Ok, so it isn’t fair to slap an ‘also-ran’ label on a team that finished tied for first in its conference, but with the Spartans equipped with the talent and experience necessary to win the conference, and having waited so long for another Rose Bowl appearance, anything short of the conference title has to feel like a disappointment for the Michigan State faithful.
The Spartans continue their search for their first sole Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance since 1987 when they beat USC in the ‘Granddaddy of ‘Em All’. This time, however, there’ll be no more sharing of the conference title and no more winning your conference without the trip to Pasadena (MSU shared the conference title in 1990 and 2010, but did not play in the Rose Bowl).
In the Big Ten’s new 12-team alignment, the Spartans will compete in the Legends Division with Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern. Of their new division foes, only Minnesota missed the bowl season last year. Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin will compete in the Leaders Division.
What chance do the Spartans have of putting together a regular season on par with their 2010 performance and earning a trip to the Big Ten’s inaugural title game in Indianapolis? At first glance the road will be tough, but they’ll have a very good shot at the first ever Legends Championship—which kind of sounds like a golf tournament of some sort.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is back to lead the Spartans who will miss the services of wide receiver Mark Dell, linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, and cornerback Chris L. Rucker, among others. We could be talking about Cousins as a second-day draft pick next season depending on how this season goes, but will there be enough around him to make another run at the Big Ten title?
Edwin Baker is back at running back and Tony Lippett could be the next two-way star at wide receiver and cornerback, where he’ll help receiver B.J. Cunningham and cornerback Johnny Adams. The defensive line and the secondary appear solid as we head into the summer.
There are two areas, however, that need to be addressed if the Spartans hope to earn that trip to Indianapolis. First, the linebacker corps needs to find replacements for Jones and Gordon; the Spartans play in a conference with some mobile, dual threat quarterbacks and a few teams that like to pound the rock in the running game. Second, the offensive line needs to find replacements for three starters, and a lot could hinge on how well the Spartans protect their quarterback and open up lanes for the running backs against some physical Big Ten defensive fronts.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of a Legends Championship is the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who are again expected to field a dominant defensive team. If the Spartans are unable to shore up the offensive line and fill the holes, they’re going to run into a lot of trouble in Lincoln on October 29 against a hard-nosed Nebraska front. What’s more, the new linebackers are going to be vital if the Spartans D hopes to stop quarterback Taylor Martinez, who poses a threat through the air and on the ground.
Then there are the Iowa Hawkeyes, who could actually improve offensively despite the loss of quarterback Ricky Stanzi and the dismissal of running back Adam Robinson. The Iowa defense is suspect for the first time in a few years after losing key pegs at all three levels, but they’re likely to reload by the time the Spartans face them this November. The Michigan State/Iowa matchup is one of the most intriguing on the Big Ten schedule. Either team could disrupt the Ohio State/Wisconsin versus Nebraska Big Ten Championship matchup that everybody seems to be pulling for.
Don’t sleep on Northwestern. Dan Persa has been mentioned as a preseason Heisman candidate if he’s able to return to his pre-injury form. But with the Wildcats defense suspect, Michigan State has the offensive prowess to pull off the win in the regular season finale.
Finally there’s Michigan. Rivalry games are so tough to predict and the Wolverines should be improved defensively. However, Denard Robinson continues to adjust to the new offense and there will probably be some bumps along the way. There’s no reason Michigan State shouldn’t manage a victory against the hated Wolverines at home this season.
As for Minnesota, well, I don’t see the Golden Gophers making much of a push for the division title this year.
There will be several key dates as the Spartans look to capture an invite to the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. In addition to their division matchups, the Spartans must deal with a trip to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes and a home date against Wisconsin, one of which is likely to come away with the Leaders Championship, which sounds even worse than Legends Championship.
Nevertheless, the stage is set for Michigan State to make another Big Ten title run if they’re able to answer questions along the offensive line and find some playmakers at the second level of the defense to make it tougher for teams to run the ball and to limit the dual threat quarterbacks in the conference (Martinez, Robinson, Terrelle Pryor—if they face OSU in the conference championship because he’ll be in the final game of his five game suspension when the two meet in the regular season). If they’re not able to do that, this could be another also-ran season—even if that means a second-place finish in the division.