With head coach Mark Dantonio leading the Michigan State University football team for yet another season, it is certainly not awful to be a fan of the Spartans right now. MSU won 11 games in 2011, with the last coming against Georgia in three overtimes in the Gator Bowl, 33-30. Of course, the Gator Bowl was consolation. MSU missed out on the Rose Bowl after losing the inaugural Big Ten conference championship game to the University of Wisconsin, 42-39. That outcome was aided by a running into the kicker penalty that negated a big punt return which would have put the Spartans in very good position to win the game late. MSU won the regular season conference title, with their record tainted only by a bad road loss to Nebraska. To make matters even worse, Michigan somehow snuck into the Sugar Bowl, where they beat ACC representative Virginia Tech in overtime, 23-20.
After the Big 10’s first year with two divisions within the conference and a conference championship game, play should be even better throughout the entire league. Dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines could find themselves in position to play for a national title if they can beat Week 1 opponent Alabama in Arlington and then navigate through the conference unscathed. Wisconsin is expected to be a legitimate contender in the Big 10, as Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien “replaces” Russell Wilson at the QB position. O’Brien, a redshirt sophomore, won’t be called on to do as much as Wilson, especially with Heisman candidate RB Montee Ball in the backfield. Urban Meyer is now at the helm of the Ohio St. football program and his signal-caller is sophomore Braxton Miller, who played fairly well last year as a true freshman. Other schools that can certainly hold their own are Nebraska (as long as Taylor Martinez doesn’t have to throw the ball), Northwestern and Iowa.
In the 2012 AP preseason Top 25 poll, Michigan State is ranked 13th. Michigan, ranked 8th and Wisconsin, 12th, are the only two Big 10 schools ranked higher than MSU. Nebraska and Ohio State sit at 17 and 18, respectively.
Michigan State’s 2012 schedule begins with a home night game against 24th-ranked Boise State and features three consecutive games in consecutive weeks against 8th-ranked Michigan, 12th-ranked Wisconsin and 17th-ranked Nebraska. The first two will be played on the road, and the last at home. Ohio St. comes to East Lansing on 9/29 and we should all hope that Sparty puts forth a better effort than they did last year in Columbus, winning 10-7.
Four offensive starters return, all of them on the offensive line. This should bode well for junior QB Andrew Maxwell, who will be tabbed to replace the winningest QB in MSU history, Kirk Cousins. Maxwell is supposed to be every bit as talented as Cousins was, but no one will know for sure until he takes his first few snaps of the 2012 season. Junior RB Le’Veon Bell (182 CAR, 948 YDS, 13 TD) will get the bulk of the carries, with senior Larry Caper and sophomore Nick Hill behind him. While Sparty ran the ball effectively last year, it was the passing game that helped the team win 11 games. Gone are receivers BJ Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and tight end Brian Linthicum. In 2011, the three combined for 176 catches, 2,447 yards and 16 touchdowns. Slotted to fill in are receivers Tony Lippett and Bennie Fowler, and tight end Dion Sims. By comparison, those three combined for 18 catches, 163 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2011. Maxwell will have at least one solid target in sophomore WR DeAnthony Arnett, a Tennessee transfer. The NCAA ruled him eligible to play in 2012 in May, and the 5’10”, 170-lb speedster should be the Spartans’ most talented receiver.
The 2011 MSU D was the best in my lifetime. It finished the season ranked 6th nationally in total defense, 9th against the run, 11th against the pass and 10th in scoring defense. Eight starters from the 2011 unit return. Standouts include junior linebackers Max Bullough, who registered 89 tackles last season and Denicos Allen, who finished 6th in the nation with 11 sacks. Junior safety Isaiah Lewis and senior cornerback Johnny Adams will be counted on to make plays in the secondary, while this defense attempts to overcome the losses of All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and All Big-Ten free safety Trenton Robinson. A guy who could arguably be a better player for the Spartans than Worthy was is preseason All-American DE William Gholston. The 6’7″, 280-lb pass rushing junior will demand constant double teams, and that should free up things for DL Tyler Hoover, who missed the entire 2011 season because of injury.
Sparty’s first game of the season will be no cakewalk, although I do expect a win. Boise St. junior Joe Southwick will be the Broncos’ new QB, replacing the man he backed up for the last two seasons, Kellen Moore. Home games against Notre Dame and Ohio St. should help Maxwell notch victories against two programs in a bit of a rebuilding process. The trio of games against ranked teams I mentioned earlier will be preceded by another home game against Iowa, a team that has proven to be a nuisance in recent years. Northwestern is also a pest, but again, a home game should make a Spartan victory easier to come by.
Maxwell comes out flat against Boise St. in Week 1 and Sparty drops the opener. Maxwell’s struggles continue into the Notre Dame game, and into conference play. He never develops a rapport with his receivers, and this puts more of the onus on Le’Veon Bell, who doesn’t come close to his 2011 production. Arnett struggles in the more rugged Big 10 and the development of the rest of the corps is lacking. The defense is good, but not nearly good enough to make up for an offense worse than the one ranked 56th in the nation in 2011. Gholston puts up gaudy numbers, but the losses of Worthy and Robinson prove to be just too much. With defensive stops not coming like they used to, the Spartans finish 7-5, 5-3 in the Big Ten.
Maxwell comes out flat against Boise St….but Bell and the Gholston-led D overcome his poor play as Sparty welcomes back the students with a hard-fought night victory. MSU then goes up to Mt. Pleasant to play Central Michigan and there Maxwell finds his rhythm, leading the team to a blowout victory. The team keeps the momentum and wins their first 7 games fairly easily. Bell is a Doak Walker candidate and Arnett proves to be a more complete version of Keshawn Martin. Gholston and the defense aren’t able to stop Heisman candidate Denard Robinson in Michigan, but they dominate the rest of the way, as the Spartans finish 11-1, 7-1 in the Big Ten.
Finally, things seemed to click for Cousins in 2011 and it makes me wish that Cousins were only a junior instead of a senior. Regardless, Maxwell is the man now, and he should be serviceable so long as his veteran line gives him good pass blocking and Bell thrives as the go-to back. The defensive line should once again be solid and the secondary returns three players with all-conference recognition. I figure the Spartans could win either one or four games because the Big Ten can be a tricky conference, with top teams failing to show up against lesser opponents and lesser opponents finding a way to upset the conference’s top teams. Michigan State hasn’t played in the Rose Bowl since 1988, and that’s definitely the main objective right along with a shot at the national title. If the team’s best players stay healthy and they can catch their few usual breaks-be they trick plays or last-second Hail Mary TD catches-the Spartans should have a very good season and be a BCS bowl candidate when 2012 is over.