Previewing the 2014 season for the Michigan State Spartans.
2013 overall record: 13-1 (8-0 Big Ten)
Key returnees: Connor Cook, QB; Jeremy Langford, RB; Tony Lippett, WR; Jack Allen, C; Jack Conklin, OT; Shilique Calhoun, DE; Marcus Rush, DE; Taiwan Jones, LB; Trae Waynes, CB; Kurtis Drummond, S; Mike Sadler, P.
Instant impact newcomer: Malik McDowell's bizarre recruitment gained regional and national attention as his parents initially opposed him signing with Michigan State. But there's a reason why the Spartans wanted him so much, and he has the physical tools to contribute right away on the interior line, where MSU is replacing two starters. Along with redshirt freshman defensive end Demetrius Cooper, the 6-6, 286-pound McDowell should enter the rotation up front and occupy a significant role.
Offense: QB: Connor Cook, Jr., 6-4, 218; RB: Jeremy Langford, Sr., 6-1, 208; WR: Tony Lippett, Sr., 6-3, 185; WR: Keith Mumphery, Sr., 6-1, 211; WR: Macgarrett Kings, Jr., 5-10, 186; TE: Josiah Price, So., 6-4, 251; OT: Jack Conklin, So., 6-6, 303; OT: Donavon Clark, Jr., 6-4, 306; G: Travis Jackson, Sr., 6-4, 291; G: Connor Kruse, Sr., 6-5, 325; C: Jack Allen, Jr., 6-2, 299.
Defense: DE: Shilique Calhoun, Jr., 6-5, 256; DE: Marcus Rush, Sr., 6-3, 251; DT: Joel Heath, Jr., 6-6, 285; NT: Damon Knox, Jr., 6-5, 280; LB: Darien Harris, Jr., 6-0, 231; LB: Taiwan Jones, Sr., 6-3, 252; LB: Ed Davis, Jr., 6-3, 242; CB: Trae Waynes, Jr., 6-1, 182; CB: Darian Hicks, So., 5-10, 180; FS: Kurtis Drummond, Sr., 6-1, 202; SS: RJ Williamson, Jr., 6-0, 214.
Specialists: P: Mike Sadler, Sr., 6-0, 175; K: Michael Geiger, So., 5-8, 189.
Biggest question mark: Michigan State has been a national top-six defense in each of the past three years, but many expect the unit to backslide after losing national standouts such as Dennard and Bullough. The Spartan Dawgs are out to prove that they can maintain an elite standard despite filling gaps at several key positions, namely linebacker. The offensive line also will be in the spotlight as three starters depart.
Most important game: Nov. 8 against Ohio State. A lot will happen between now and then, but the Spartans and Buckeyes are the Big Ten frontrunners and their early November clash -- under the lights, by the way -- should be the game of the year in the league. Ohio State prevailed by a point two years ago at Spartan Stadium, but Michigan State rallied for a win in the 2013 Big Ten championship. The matchup features two excellent defensive lines and pits the league's most accomplished quarterback (Braxton Miller) against its hottest signal caller (Cook).
Upset special: Sept. 6 at Oregon. Yes, this would qualify as an upset and a fairly major one, according to the odds makers. But Michigan State showed in the Rose Bowl that it could handle the Pac-12's best. Oregon's offense poses a bigger challenge, and a somewhat new-look Spartans defense must limit big plays. But expect coordinator Pat Narduzzi to have a great plan, and an improved MSU offense could keep pace with the Ducks on the scoreboard.
Key stat: Michigan State is one of two FBS teams (Florida State) to finish in the top three nationally in pass efficiency defense in each of the past two seasons.
What they're wearing: Michigan State displayed several uniform models in its football building this spring, including the all-green look it sported at the Rose Bowl, an all-white look with a sleek chrome helmet and the green-and-black, Baylor-ish getup, similar to the unis worn against Michigan in 2011. The team also featured a green-white combination with green pants and a white jersey.
Team's top Twitter follows: Coach Mark Dantonio (@DantonioMark) doesn't tweet much but drops a gem from time to time. Several players are excellent tweeters, but none tops the wit of the punter, Mike Sadler (@Sadler_3). Also check out quarterback Connor Cook (@Connor_Cook03), defensive end Shilique Calhoun (@Shilique89) and safety Kurtis Drummond (@K_Drummond27). The team's official handle (@MSU_Football) is a good follow, and everybody loves Sparty (@TheRealSparty).
They said it: "We're going to dream big. What's been established is that we have been to the Rose Bowl and we won the Rose Bowl and we won the Big Ten Championship. What we can do beyond that remains to be seen, and you always want to dream big and you always want to go farther than you did before." -- coach Mark Dantonio
Stats & Information projection: 7.79 wins
Wise guys over/under: 9½ wins
Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. MSU is no one-year wonder and will contend for another Big Ten championship and possibly a spot in the college football playoff. The losses on defense, while important, are being overblown and the offense should be better, perhaps much better, with Cook at the helm again. It's tough to see the Spartans beating Oregon on the road and the Big Ten schedule isn't easy, although most of their toughest games take place at Spartan Stadium, where MSU is 38-11 under Dantonio.