With coaches and representatives from all 14 Big Ten teams set to descend on Chicago this week for the conference’s annual football media days, we preview some of the topics most likely to come up for discussion.
1. What is Michigan State doing to get back to the top of the conference?
Head coach Mark Dantonio’s Spartans have had quite a couple of years. They went from the hunter in to the hunted, upsetting Ohio State to claim the Big Ten championship then knocking off Stanford in the Rose Bowl to cap the 2013 season. They spent most of last season as the favorite to defend their title before getting dethroned by the Buckeyes, but they bounced back with a stunning win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
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Big names return on both sides of the ball this fall, but there is a new threat to reckon with (sooner or later). Not only is Dantonio chasing Ohio State, he has had to face questions this offseason about whether or not Jim Harbaugh’s hiring as the new coach at Michigan means his team’s time at the top is limited.
Expect that to come up in Chicago — and don’t look for Dantonio to take such talk lightly.
2. How are the new co-coordinators of the defense?
Dantonio made his reputation as a defensive coach, but he has credited long-time defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi with major contributions in the evolution of a strategy that helped the Spartans field one of the best defenses in the country over the past few years. The two first hooked up in Cincinnati in 2004, but now Narduzzi is striking out on his own as head coach at Pittsburgh.
Into the void steps Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, Dantonio assistants who received promotions in the offseason.
They aren’t likely to change more of the winning formula than they have to, but reporters will be curious to find out how they will put their stamp on the unit.
3. How might the running back rotation shake out for the Spartans?
Michigan State lost a pair of productive running backs with the graduation of Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill, but the cupboard appears to be far from bare.
The school recently announced Delton Williams, the third-leading rusher on the team last season, will return in early August from suspension, and he will have plenty of competition for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Madre Hill and sophomore Gerald Holmes both impressed the coaches in the spring, and everyone is excited to see what four-star recruit L.J. Scott can do when he joins the fray as a true freshman.
4. Is the secondary ready for a bounce-back season?
Michigan State was no pushover when it came to the forward pass last season, but the Spartans failed to meet the lofty standards they had set as the "No Fly Zone" in 2013.
According to Football Outsiders advanced statistics, they were fourth in the nation in success rate but worst nationally in preventing explosive plays last season. In traditional statistics, they were still a top-10 unit overall but slipped from third to 60th nationally in passing yards allowed per game.
With Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond and NFL draft first-round pick Trae Waynes gone, there is a lot of work to do to restore order.
Dantonio named a handful of secondary players he was happy with as spring concluded, but he would no doubt like to narrow that to a starting group he feels he can count on before the Spartans host Oregon on Sept. 12 for their second game of the season.
5. Who will become Connor Cook’s new favorite target?
With Cook at quarterback, Michigan State morphed into one of the best offenses in the Big Ten last season. A veteran offensive line remains mostly intact, but Cook will have to find a new No. 1 receiver after Big Ten Receiver of the Year Tony Lippett graduated.
There are plenty of candidates, including Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr., who had 29 catches apiece last season and combined for 762 yards.
Fifth-year senior DeAnthony Arnett is also a player to watch as he hopes to show off why he was a highly touted Tennessee recruit before transferring to MSU early in his career.