Going into last season, the biggest questions for Michigan State were on offense, starting at quarterback. Andrew Maxwell was the starter in 2012 despite having the Big Ten's worst completion percentage. The Spartans struggled to a 7-6 record, and in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the Spartans best quarterback was actually running back Le'Veon Bell taking direct snaps as a Wildcat quarterback. Maxwell started the season opener and struggled once again against Western Michigan, forcing coach Mark Dantonio to make the switch to sophomore Connor Cook. Cook put up moderately better numbers most of the season, completing just under 59% of his passes. The big number was throwing 22 touchdown passes with only six interceptions.
Or maybe the big number was 13, as in Michigan State victories last season. The Spartans beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, then went on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl...and Cook gets the credit for ensuring that the offense was no longer a liability. Under Dantonio, great defense is a given, so the key to victory was simply making sure the offense didn't screw up. Connor Cook did just that. The most talented quarterback in East Lansing is probably redshirt freshman Damion Terry (6'3" 230 pounds) who had a great fall camp last year and almost forced Dantonio to burn his redshirt. A dual threat quarterback, he's recovering from surgery to repair an injury to his non-throwing shoulder suffered in the Spartans' spring game. It seems unlikely that Terry would unseat Cook, but the Spartans probably will look at ways to utilize Terry as a Wildcat option.
At the start of the 2013 season, the Spartans were utilizing a running back by committee approach until Jeremy Langford seized the job with eight consecutive 100 yard games. The 6'0" 200 pound speedster rushed for 311 yards in the first five games and 1,111 in the next nine to claim third team all-Big Ten honors last season. (18 touchdowns on the season may have had something to do with that as well.) Langford's stats were double backloaded last season; not only did most of those yards come late in the season, they came late in those games. Against Michigan, 70 of Langford's 120 yards came in the fourth; likewise, 62 of 151 yards against Nebraska came in the final period. Senior Nick Hill, who rushed for 344 yards (mostly in the early games) is also back.
In 2012, blame for Michigan State's offensive ineptitude was shared between Maxwell and his receivers, and like at quarterback, improvement came from new contributors emerging. Senior Tony Lippett (6'3" 190 pounds) caught 44 passes for 613 yards and two touchdowns last season while Junior Macgarrett Kings (5'10" 186 pounds) caught 43 for 513 yards and three touchdowns. Kings was suspended this spring for an unspecified violation of team rules, and while he's expected back, his absence allowed junior DeAnthony Arnett (5'11" 189 pounds) to make a move this spring. With seven of the eight top receivers back this season, the Spartans should be be able to build on last season's improvement in 2014.
Michigan State has to replace three multi-year starters on the offensive line this season. They do return second team all-Big Ten center Jack Allen (6'1" 300 pounds) and left tackle Jack Conklin (6'6" 330 pounds), who started every game last season as a freshman. Thanks to injuries in past seasons, the replacements do have a fair amount of starting experience, starting with senior left guard Travis Jackson, who's started 17 games at center in his career.
If you've paid any attention to Big Ten football in recent years, you know how good the Spartans defense is. But in 2014, there are a few questions that need to be answered with only five returning starters. It's a good thing when one of them is junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, a second team all-American last season. The 6'4" 257 pounder amassed 37 tackles (7.5 for a loss) and 18 quarterback hurries. Not to mention four fumble recovers, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Almost makes you forget about senior Marcus Rush (6'2" 255 pounds) on the other side; he's an honorable mention all-Big Ten honoree the last two seasons. Inside, however, only one of the top four defensive tackles, junior Damon Knox, returns. The 6'4" 275 pound nose tackle totaled 22 tackles last season.
It'll be tough for MIchigan State to replace departing second team all-American linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, which means that linebacker has to be the biggest question mark going into 2014. Senior Taiwan Jones (6'3" 252 pounds) returns in the middle after a 67 tackle season in 2013. Junior Ed Davis (6'3" 230 pounds) played a bit on third downs last season, amassing 17 tackles, while junior Darien Harris (6'0" 228 pounds) picked up some valuable experience in the Rose Bowl with five tackles replacing Bullough, who was suspended for the game. Harris' last tackle was the biggest of the game, helping stuff Stanford on fourth and one with under two minutes left in the game. Can Davis and Harris become more than role players in 2014? The history of Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi says they will, but at the same time, there will be a dropoff from last season.
A bigger loss is first team all-American cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who's off to the Cincinnati Bengals as a first round draft pick. Sophomore Darian Hicks (5'10" 181 pounds) played briefly in all 14 games as a true freshman last season, but those are awfully big shoes to fill. On the other side, junior Trae Waynes (6'1" 183 pounds) should have a big season after earning honorable mention all-Big Ten honors as a sophomore last season. Senior free safety Kurtis Drummond (6'1" 200 pounds) was a first team all-Big Ten pick last season after a 91 tackle season. Junior R.J. Williamson (6'0" 215) will slide over from nickle to be the full-time starter at strong safety.
No doubt about it, the Spartans will be weaker in the defensive back seven in 2014, which will make it tough to keep up the "No Fly Zone" moniker they sported in 2013. But weaker for Michigan State is almost assuredly still going to be among the Big Ten's best. But will that be enough to beat Nebraska in 2014? Last season, it was Nebraska's five turnovers (all by freshmen) that was the difference in the game. On the stat sheet, Nebraska had more rushing and passing yards. Spartan Nation's Hondo Carpenter even admitted that Nebraska had Michigan State on the ropes that afternoon. (Of course, the guy got press conferences two weeks apart confused, so what does he know.)