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If you look back in the history of the Big Ten, there might not be a defending conference champion that has received such a small amount of hype than the 2016 Michigan State Spartans.
Despite winning 11 games in five of the last six seasons, head coach Mark Dantonio and his squad finds themselves on the outside looking in when discussing Big Ten title contenders this season. While most of the off-season hype has surrounded Ohio State and more so on their Jim Harbaugh-led in-state rivals, the odds are stacked against the Spartans as they look to defend their Big Ten crown.
When I look at this season’s team, I see a few comparisons between this season’s team and the 2013 team that won a Big Ten championship and topped it off with a Rose Bowl victory.
The first similarity I noticed was that both teams entering the season didn’t have an established option at starting quarterback. In 2013, MSU was coming off a disappointing 7-6 campaign as the Spartans struggled to find a heir to the highly successful Kirk Cousins. Senior QB Andrew Maxwell had started each of the 13 games in 2012, but it was sophomore Connor Cook who led a 2nd half comeback in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over TCU. While it wasn’t until well into the season that Cook put a stranglehold on the starting gig, he went on to become arguably the most successful quarterback in Michigan State history with a 36-5 record.
This season, the Spartans have a similar situation as they look to replace Cook. The favorite to earn the starting job is redshirt senior Tyler O’Connor, who has patiently waited for his opportunity to lead the MSU offense. While Michigan State has a host of other quarterbacks in the mix including junior Damion Terry, redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke, and true freshman Messiah deWeaver, O’Connor has appeared to distance himself from the pack.
Last season in Columbus, it was a combined effort between O’Connor and Terry helped MSU upset the Buckeyes despite not having an injured Cook. The game ultimately put the Spartans in the driver’s seat for another Big Ten East title and a shot at a second outright conference title in three seasons.
Elsewhere on the offensive side, Michigan State’s offensive line return just two starters up front in junior center/guard Brian Allen and senior tackle Kodi Kieler. Despite losing All-Americans Jack Conklin and Jack Allen, the Spartans still have experience largely due to all of the injuries suffered on the line last season.
In 2015, MSU was able to overcome a rash of injuries up front and started seven different combinations a season ago. Senior guard Benny McGowan was one of the beneficiaries of the injuries as he started eight games at both left and right guard. Another senior guard, Brandon Clemons also saw quite a bit of playing time last season playing in all 13 games, including one start. The Spartans also have sophomore guard/tackle David Beedle who, after converting from the defense, saw action in 9 games and is currently being projected to start at left tackle.
In total MSU has nine offensive linemen returning who received playing time last season.
The strength of this team will once again be its defense, seven of the 11 starters from a season ago return on that side of the ball. Just like in 2013 when they had to deal with the departures of All-Big Ten defensive end William Gholston and nose tackle Anthony Rashad White, the 2016 Spartans are looking ahead after All-American DE Shilique Calhoun and fellow defensive line mates Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath moved on. And although the Spartans are inexperienced up front, they do bring back All-American nose tackle Malik McDowell who is garnering attention as a potential top-15 pick in the NFL.
Last season as a junior, McDowell wreaked havoc upon opposing offenses with 41 tackles (13 for loss) and 4.5 sacks, as well as 2 forced fumbles and an interception. Assisting McDowell on the D-line in 2016 are a pair of veterans to help fill the void lost by Calhoun and Co. – junior Demetrius Cooper and senior Evan Jones. Cooper logged 22 tackles a year ago and his 5.0 sacks were second on the team only to McDowell. Coach D and his staff are hoping Jones will be able to contribute in a big way as well, the redshirt senior recorded just six total tackles in three games last season.
As it was during their Rose Bowl season, Michigan State’s linebackers will be among the best in the country. Headlined by senior Riley Bullough in the middle, MSU is as deep as anyone at the position and will give opposing offensive coordinators headaches.
Much of last season’s defensive lapses can be contributed to an injury-riddled and inexperienced secondary. A talented freshman Vayante Copeland was lost for the season after a neck injury in the opening game against Oregon sidelined him. Senior safety R.J. Williamson also missed a majority of the season with a torn biceps injury. While Williamson is gone, Copeland returns alongside senior defensive backs Demetrious Cox and Darian Hicks, as well as junior safety Monte Nicholson. If the secondary can stay healthy and improve from its No. 76 national ranking in passing defense, the Spartans defense could be much like their 2013 predecessors that were among the best in the country, flashbacks of the ‘No Fly Zone’ if you will.
The Spartans could have the best trio of running backs in the conference as sophomore L.J. Scott and juniors Gerald Holmes and Madre London are all back this season. It’s a group that totaled over 1,700 yards and 22 touchdowns a season ago. While Dantonio told reporters at MSU media day that he expects the Spartans to go with the “hot hand” approach like last season, co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said he would like to see one or two of the three backs emerge from camp as the go-to guys. If there is one back that can be expected to grab the lion’s share of the carries, place your bets on Scott. He was responsible for 699 of those rushing yards and half of the TDs from the three-headed monster in the backfield.
According to a recent list by Fox Sports, the sophomore Scott was the No. 2 player set to break out this season. Having three very capable running backs at Dantonio’s disposal is very reminiscent of the 2011 campaign that featured Edwin Baker as the featured back, aided by Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper.
Let’s not forget about the 2016 recruiting class that Dantonio brought in, his highest-rated class since he’s been the head man in East Lansing. Among those were ten 4-star recruits, including the freshman QB deWeaver. But also joining the program will be a host of new wideout targets, headlined by local products Trishton Jackson (Bloomfield, MI) and Donnie Corley (Detroit MLK). Both are big body presences on the outside that will help take the pressure of the MSU QB, whoever that will be.
And then on the defensive side, Dantonio reeled in basically a whole line of 4-star defensive lineman. Josh King (Darien, IL) and Auston Robertson (Fort Wayne, IN) are expected to create plenty of pressure of the edges, while Naquan Jones (Evanston, IL) and Mike Panasiuk (Roselle, IL) should be causing trouble in between the tackles.
As is every season, one of the greatest predictors of success is a team’s schedule. Granted the schedule for Michigan State has few cupcake games outside of the season opener against Furman, the fact that most of the team’s toughest tests are at home, including games against rivals Michigan and Ohio State, is a good sign for the Spartans. MSU has a 20-1 record within Spartan Stadium over the last three seasons with the lone loss coming to eventual national champion Ohio State in 2014.
Many continue to overlook the Spartans, I urge those underestimating Michigan State to watch out as MSU plays its best when their backs are against the wall. Don’t sleep on Dantonio’s squad in 2016. They’ve overcome adversity countless times before in recent years and this year shouldn’t be too much different.