In the past two articles, I looked at the offense, defense, specialists and the team as a whole. In this article, I will look at the incoming freshmen, intangibles, schedule and I will give my final analysis as to how I think things might shake out for the Spartans.
MSU had the Big Ten's fifth-best recruiting class according to both Scout and Rivals. They went heavy on linemen, of both the offensive and defensive variety, with five defensive linemen and four offensive linemen. In addition, the prize of the class, Lawrence Thomas, could be either a linebacker or a lineman.
There are no pressing needs on MSU other than O-line, and O-line is not a position that lends itself to immediate playing time.
Still, given the way the MSU line is shaping up, I wouldn't be surprised to see an offensive lineman burn his redshirt. The most likely player to do so is Donavon Clark out of Cincinnati. Already at 292 lbs., he can come right in and help with guard depth.
While MSU has a good amount of defensive ends and linebackers, it will be difficult—perhaps impossible—to keep the aforementioned Lawrence Thomas off the field. He is Rivals fifth-ranked inside linebacker in the country and he chose MSU over pretty much everybody. As previously mentioned, Dantonio likes a lot of defensive substituting and he will find a way to get Thomas on the field.
Finally, quarterback Connor Cook out of Ohio is another player to watch. He won't start, but he and sophomore Andrew Maxwell are the two most likely players to take over after Kirk Cousins graduates. If Cook burns his redshirt, look for him to start under center next season.
Last season, Michigan State was the healthiest team in the Big Ten and one of the healthiest teams in the country. The Spartans only lost seven starts on the season, or 2.4 percent of their potential 284 starts.
Obviously, health isn't a predictable number. On the other hand, it's not as impossible to see coming as it might seem.
In 2009, Purdue was the healthiest team in the Big Ten. As we headed into the season, I predicted that the Boilers would suffer due to injuries, and that is exactly what happened. Purdue was the most injured team in the conference in 2010, losing 32 starts or 12.1 percent of their potential starts.
I realize it is not as simple as that, but I am going so far as to say the probability of the Spartans having as healthy a year in 2011 as they had in 2010 is about as likely as Indiana winning the eastern division of the Big Ten. In short, MSU will have to absorb injuries in 2011, and when one considers how important Kirk Cousins is to this team or how fragile the depth is on the offensive line and in the secondary, this becomes an area of concern.
For those interested, Phil Steele goes into this general theory (not MSU-specific) in much more depth.
In addition, I went into a bit of detail on this, but the loss of Don Treadwell could affect the Spartans much more than people are allowing.
This is Mark Dantonio's team, but as previously noted, while at MSU, a healthy Dantonio on the sideline has a record of 1-13 against top 25 teams. He was also 0-5 against top 25 teams while he was at Cincinnati. His one win was in 2008 against 20th-ranked Iowa who MSU beat 16-13, but who didn't really blossom until after the Michigan State game.
Meanwhile, Treadwell was on the sidelines in last year's Wisconsin win and thus, he is 1-0 against top 25 teams. Is that a coincidence?
In closing, Dantonio/Narduzzi's defensive track record as well as Dantonio's abominable 1-18 (2-18 if you give him credit for the Wisconsin win) career record against top 25 teams do not leave me feeling positive.
09/03: Youngstown State. MSU is the heavy favorite.
09/10: Florida Atlantic. Heavy favorite.
09/17: At Notre Dame. MSU is the underdog.
09/24: Central Michigan. Favorite.
10/01: At Ohio State. Toss-up.
10/08: Open Date.
10/15: Michigan. Slight favorite.
10/22: Wisconsin. Slight underdog.
10/29: At Nebraska. Underdog.
11/05: Minnesota. Heavy favorite.
11/12: At Iowa. Slight underdog.
11/19: Indiana. Heavy favorite.
11/26: At Northwestern. Slight favorite.
Best Case Scenario
The offensive line comes right out of the chute as a cohesive, talented unit. There are some bumps, but the experience of the rest of the offense makes up for it. Meanwhile, the defense obviously misses Jones and Gordon, but the experience up front eases the transition.
MSU pounds its first two opponents. They squeak by Notre Dame in another nail biter. After finishing their out-of-conference 4-0, the Spartans travel into Columbus and beat a still-shorthanded OSU. Following the bye week, they take care of a still-adjusting Michigan, after which they meet Wisconsin for a meeting of two undefeated teams.
They lose a close one to the Badgers and follow that up with a road loss to Nebraska. At 6-2, they sweep through the rest of their schedule and finish 10-2 and 6-2 in conference.
They fail to make the conference championship due to the loss to Nebraska, but at 10-2, they receive their second bid in a row to the Cap One. This time, the Spartans show up.
Worst Case Scenario
From the beginning, the offensive line looks as sketchy as predicted. The offense adjusts, but as a power-based team, there is only so much adjusting they can do.
The Spartans beat Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic, but lose to Notre Dame by two scores. They then beat CMU to finish the OOC at 3-1.
The OSU game turns out to be a defensive struggle, and very few teams beat OSU in a defensive struggle, even post-Tressel. MSU heads into the bye week at 3-2, and prepares to regroup to play the Wolverines.
They lose and proceed to make it four losses in a row, with defeats at the hands of Wisconsin and Nebraska. At 3-4, MSU is reeling, but they turn it around to win three of their last four.
At 6-6 with a bid to the Irrelevant Bowl, the season is a considerable disappointment.
If there is one thing that always sends up red flags for me, it is offensive line problems on a power-based rushing team.
Nothing coming out of camp, from Juco transfers to players switching positions to underclassmen climbing up the depth chart, bides well for the upcoming season.
Combine these offensive line problems with a new O-coordinator who has experience as a coordinator, but if he was the best man for the job, he would have been calling the plays the last four years. In short, I think the MSU offense will struggle to dictate the style of play.
The defense will be good. In fact, the players—strong line, lockdown corner, smart free safety, talented but inexperienced linebackers—are there for this defense to be amongst the elite. The problem is they won't get coached up to that level. Due to a seven-year pool of statistics at my disposal, I don't think Pat Narduzzi has anything more than mediocrity in him.
Moreover, I still feel that Michigan State's success last year was to some degree the byproduct of an easy schedule. Eleven wins is impressive, however, a team gets to that plateau, but I don't believe they'd have been able to get past nine wins with a tougher slate. This season, they have that tougher slate.
The good news is the slate in question is favorable in its way. They get Ohio State while the Tattoo-gate suspensions are still in place, as well as Michigan early in the season, while the Wolverines are still knee-deep in transition.
Finally, while they travel to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa, they miss Purdue and Penn State, the latter of whom will challenge for the division title and the former of whom will be bowl eligible.
If Michigan State is to repeat anything close to last year's success (nine wins or more in the regular season), two people will have to step up. The first is Kirk Cousins and the second is Pat Narduzzi.
As I don't see both happening, I have MSU going 8-4 with losses at Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa.
This will put them in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Michigan Wolverines.
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