Michigan State is coming off one of the best seasons in school history, winning 13 games and finishing No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll. The Spartans claimed the Big Ten title and return a solid foundation to contend once again in 2014. Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford led the way for a dangerous offense, while the defense returns five starters from a unit that ranked third nationally in points allowed per game.
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Previewing Michigan State’s Offense for 2014:
Michigan State still plays power football, but the Spartans can also hurt teams with multiple-receiver sets or by running the read-option with quarterback Connor Cook under center. Cook, the MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl, possesses great mobility and a big arm. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio likes Cook’s resiliency, and he has placed great confidence in the junior by granting him the power to audible at the line of scrimmage this upcoming season.
Running back Jeremy Langford is back after a 1,422-yard, 18-touchdown rushing campaign. Dantonio will be looking to get the ball to Langford more via the pass as well as run this season.
Five players with starting experience return to an offensive line that allowed 17 sacks last season, tied for third-fewest in the Big Ten. Sophomore left tackle Jack Conklin, a Freshman All-American in 2013, has yet to allow a sack in his career.
The Spartans have a deep and talented corps of pass-catchers. Senior Tony Lippett is the most consistent in the group, but juniors Aaron Burbridge, DeAnthony Arnett and Macgarrett Kings Jr. possess star power. R.J. Shelton emerged in spring and looks to figure into the mix, and Keith Mumphery is a deep threat. The tight ends, green a season ago, could figure more heavily into the passing game.
It’s an experienced offense that became more multiple as last season progressed, and co-coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman have indicated the Spartans won’t slow down.
Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Michigan State Spartans for 2014:
Previewing Michigan State’s Defense for 2014:
Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.The Spartans lost six starters off a defense that ranked in the top three in the nation in all four major statistical categories, but coordinator Pat Narduzzi insists that the losses don’t mean his unit will drop off. “It’s called opportunity,” Narduzzi says. “We’ve got players.”
Michigan State possesses one of the top defensive end duos in the nation in reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun and fourth-year starter Marcus Rush. The Spartans have plugged the departures at defensive tackle adequately, and that’s before one of the top-ranked defensive line classes — headlined by Malik McDowell and Craig Evans — reports to camp.
The secondary appears sound, led by captain-in-waiting Kurtis Drummond at free safety and returning junior cornerback Trae Waynes. Sophomore corner Darian Hicks and strong safety RJ Williamson enter fall camp the other projected starters.
The biggest question mark is at linebacker, where Michigan State could have an entirely new look. Senior Taiwan Jones is the only returning starter, and he spent spring trying to transition from outside to middle linebacker. Darien Harris and Ed Davis will likely be the other starters, regardless of how the position shakes out.
Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists for 2014:
All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler is expected to return to form after missing spring drills following knee surgery. Kicker Michael Geiger earned Freshman All-America honors last season, setting a Michigan State single-season record by connecting on 93.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (15-of-16). Shelton is expected back on kick returns and could vie for punt return duties with Kings Jr., who handled the majority of punt returns last season.
Michigan State has the potential to make the four-team College Football Playoff with all of the right bounces, but the 2014 schedule appears more challenging than last season’s, starting with a Sept. 6 road trip to play Oregon. The Spartans play Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan at home, but they’ll close the regular season at Penn State.
Michigan State’s defense will be hard-pressed to lead the Big Ten for a fourth consecutive season, so the offense might need to step up and carry the team until six new defensive starters settle in.
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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Michigan State No. 11:
1. Development of QB Connor Cook
In his first season as Michigan State’s starting quarterback, Cook threw for 2,755 yards, 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Cook was at his best at key moments for the Spartans, including throwing for 304 yards against Ohio State and 332 yards versus Stanford in the Rose Bowl. With an offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, expect Cook to take the next step in his development in 2014.
2. Big losses on defense
With five starters back, Michigan State’s defense has some rebuilding to do this offseason. It’s not a drastic overhaul for coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but there are some key players departing. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard is a huge loss, and the defense must replace linebacker Max Bullough and both starters at defensive tackle. After finishing No. 2 nationally in total defense and No. 3 in scoring defense, the Spartans have work to in order to repeat those totals this year. But…
3. Pat Narduzzi’s should find the right answers on defense
As mentioned above, Michigan State is losing a few key pieces to one of the best defenses in the nation. However, with Narduzzi on the sidelines, it’s hard to see the Spartans suffering too much on defense. With ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, along with cornerback Trae Waynes, Michigan State’s defense should be dominant once again. It's probably asking too much for the 2014 unit to match last year's totals, but the Spartans will be among the best in the Big Ten.
4. Favorable home slate
Michigan State’s schedule certainly isn’t easy, but the Spartans host Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State – three of their toughest games for 2014. Road dates against Penn State and Oregon will be a huge challenge and potential games with playoff implications. Considering the Buckeyes and Wolverines visit Spartan Stadium, the path to the Big Ten East Division title should go through East Lansing.
5. Promising skill players and offensive line
If Michigan State is going to knock off Ohio State for the second consecutive season, the skill players and offensive line have to take another step forward in their development. Last year, running back Jeremy Langford ran for 1,422 yards and could top the 1,500-mark in 2014. The receiving corps also emerged as a strength, with Tony Lippett becoming as a go-to target for Connor Cook. But the key to the 2014 season will be the offensive line. The Spartans have to replace three starters, including second-team All-Big Ten performer Blake Treadwell. However, center Jack Allen and tackle Jack Conklin are two potential all-conference performers to build around, and there’s experience returning with Travis Jackson at guard and Donavon Clark at tackle. If the offensive line is able to mesh with three new starters, Michigan State should finish higher than No. 11 in 2014.