS despite being league co-champions in 2010 and west division champions in 2011. In both those cases, the Sugar Bowl went with the teams with the better tradition (Michigan and Ohio State), sending the Spartans to a second-tier Florida bowl game. Two years ago, the Spartans were obliterated by Alabama 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, but then got the Big Ten a much needed bowl victory over the SEC last season. In Tampa, Michigan State beat Georgia 33-30 in triple overtime.
This season, the Spartans are once again favored to be in position to make it to the Big Ten championship game. And the reason is defense: the Spartans return eight starters from a squad that was in the upper half of the conference in just about every defensive category. But there is also a reason to doubt Michigan State: only one offensive skill position starter returns. Kirk Cousins is gone after rewriting the record books in East Lansing. Completion percentage, passing yardage, touchdown passes, pass efficiency, total offense...Cousins name tops the record books. The receiving corps are starting over as well, as B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol, and Brian Linthicum are all gone. And if Le'Veon Bell hadn't taken over the starting running back job mid-season last year, the Spartans wouldn't have any returning starters at the skill positions.Replacing Cousins at quarterback is junior Andrew Maxwell. The 6'3" 212 pound pro-style quarterback attended the Elite 11 camp in 2009, and has seen mop-up duty in nine games so far during his Michigan State career. Last season, he completed 18 of 26 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown against Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan, and Indiana. As a freshman, he did see the field late in the Capital One Bowl against Alabama, completing two of six passes. And on top of all of that, a knee injury kept him out of most of spring practice. There's no other way around it; Maxwell is inexperienced. That being said, observers feel that Maxwell is more than ready to take over the reigns. Lack of experience doesn't mean that Maxwell can't do the job; it only means he hasn't done the job yet. And frankly, practicing against Michigan State's defense is almost like playing an actual game. Backing up Maxwell will be redshirt freshman Connor Cook, who played for both squads in the spring game due to Maxwell's injury.
Running back Le'Veon Bell took over as Michigan State's starting running back against Nebraska, and rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Bell is a thumper at 6'2" and 238 pounds, and now will be asked to carry the entire offense this season. His numbers will almost certainly go up in 2012 as his workload will increase. If he stays healthy, look for him to be pushing 1,500 yards or more this season. Backing him up will be senior Larry Caper, who's more of a third-down back, and sophomore Nick Hill, who's 5'8" 190 pound frame seems tiny compared to Bell.
Four starters return on the offensive line to clear the way for Bell this season. Run blocking has been a weakness in the past, so that's going to be a key need for improvement this season. The line will be led by 6'5" 299 pound senior right guard Chris McDonald, who earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last season. Sophomore center Travis Jackson was a freshman all-American last season. He's bulking up a bit and is now up to 280 pounds on his 6'3" frame. Also returning is 6'5" 316 pound junior Dan France at left tackle and 6'4" 300 pound senior Fou Fonoti at right tackle. The only question is whether junior left guard Blake Treadwell or sophomore left tackle Skyler Burkland is the other starter. If it's Burkland, France likely slides over to guard.
The leading returning receiver from last year was actually Le'Veon Bell. Among the returning receivers, the leader was junior tight end Dion Sims who caught 12 passes for 99 yards and three touchdowns last season. Sims is a huge target at 6'5" and 280 pounds; it'll be hard for Maxwell to miss him...or linebackers to try to cover. Tony Lippett moved from cornerback (18 tackles, 5 pass breakups) to receiver at mid-season last fall and caught four passes. There's your most experienced Spartan wide receiver, and should start. At 6'2" and 189 pounds, the sophomore has the physical tools, but needs more time to develop. DeAnthony Arnett received a hardship transfer waiver from the NCAA to be eligible immediately; his father has kidney disease and just underwent a transplant. As a freshman for the Vols, he caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Other players that should see playing time are 6'1" 218 pound junior Bennie Fowler (15 catches in 2010, but injured last year), 6'0" 208 pound sophomore Keith Mumphery (a deep threat who caught two passes last year), and 5'8" 180 pound redshirt freshman Andre Sims. There are players here, but they are as green as their jerseys.
In East Lansing, if the Spartans are going to be successful, it's going to be because of the defense, and it starts up front with junior defensive end William Gholston, a second team all-Big Ten honoree last year. The 6'7" 270 pound monster racked up 70 tackles last season, including five sacks and 16 tackles for a loss. And if you worry too much about Gholston, sophomore defensive end Marcus Rush will make you pay. 58 tackles last year earned him honorable mention all-Big Ten plus second-team freshman all-American honors as well. Senior defensive tackle Tyler Hoover returns to the starting lineup after missing last season due to injury. In 2010, he had 36 tackles and started nine games. Replacing Jerel Worthy will be 6'2" 320 pound senior Anthony Rashad-White, who had 25 tackles backing up Worthy last season.
Last season, Michigan State need to replace two departed all-stars and found three more. Juniors Denicos Allen and Max Bullough were both second-team all-Big Ten honorees and led the Spartans in tackles with 89 and 83 respectively. Senior Chris Norman was merely an honorable-mention all-Big Ten honoree with 76 tackles. (Slacker.) Bullough, at 6'3" 250 pounds will anchor the middle, while hybrid linebacker/safety types (think Eric Hagg) Allen and Norman will handle the strongside and weakside respectively. Phil Steele ranks Michigan State's linebacking corp the second best in the country, and it's hard to argue otherwise.
In the secondary, three starters return starting with two-time all-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams. Adams holds the school record for most interception return yards and is almost certainly NFL bound after this season. Junior Darqueze Dennard (cousin of Alfonzo) was an honorable mention all-Big Ten honoree last season at the other cornerback spot. Strong safety Isaiah Lewis was a second-team all-Big Ten pick last season as well after racking up 74 tackles last year. This is a solid secondary, though don't overestimate Michigan State's pass defense. They allowed 196 yards a game, which was ninth in the Big Ten last season.
All the elements for a great defense are there this season, but the question marks on offense are too great in my mind to make them the favorites to win the west division at this point. If Maxwell and their receivers turn out to be as good as Michigan State fans hope they'll be, Sparty will be tough to beat in 2012. But that's an awfully big "if".