Big Ten

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#13 Michigan State Spartans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#13

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, 87-33 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Harlon Barnett, Mike Tressel

Michigan State loses several key pieces from last year’s Big Ten title team, but coach Mark Dantonio’s program has plenty of staying power. The rebuilding effort starts on offense in replacing quarterback Connor Cook, receiver Aaron Burbridge and standout offensive linemen Jack Allen and Jack Conklin. The defense returns five starters, but this unit should be solid with standout tackle Malik McDowell anchoring the front seven. The secondary should be improved with the return of cornerback Vayante Copeland from injury, as well as the development of Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox at safety. While the Spartans have key players to replace, home games against Ohio State and Michigan should allow this team to stay in the thick of the Big Ten title picture.

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Previewing Michigan State’s Offense 
 

Michigan State aims for a fourth straight top-10 finish, but the Spartans need to grow quickly on offense to hit that target.

“There’s a look that’s going to change,” 10th-year coach Mark Dantonio says, “but that’s the challenge of college football.”

Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor is the likely successor to MSU’s all-time leading passer, Connor Cook. O’Connor led the Spartans to a 17–14 upset over Ohio State with Cook sidelined by a shoulder injury. O’Connor and fourth-year junior Damion Terry are effective runners, and with an inexperienced offensive line, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Spartans adding more spread into their pro-style offense.

LJ Scott was the top rusher last season with 699 yards, including a memorable performance in a 16–13 Big Ten title game win over Iowa. Madre London and Gerald Holmes are proven and will push for carries. Likewise for fullback Delton Williams, who gives MSU another threat in the backfield.

Senior R.J. Shelton is the only returning receiver with more than seven catches. Shelton’s quickness makes him a threat on the jet sweep as well.  Sophomore Felton Davis III is a lanky target with sprinter speed, and incoming freshman Donnie Corley made waves in the spring after his January mid-term enrollment, showing good speed, hands and leaping ability. Senior Josiah Price holds the team record for TD catches for a tight end, and he’s expected to continue his role as a go-to target on third downs and in the red zone.

The rebuild on the offensive line starts with preseason All-Big Ten candidate Brian Allen, who could play guard or center. Senior Kodi Kieler is the most experienced of the returning linemen with 19 starts and can play right tackle or center. Several position battles will take place in fall drills.

Previewing Michigan State’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Michigan State’s staple has been stopping the run, and it starts up front with dynamic junior Malik McDowell, who at 6'6", 280 has the strength, athleticism and quickness to play tackle or end. Junior Demetrius Cooper has flashed enough star potential at end that he’s expected to earn All-Big Ten honors in his first season as a starter.

The linebacking corps is as deep and talented as it has ever been under Dantonio, anchored by fifth-year senior Riley Bullough in the middle. A third-generation Spartan, Bullough led the team in tackles last season.

There’s plenty of competition for the outside linebacker positions, where Jon Reschke, Andrew Dowell, Chris Frey and Ed Davis are expected to battle it out for starting duties in fall camp and split repetitions once the season is underway.

MSU has arguably the best safety duo in the Big Ten: Montae Nicholson is a freakish athlete, and Demetrious Cox is a speed merchant with cornerback experience. Several others gained experience last season when injuries resulted in seven different starting combinations in the secondary.

Cornerbacks Darian Hicks and sophomore Vayante Copeland enter fall drills healthy after injuries plagued them last season. Sophomore Tyson Smith is expected to challenge at corner.

Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists
 

The return of kicker Michael Geiger and strong-legged sophomore punter Jake Hartbarger give the Spartans a chance for immediate improvement on special teams, provided long snapper Taybor Pepper is adequately replaced. Shelton is an experienced kick return man, while auditions for punt return duties figure to continue into the fall.

Final Analysis 
 

Michigan State’s Sept. 17 road trip to Notre Dame will provide an early clue as to whether the Spartans remain among the nation’s elite. A strong defense looks to carry a rebuilt offense against one of the more challenging schedules in the country. 

The Debate

Is LJ Scott primed for a breakout year?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#19 Iowa Hawkeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#19

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 127-87 (17 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Greg Davis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Parker

The 2015 season was certainly a memorable one for Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished 12-2, claimed the Big Ten’s West Division title and came within a goal-line stand of reaching the College Football Playoff. Considering Iowa had not won more than eight games since 2010 and coach Kirk Ferentz was starting to feel a little heat, last year’s record was a huge surprise. While the Hawkeyes may have trouble repeating last season’s success, this team is the favorite to win the West Division once again. Quarterback C.J. Beathard anchors a solid offense, while the defense returns standout cornerback Desmond King. With a favorable schedule in place, Iowa could once again challenge for 10 (or more) wins.   

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Previewing Iowa’s Offense 
 

Entering his senior season, C.J Beathard is the focus of two questions that will go a long way in determining Iowa’s success. The first: What can Beathard do for an encore after what he accomplished last season? The second: Can he stay healthy?

Beathard has set the bar high for himself and for the team after leading Iowa to 12–2 record and the Big Ten West Division title. The season ended on a down note as Iowa lost to Michigan State 16–13 in the Big Ten Championship Game before being humiliated by Stanford 45–16 in the Rose Bowl. But it still doesn’t erase or diminish what Beathard and his cohorts accomplished. Sophomore Tyler Wiegers is expected to be Beathard’s backup for the second consecutive season.

Iowa averaged 181.7 rushing yards per game and returns many of the key players who made that happen, including three starters on the offensive line and three of the top four running backs. Senior LeShun Daniels and junior Akrum Wadley combined for more than 1,100 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.

Senior Matt VandeBerg also returns at receiver after leading Iowa in catches (65) and receiving yards (703). Iowa likes to use its tight ends as receivers, and senior George Kittle has shown big-play capability. Six of his 20 catches last season resulted in touchdowns.

Previewing Iowa’s Defense
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The 2016 defense would look a lot better on paper with All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott returning for a fifth season, but his appeal to the NCAA for a medical redshirt was denied. Still, the unit looks formidable without him as eight starters return, including three in a secondary highlighted by Desmond King. The 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner is not only a lock-down cornerback (he tied Iowa’s single-season record with eight interceptions last season) but also one of the Big Ten’s best return specialists.

Three players return on the defensive line with starting experience, including both tackles. Senior Jaleel Johnson and junior Nathan Bazata both started every game inside last season and more than held their own. Johnson showed star potential at times, finishing with 5.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks.

Two of the three linebacker positions have returning starters, led by junior middle linebacker Josey Jewell. He led Iowa with 126 tackles last season, earning second-team All-Big Ten accolades.

Joining King as returning starters in the secondary are senior cornerback Greg Mabin and junior strong safety Miles Taylor. Mabin has started 26 games opposite King the past two seasons. The one hole in the secondary is at free safety, where Jordan Lomax started the past two seasons.

Previewing Iowa’s Specialists
 

This is arguably the biggest concern on the team, considering both the starting kicker and punter from last season have to be replaced. Sophomore Mick Ellis has the most experience among the placekickers, but he was listed as the backup behind walk-on Miguel Recinos throughout spring practice. Recinos made his only two PATs last season but has not attempted a field goal. Ellis made all seven of his extra-point attempts as a true freshman in 2014 but missed his only field goal attempt. Most of the return duties will be handled by King.

Final Analysis 
 

It might be asking too much of Beathard and King to lead their supporting cast to another undefeated regular season. But the pieces are in place on both offense and defense for Iowa to be a force again. Keeping Beathard healthy will be paramount to Iowa’s success. The running game also will be crucial, as it was last season. Few teams rely on their running game as much as Iowa, even with Beathard working his magic behind center.

The Debate

Where does C.J. Beathard rank among Big Ten quarterbacks?

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