Big Ten


#7 Michigan State Spartans



Big Ten East Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, 75-31 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Harlon Barnett, Mike Tressel

Mark Dantonio has transformed Michigan State into one of the nation’s top programs in recent years. The Spartans have claimed at least 11 wins in four out of the last five years and finished No. 3 nationally in 2013. Dantonio’s team is poised for another run at the Big Ten title, especially with senior quarterback Connor Cook back under center. But the big question for Michigan State is on defense with a secondary that loses its top two players from last year and lost coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

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Previewing Michigan State’s Offense for 2015

Michigan State has a third-year starter in Connor Cook who’s poised to become the winningest quarterback in school history and set several all-time passing marks this season.  Cook has the advantage of being protected by what’s expected to be the best offensive line of the Mark Dantonio era. Senior All-American Jack Allen brings an ornery presence to center, while left tackle Jack Conklin is a celebrated talent some project to be a future first-round NFL Draft pick.

The extent of the Spartans’ offensive success is a matter of who steps up to replace Big Ten Receiver of the Year Tony Lippett and 1,500-yard rusher Jeremy Langford. The Spartans have plenty of talent at the receiver and running back positions, but it is unproven. Players will need to grow up quickly with a Sept. 12 home game against 2014 national runner-up Oregon looming.

Cook has great accuracy and a strong arm, leading the Big Ten in passing yardage last season, but receivers such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton need to be more consistent, and the Spartans have plenty of room for improvement in gaining yards after the catch. Tight end Josiah Price likely will remain one of Cook’s favorite third-down and red-zone targets.

Tailback is less settled, with the status of Delton Williams up in the air after his indefinite suspension in the spring, and slashers Madre London and Gerald Holmes jockeying for pole position heading into fall camp. Incoming freshman LJ Scott will compete immediately for the starting tailback job regardless of how the depth chart reads entering August.

Previewing Michigan State’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big Ten College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Spartans have finished in the nation’s top 10 in total defense the past four years, and a dominant front four could keep that streak alive. It starts with former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun at one end, and the quick and powerful Lawrence Thomas shifting from tackle to the other end. Seniors Damon Knox and Joel Heath are at tackle alongside towering Freshman All-American Malik McDowell.

The Spartans return better-than-adequate outside linebackers Ed Davis and Darien Harris, with junior Riley Bullough fast becoming a rising star in the middle.

The question mark on the team is in the secondary, where Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond and first-round talent Trae Waynes must be replaced. Athletic sophomore Montae Nicholson seems up to the task of playing alongside veteran RJ Williamson at safety, but the corners are much less certain. Junior Darian Hicks started 10 games last season but must win back his starting job, and redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland and senior Arjen Colquhoun are in close competition. Junior Demetrious Cox has been a safety but is talented enough to play cornerback if needed. The position is shaky enough that true freshmen will be thrown into the mix in fall camp.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists for 2015

Kicker Michael Geiger is coming off an offseason procedure for a hip pointer. Redshirt freshman Jake Hartbarger has a big leg but is unproven at punter. Macgarrett Kings Jr. is expected to handle punt return duties, while Shelton is a good bet to continue to return kicks after running one back 90 yards for a score against Penn State last season.

Final Analysis

Michigan State has an accomplished quarterback, strong-to-dominant play on both the offensive and defensive lines, and 24 seniors. The Spartans must prove they have elite talent at the other skill positions to attain their goals of winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff. There is great potential but still much to be determined in fall camp.

The Debate

Where Does Mark Dantonio Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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#19 Wisconsin Badgers





HEAD COACH: Paul Chryst, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Rudolph | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Aranda

Wisconsin has a new coach (Paul Chryst), but the expectations remain the same in Madison. Led by talented junior running back Corey Clement and a solid defense, the Badgers are Athlon’s pick to win the Big Ten’s West Division. Question marks remain about this team, especially at quarterback and receiver. However, with Nebraska and Minnesota each having their own share of concerns, Wisconsin should make another trip to the Big Ten Championship.

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Previewing Wisconsin’s Offense for 2015 

Paul Chryst oversaw some of the most explosive offenses in program history as a coordinator at Wisconsin, but the unit he inherits in his first season as head coach of the Badgers has some major question marks. Start with the offensive line, the engine that powers Wisconsin’s power-running attack. Senior left tackle Tyler Marz and junior center Dan Voltz return, but the Badgers must replace three starters, and the next players in line have precious little experience. Some of the team’s best recruits the past two seasons have been linemen, and the Badgers will need a few members of that crop to grow up in a hurry.

Wisconsin returns a fifth-year senior quarterback with 28 career starts and 21 victories, but Joel Stave has struggled with consistency and is coming off a season in which he completed 53.4 percent of his passes and finished with more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). The good news for Stave is that he finished the 2014 season strong and he’s comfortable with Chryst, who helped recruit Stave to Wisconsin as a preferred walk-on.

Wide receiver Alex Erickson was a pleasant surprise last season, finishing with a team-leading 55 receptions for 772 yards. But the senior needs some help from a supporting cast that includes junior Robert Wheelwright, whose only reception in 2014 was a 17-yard touchdown vs. Minnesota in the regular-season finale. Tight ends get a lot of love in Chryst’s offense, so sophomore Troy Fumagalli could be in line for a breakout season.

Oh, and by the way, the Badgers have to replace tailback Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 2,587 yards, scored 32 touchdowns and finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Junior Corey Clement will take over as the primary ball carrier.

Previewing Wisconsin’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big Ten College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

One of Chryst’s biggest recruits after being hired at Wisconsin was retaining defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who oversaw a unit that finished fourth nationally in total defense and 17th in scoring defense.

Aranda has some holes to fill, but he also has some nice pieces to build around. The biggest is junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel, who led the Badgers with 16.5 tackles for a loss last season and added 7.5 sacks. Lining up at the other outside linebacker spot in Aranda’s 3-4 defense will be senior Joe Schobert, who had 13.5 tackles for a loss in 2014.

Senior safety Michael Caputo headlines an experienced secondary that also returns both starting cornerbacks, senior Darius Hillary and junior Sojourn Shelton. The Badgers need more ballhawking from this unit in 2015 after finishing with only six interceptions last season, none of which came from cornerbacks.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Wisconsin’s Specialists for 2015

Placekicker Rafael Gaglianone had an excellent freshman season, finishing 19-of-22 on field goals. He made his final 14 tries of the season and was a respectable 5-of-7 from 40 yards and beyond. Senior punter Drew Meyer was terrific as a freshman — he averaged 41.5 yards per attempt and landed 36 of his 80 punts inside the 20-yard line — but is coming off back-to-back subpar seasons. The Badgers are looking for a new returner after Kenzel Doe exhausted his eligibility.

Final Analysis

Chryst has a good track record with quarterbacks, which bodes well for Stave. But the inexperience and lack of depth on the offensive line is a major concern, especially since it’s considered the program’s bedrock. The defense should be solid enough to keep Wisconsin in most games, though Aranda would like to see the Badgers force more turnovers. Wisconsin’s schedule is manageable — at least once it gets past the opener against Alabama — and the Badgers should be able to make a run at a second consecutive Big Ten West Division title. 

The Debate

Where Does Paul Chryst Rank Among the Big Ten's Coaches for 2015?

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