In 2013, Michigan State traveled to Lincoln with the nation's best defense and a sputtering offense. Five (mostly unforced) turnovers by Nebraska's freshmen were the difference as the Spartans left Lincoln with a 41-27 victory. The Huskers outrushed and outpassed the Spartans, but it's nearly impossible to win when you go -5 in turnovers. After that game, an argument could have been made that Nebraska was the up-and-coming team in that game. But since that point, it's Michigan State who's become the national power, winning a Big Ten championship in 2013 and the Rose and Cotton Bowls.
It's not a stretch to say that Michigan State, especially on offense, has progressed dramatically over the last couple of seasons. In Michigan State's first three games against division 1-A opponents in 2013, the Spartans defense (four touchdowns) actually outscored the Spartan offense (three touchdowns). But then Connor Cook took over as the starting quarterback, and slowly found a rhythm. In October, he was OK. In November, he was gaining momentum, and then in December and January, Cook and the Spartans crashed the Big Ten and BCS party.
Now for his senior season, the 6'4" 220 pound quarterback is a first team preseason all-Big Ten honoree by Phil Steele as well as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. Last season, he completed 58% of his passes for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns, with just eight interceptions. Two years ago, it would have been inconceivable that Cook would be viewed as a potential first round NFL draft pick, but that's precisely the way things have evolved. If Cook goes down to injury, it's unclear whether the Spartans would turn to sophomore Damion Terry (6'3" 230 lbs.) or junior Tyler O'Connor (6'3" 222 lbs.). O'Connoer might have a slight edge at this moment, but Terry has a bit more mobility and probably has the bigger upside.
Coming out of 2014, junior Delton Williams (6'1" 228 lbs.) was considered the heir apparent to take over at running back for Jeremy Langford...but then Williams was arrested in March for waiving a handgun in East Lansing during a road rage incident. The incident occurred just three months after William's older brother was shot to death in Erie, PA, and led to a five month suspension for Williams and the loss of his scholarship. He's cleared to walk back on at Michigan State, but he'll have to fight his way into shape and back up the depth chart. In Williams' absence, sophomore Gerald Holmes (6'0" 218 lbs.) and redshirt freshman Madre London (6'1" 220 lbs.) have emerged at the top of the depth chart. True freshman L.J. Scott (6'1" 233 lbs.) has been impressive in the first part of preseason practice, earning comparisons to former Spartan and current Pittsburgh Steeler running back Le'Veon Bell. A redshirt season is possible for Williams if he can't get himself back into shape in time to reclaim his spot on the depth chart.
At receiver, the Spartans lose all Big Ten receiver Tony Lippett and his 65 catches for 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns from last season. Seniors Aaron Burbridge (6'1" 208 lbs) and Macgarrett Kings (5'10" 186 lbs) have each caught over twenty passes each of the last two seasons, so there is something to build on. Senior DeAnthony Arnett (5'11" 182 lbs) star-crossed journey from Tennessee to East Lansing might finally be ready to contribute after an excellent spring. Junior tight end Josiah Price caught 26 passes for 382 yards and six touchdowns, which is as many touchdown catches as everybody else who returns for the Spartans. As a junior, he looks to become Cook's best friend in 2015.
Last season, Michigan State had to replace three starters and actually improved quite a bit, and return two of the three best linemen from last season. Senior center Jack Allen (6'2" 295 lbs) was an all-American last season, while junior left tackle Jack Conklin (6'6" 317 lbs.) was a second team all Big Ten honoree. They may miss departing left guard Travis Jackson (a second team all Big Ten selection last year), but having sophomore Brian Allen (6'2" 306 lbs), a freshman all-American, to replace him bodes well for the Spartans future on the line.
One thing has been constant in East Lansing ever since Mark Dantonio took over: great defense. Two years ago, when the offense was pathetically inept, the defense rocked. (In fact, the Spartans defense was outscoring the offense at times.) That earned long-time defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi a well-deserved head coaching gig at Pitt to close out the Mike Riley-Gary Andersen-Paul Chryst game of musical chairs. But don't think that the Spartans defense is going to suddenly regress; Dantonio spent eight years as a defensive coordinator prior to getting a head coaching job, and groomed Narduzzi. He'll do the same with co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Bennett.
Could Michigan State have the nation's top defensive line? Across the board, this is quite the group, starting with senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun (6'5" 250 lbs.) is a two-time second-team all-American who could easily been a first round draft pick this past year, if he had chosen to enter the draft. His numbers dipped a bit last year (only 8 sacks and 8 quarterback hurries); wouldn't we all like to struggle like Calhoun did last season? On the other side, senior Lawrence Thomas (6'4" 300 lbs.) finally seemed to find a home on the defensive line last season and turned it up a notch this spring. Senior Joel Heath bulked up to 6'6" and 296 pounds last season to play inside at defensive tackle and exceled with 29 tackles. Sophomore Malik McDowell (6'6" 285 lbs.) was a freshman all-American last season and should excel as the nose tackle this season as a full-time starter.
The Spartans linebacking corps took a big hit last week when senior strongside linebacker Ed Davis injured his knee and will miss the 2015 season. Sophomore Chris Frey (6'2" 226 lbs.) looks to be the leader to step in, but keep an eye on former Husker Drake Martinez (6'2" 215 lbs.), who's switched sides to take snaps on the strong side. The coaches love Martinez's raw speed and want to get it on the field. Senior Darien Harris (6'0" 220 lbs) will have to provide leadership from the "star" linebacker positon as the only returning starter. In the middle, junior Riley Bullough is expected to be the starter and spending a lot of time previously at running back. He should come by the position naturally; big brother Max was a three year starter in the middle for the Spartans and now for the Houston Texans. No doubt that the Spartans will miss Davis, but considering the depth on the Spartans' roster, don't expect a huge dropoff either.
If there is a concern on the Spartans' defense, it's in the secondary where cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond are off to the NFL. Senior safety R.J. Williamson (6'0" 214 lbs.) returns after putting up 59 tackles last season; he's shown to be solid in defending both the run and the pass. He'll match up with sophomore Montae Nicholson (6'2" 216 lbs.), who started three games last season with 31 tackles. Nicholson has been dabbling on offense at receiver, and could play a bit on offense this season to exploit his speed. The safeties should be fine; it's at cornerback where the Spartans are a bit concerned. Junior cornerback Darian Hicks (5'10" 178 lbs.) started the first ten games of the season, but lost his starting job to wide receiver Tony Lippett at the end of the season. Hicks has been battling mononucleosis at the start of preseason camp, so it looks like he may be splitting time with senior Arjen Colquhoun (6'1" 197 lbs.). Converted junior safety Demetrious Cox (6'1" 200 lbs.) switched to cornerback this spring and looks to be a lock to start at the other corner spot. Don't be surprised if one of five freshmen: Vayante Copeland, Josh Butler, Kaleel Gaines, David Dowell or Tyson Smith doesn't emerge during the season.
In week two, Oregon visits Michigan State with the winner jumping into position for a College Football Playoff berth at the end of the season. Barring a rash of injuries, Michigan State should be favored to arrive in Lincoln no worse than 7-1 (and quite possibly 8-0), and eyeballing a matchup two weeks later against Ohio State for the East Division championship. You'd have to think that an 11-1 Michigan State squad would stand a better than not chance of earning a playoff berth, even with a loss to Ohio State. Does that mean that Michigan State might actually find it easier to get to the one of the Playoff Semifinal games than the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis? In this season in the Big Ten, that very well might be the case.