Preseason countdown: No. 16 MSU

BY foxsports • July 20, 2012

The Michigan State Spartans want to get more respect, but that means they have to go and take it.

Last year's battles with the Badgers were epic, but the week after the Hail Mary win in East Lansing came a clunker against Nebraska with a mere 187 yards in offense in a 24-3 loss. The passing game might have worked against Notre Dame, but still, the final result was a 31-13 clunker. That flakiness was one of the biggest factors the Spartans lost out on a BCS spotlight game for the second year in a row.

Along with the gaffes against the Huskers and Irish, part of the problem was the still-too-fresh 49-7 disaster against Alabama in the 2011 Capital One Bowl, where the 11-1 Spartans were supposed to be all ticked off and grouchy that they didn’t get into the BCS. The other issue was that Michigan State just isn’t Michigan, and the BCS wanted to go with the bigger brand name. Sparty thumped Michigan and ended up losing a heartbreaker to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, but the Wolverines ended up going to the Sugar Bowl, even though they weren’t quite as deserving.

It might not seem fair, but there isn’t much margin for error for MSU, which beats out BYU and Texas Tech for the dubious distinction of being the best program to not make a BCS bowl game in the BCS era.

This year, though, the team might be good enough to not worry about getting a BCS bid, and just take one.

THIS close to beating Wisconsin twice and going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the end of the 1987 season, the 2012 Spartans have more than enough talent to get through a lousy Big Ten and finally make it back to Pasadena.

The experience is there across the board, there’s great depth, and the problem areas really aren’t that big a deal. So now the consistency has to be there, and it’s time to take that next step from great to BCS great. The coaching staff has built the program to compete among the elite; now it’s time to be one of the elite.

That means it’s Big Ten title or bust.

What to watch for on offense: The passing game. The offensive line should be among the Big Ten’s most effective and should be fantastic at paving the way for Le’Veon Bell and the rest of the good backs, and that should be enough to get the Spartans in the Big Ten championship conversation. But to win it, the offense has to be effective and efficient through the air despite a total overhaul in the receiving corps. Andrew Maxwell is a good-looking quarterback who should grow into the starting job, and there are several nice receiver prospects ready to break out, but after finishing second in the Big Ten in passing and third in efficiency with Kirk Cousins throwing to B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Moore and Keith Nichol, there are some big shoes to fill.

What to watch for on defense: The potential for total and complete domination. Michigan State might have consistency issues, but it also ended up sixth in the nation in total defense, allowing 277 yards per game while finishing ninth against the run — Wisconsin was the only team to get more than 200 yards on the ground — and 11th against the pass. There are a few big losses in DT Jerel Worthy and S Trenton Robinson, but the rest of the defense is loaded, with a great-looking linebacking corps with three excellent returning starters and a great group of ends led by William Gholston and Marcus Russ. The secondary is the one area that isn’t deep, but three starters are back, including future NFL corner Johnny Adams. There will be games against mediocre offenses in which it won’t take more than two touchdowns from the offense to come up with a win.

The team will be far better if: The Spartans bring it game in and game out. Every team has its down days, but no one seems to go off the deep end with a bigger thud than the Spartans when things aren’t working. The Notre Dame and Nebraska losses weren’t even close, while two years ago the 37-6 clunker against Iowa was a puzzler for an 8-0 team and the disaster against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl was an all-timer. Going back to 2009, six of the team’s past seven losses have been by double digits.

The schedule: The Spartans might have a little retooling to do, but no one loses more starting talent than Boise State. Even so, the Broncos will be looking to make a statement in the season opener. The Spartans leave the state of Michigan only once until the end of October — going to Indiana — and plays all its huge games over the first half of the season at home. Along with Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Iowa have to come to East Lansing, and the Spartans have to take advantage with a hot start before the tough midseason stretch. Nebraska also has to go to MSU, but that comes after games at Michigan and Wisconsin. Playing the Buckeyes and Badgers from the Leaders is an awful break, but it’s offset a bit by getting the break against Indiana. The week off comes at an odd time at the end of the year before closing out against Northwestern and Minnesota.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Le'Veon Bell. He was great from the first day he got on the field, rushing for 141 yards and two scores against Western Michigan as a true freshman, but his workload fell off the map over the second half of the 2010 season. Last year he was part of a rotation with Edwin Baker the main man for a while, but things changed over the second half, with Bell turning into the rumbling dominator around the goal line and strong enough to finish with a team-leading 948 yards and 13 scores. With Baker taking off early for the NFL, now it’s all up to Bell to become the main man, and he should be ready for a huge season.

Best defensive player: Senior CB Johnny Adams. If he’s not the first corner taken off the board in the 2013 Draft, he’ll be in the discussion. With decent 5-foot-11 and 175-pound size and terrific deep wheels, he can both hit and cover equally well, coming up with 51 stops with three picks and six broken up passes last year. He took an interception 86 yards for a score against Indiana and was able to come up with key sacks against Ohio State and Michigan. He can do a little of everything, and while he doesn’t have to in the loaded secondary, he will.

Key to a successful season: Junior QB Andrew Maxwell. Defensive tackles Tyler Hoover and Anthony Rashad White are big, talented veterans who should be able to clog up the inside in place of Jerel Worthy, and Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett leads a promising group of receivers that should be decent with a little bit of work. Can Maxwell be another Cousins? The rest of the team is in place to win a Big Ten title, but if Maxwell can’t hold up and produce against Michigan and Wisconsin on the road, and if he has problems with picks, it’ll be another trip to a New Year’s Day non-BCS Florida bowl instead of a date in Pasadena.

The season will be a success if: Michigan State goes to the Rose Bowl. Enough is enough. Yeah there are concerns on offense, and yeah there are consistency problems, and yeah the three-game stretch at Michigan, at Wisconsin and vs. Nebraska is a killer, but it’s time to get to California already. It’s easier to do now, with MSU needing to win a six-team division to get to the title game rather than win an 11-team conference, and after coming achingly close to beating Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, a better Spartans team needs to finish the drill.

Key game: Oct. 20 at Michigan. The Wisconsin rivalry has been one of the Big Ten’s best over the past few years, but that’s an interdivisional matchup. Beating Nebraska would be nice after last year’s debacle, and winning the conference opener against Ohio State would be nice. The season opener against Boise State is going to be the tone-setter, and beating Notre Dame is a must after getting thumped. But it’s all about Michigan, whom the Spartans have owned lately. Last year’s win might not have mattered in the fight for an at-large BCS bid, but this season the winner should end up in the Big Ten Championship Game.

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