Top 25 College Football Countdown: No. 13 Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State Spartans

2015 Record: 12-1 overall, 7-1 Big Ten (lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl … badly)

1 Burning Question: Can Michigan State Defend its Big Ten Title?

Before the arrival of Mark Dantonio in 2007, such a question wouldn’t have been asked with the roster remodeling that is being undertaken this year in East Lansing.

For starters, gone is comic-book superhero quarterback Connor Cook. All he did is set program records for wins, passing yards, passing touchdowns, total offense, and women swooning. He was a leader of all leaders and the heart and soul of the Spartan program over the last three years. To say that he won’t be missed is either coachspeak, or a byproduct of too many knocks upside the head.

If that’s not enough, Sparty also lost All-American talents Jack Conklin and Jack Allen on the offensive line, as well as key losses on defense (six total) including the physical specimen, defensive end Shalique Calhoun, among others. In fact, the defensive line will have to be nearly rebuilt from scratch.

But this isn’t your granddaddy’s Michigan State team. Under Dantonio, the Spartans have raised the stakes in recruiting and have now arrived among the college football elite. There’s enough talent left with what’s still in the cupboard to try and meet the cliché of reloading versus rebuilding.

2 Key Stats

2 – That’s the number of wins Mark Dantonio and Michigan State have against Ohio State since Urban Meyer took over in Columbus. That’s exactly two more wins than anyone else in the conference has against the Buckeyes during that same period, and just so happens to be the only conference blemishes appearing on Meyer’s résumé since taking over in Columbus. It’s just another marker of where this Spartan program is. Michigan seems to be rising, but with both the Wolverines and Buckeyes having to traverse dangerous waters on the road against Michigan State, the championship still runs through East Lansing.

48.3 – The percentage of third downs the Michigan State offense converted in 2015. That was good for a ninth-place tie among all FBS programs last year, and a good reason why the Spartans were able to win games in a variety of ways. The defense may have taken a bit of a step back last year compared to recent seasons, but it had the help of an offense that just kept moving the chains, eating up valuable time, and putting points on the board. It’ll need a similar stat line in 2016 to help bridge the gap of the new players littered throughout the roster.

3 Key Games That Will Make or Break the Season

Full 2016 Schedule

9/2 — Furman
9/17 — at Notre Dame
9/24 — Wisconsin
10/1 — at Indiana
10/8 — BYU
10/15 — Northwestern
10/22 — at Maryland
10/29 — Michigan
11/5 — at Illinois
11/12 — Rutgers
11/19 — Ohio State
11/26 — at Penn State

Sept. 17 at Notre Dame

Record in Last 5 Meetings: 1-4

Last Result:  L, 17-13

Why it Matters: This is a big-time early litmus test. The potential layup against Furman in week one will be no more than a toe dip in some untested waters for a new season. Following that comes a bye week to prepare a revamped roster for a trip to one of the most iconic settings in college football. A loss on the road in South Bend clearly won’t count in the Big Ten race, but it’ll make the rest of the season a Lord of the Rings type of expedition to stay relevant in the College Football Playoff discussions. That’s the measuring stick by which the Spartans program is judged now.

Oct. 29 vs. Michigan

Record in Last 5 Meetings: 4-1

Last Year’s Result:  W, 27-23

Why it Matters: Just when we all thought a changing of the guard was ready to commence in Ann Arbor with Jim Harbaugh and his khaki-believing squad poised to run out the clock on big brother last yearthe unthinkable and improbable happened. With the clock bleeding close to zero, we all witnessed the blocked kick and subsequent scoop and score by the Spartans to keep things in balance. You can bet the Wolverines would love nothing more than to take revenge and restore order in the state, conference, and nation — and they just might have the roster and coaching to do it. A win gives Sparty the likely inside track to the division, while a loss opens the door to some aggressive tweeting by Harbaugh.

Nov. 19 vs. Ohio State

Record in Last 5 Meetings: 3-2

Last Year’s Result:  W, 17-14

Why it Matters: For the last few years, it’s been Michigan State and Ohio State trading blows, trying to stake claim as the flag-bearing program of the conference. There’s a good chance there could be more of the same this year, and by the time the 2016 version of this game rolls around, there should be huge implications pending for the big three of Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. A win is most likely to be the difference between a trip to Indy (and beyond) versus more time to play Pokémon GO.

4 Key Players

Tyler O’Connor, QB – Who else? With Connor Cook gone to large paychecks on Sundays, and with the loss of other key players on offense, the guy lining up under center is going to be front and center. O’Connor showed great game management in a start against Ohio State when Cook was sidelined because of a shoulder injury last year, but they’ll need more from him to reach the heights everyone in East Lansing has grown accustomed to.

L.J. Scott, RB – Michigan State went into 2015 expecting to use a running back-by-committee approach to gaining yards on the ground, but Scott began to assert himself at the end of the year. He ended the season with 699 yards on 146 carries (4.8 ypc), but had double-digit touches in the three last games of the conference schedule. With a new starter pulling the strings at quarterback, the coaching staff is likely to lean on Scott more in 2016 to alleviate some of the pressure.

Riley Bullough, MLB – There’s only one returning starter on the defensive line. That means it’s a foregone conclusion that the linebackers will have more traffic to contend with, and will be asked to be in on more support to help ease the burden of some new faces in front of them. The undeniable, emotional leader of that group is Bullough. The All-Big Ten selection tallied 3.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, and 75 total tackles in 2015 to go along with one interception. He’ll need to do even more in 2016.

Malik McDowell, DL – That one aforementioned returning starter on the D-line is a 6-6, 276 lb. junior nose tackle. Nearly every preseason publication has tabbed McDowell as a first-team All-American, and the Spartans will need him to live up to every bit of the hype. The physically imposing nose tackle is big, athletic, and can create havoc in opposing offensive backfields, but it won’t be a surprise if he’s double and triple-teamed. How he handles the extra attention will dictate how a rebuilt line dictates the pace of play throughout the year.

5 Bold Predictions

5. The drop off in passing production won’t be as big as you think

Yeah, yeah, you don’t lose a guy like Connor Cook and not feel the burn, but it’s not like the presumptive starter Tyler O’Connor is a warm body practicing run formations and hand-offs ad-nauseam. The senior has been around the program and had ample opportunity to learn the playbook with a front-row seat of watching Cook conduct himself as a leader and ultra-competitor. He was the Spartans’ Offensive Player of the Week against Ohio State and he’s got enough tools in his chest to do more than simply manage games in 2016.

4. The Spartans will lose at least three games in 2016

You could easily point out that Michigan State has had great recruiting classes over the last few years and has more than enough talent to plug the holes of the departed, and you’d be right. You could also point out that the Spartans have set a culture of winning that is contagious and transcends wholesale losses, and you would also be correct. You could even point to a stable of solid running backs and depth across the board as reason to keep the Sparty ship moving at a championship level. Once again, no argument there. However, all of that in concert just seems a bit too much to go on with business as usual without skipping a beat. It’ll be hard to go to places like South Bend, Bloomington, and Happy Valley, while also playing the likes of Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan with so many unknowns. It’ll be just enough to bite the program a bit this year.

3. L.J. Scott will be replaced as the starter in the backfield at some point

With a rebuilt offensive line in combination with the much publicized loss of Connor Cook, defenses will key on the running game and make things more difficult than a Tough Mudder obstacle course on the ground. Looking for a spark, the coaching staff will try to find the hot hand between the other two tailbacks on the depth chart, with carries being split between Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London, with at least one of those resulting in a new face in the starting lineup.

2. A loss will occur in Bloomington

Yeah, it’s Indiana versus Michigan State, and we’ve seen that movie before. However, the game falls early enough on the calendar, is right after a bruising affair against Wisconsin, and the Hoosiers will cook up more than enough offense at home to spring an early upset that will shake the foundations of the East division on Oct. 1.

1. The defense will struggle early

At least by Michigan State standards. The culture has been set as a defensive line-driven team, but therein lies the elephant in the stadium. With only one returning starter on the D-line, and with significant changes and resulting inconsistency on offense, the defense will be on the field for more plays and will show signs of wear. The result will be more big plays, more scores against, and more yards than what has been the norm under Dantonio. But things will round into form just in time to have a say in who wins the division and conference.

About Phil Harrison

Phil has been writing about college sports for over eight years. In addition to contributing to The Comeback, he is a frequent contributor to collegefootballnews.com and talking10.com. His writing has been featured on foxsports.com, espn.com, and cbssportsline.com among others. He's a Jack of all trades, and a master of one -- living in the doghouse at home far too often. Follow him on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB

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