We’re just under 12 weeks until the season kicks off Labor Day weekend, which seems like the perfect time to start looking around the rest of the Big 10 and the country. Nothing generates a good discussion (argument?) like calling someone’s team overrated or underrated, so that’s just what we’re going to do.
In what will be the first of several installments over the coming weeks, we kick off with the Michigan State Spartans, the somewhat surprising winners of the Legends (I think) Division in 2011 and Outback Bowl champions over Georgia. Mark Dantonio’s squad is getting a lot of attention headed into the 2012 season, and is getting a lot of hype to possibly return to Indianapolis for the 2nd Big 10 Championship Game. I’m not buying it.
It all starts under center for me, and Michigan State loses 3 year starter Kirk Cousins, who was taken in the 4th round of the draft by the Redskins. Experience at QB is huge, and MSU just doesn’t have it. It was a different time, but Sparty suffered through a 6-7 2009 season in Cousin’s first season as the starter. Andrew Maxwell is the heir apparent, and while he has the time in the program (RS Junior) and the accolades (4-star recruit on Rivals, Elite 11 attendee), he’s thrown 51 passes in his 3 seasons in East Lansing, and none of them meaningful. MSU also loses their top 3 receivers and 2 tight ends. The good news is 80% of the offensive line returns, as does one of the more underrated backs in the country, Le’Veon Bell. An experienced line and tailback can be a young QB’s best friend, but you better believe every defensive coordinator on the schedule is already plotting to neutralize those strengths, namely by stacking the box and forcing Maxwell and the green receiving corps to beat them.
Defense brings good news for MSU. William Gholston and Marcus Rush could be the best pass rush combo in the Big 10, and among the best in the country. More experience can be found in the back 7 with Chris Norman and Max Bullough at linebacker, and Darqueze Dennard, Johnny Adams and Isaiah Lewis in the secondary. The defense should keep Sparty in most games, and give their young offense time to grow.
The schedule doesn’t do Sparty any favors though. Boise State comes calling to Spartan Stadium in a Week 1 primetime matchup. The Broncos aren’t the same as years past with Kellen Moore’s departure (among others), but Chris Petersen has built something in Boise, and I’m not ready to hand this one to MSU at all. Improving Notre Dame comes to East Lansing in Week 3, coming off a dominant 31-13 victory last season in South Bend. Those are 2 early challenges for a young offense early on.
The Big 10 schedule opens with the Urban Meyer show at home. MSU beat OSU in Columbus last season, in an ugly 10-7 game that I’m not sure anyone really wanted to win. After a trip to Bloomington and a home date with Iowa, a very challenging 3 game stretch awaits. October 20th with in-state rival/sibling Michigan in Ann Arbor, October 27th in Camp Randall versus the Badgers, and November 3rd back home against Nebraska. Thankfully for MSU, these are games 8, 9 and 10 but with the youth at key spots on offense, I would be concerned.
Mark Dantonio spent time under Jim Tressel in Columbus before leaving for Cincinnati and then Michigan State. Coach Tressel’s teams of course had a knack for finding ways to win seemingly ever close game. MSU showed a touch of that last season as well, most notably vs. Wisconsin and again in the Outback Bowl. If MSU can keep up that magic into 2012, it could be another special season. But while Tressel had a track record of it, Dantonio does not, at least not yet. Until he does, I can see this MSU team losing 3 or 4 games.