We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.
Next up: the Michigan State Spartans.
Why they're contenders: Three words: Defense, defense, defense. The Spartans have had the best defense in the Big Ten -- and one of the best in the country -- the past two years, and that figures to continue in 2013. They're still deep and talented on that side of the ball, led by linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. Pat Narduzzi will add some younger playmakers to the mix like Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Trae Waynes, and there's no reason to suspect that the defense will fall off from its elitel level. Even though Michigan State went just 6-6 in the regular season, it wasn't far away from contending, losing five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. A few key breaks went against Mark Dantonio's team -- ahem, that pass interference call vs. Nebraska -- and that luck could surely go the other way in 2013. Furthermore, after playing one of the more difficult schedules in the league last year, the Spartans catch a break with this season's slate. They don't play Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin from the Leaders Division, instead drawing Illinois, Purdue and Indiana as crossover opponents. All the Spartans really need to contend is some competency from the offense, which has a more experienced offensive line, more seasoned receivers and some actual competition at quarterback.
Why they're pretenders: Three words: offense, offense, offense. Michigan State simply couldn't score or move the ball when it needed to at times last season, and now its best two playmakers -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- are waiting for their NFL draft calls. Both running back and tight end were shaky positions this spring, so much so at tailback that linebacker Riley Bullough moved there late in spring ball and became the top option. The quarterback situation remains muddled, as Dantonio says Andrew Maxwell will go into fall camp at No. 1, with Connor Cook pushing him. Both guys struggled to complete passes in last week's spring game, and their receivers had problems with dropped balls, suggesting the passing game hasn't made that much progress. So new offensive playcaller Dave Warner will have to design an attack that works with shaky quarterback play, unproven running backs and tight ends and receivers who underperformed a year ago. At least the offensive line is veteran, though it's pretty much the same guys who didn't live up to expectations last year.
Final verdict: Contender. Michigan State might not always be pretty to watch this season because of that offense, but the Spartans will be a team no one wants to play because of that hard-hitting defense. Again, all they have to do is be mediocre offensively, because the defense will keep them in every game. And with that schedule, Michigan State should remain in the thick of the Legends Division race deep into the fall.