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Can Le'Veon Bell lead Michigan State Back to Indianapolis?
Athlon's College Football top 25 countdown for 2012 continues with No. 18 Michigan State. The Spartans are the defending Legends Division champs, but must replace quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.
What Will Michigan State's Record in Legends Division Play Be in 2012?
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
In looking at Michigan State’s foes in the Legends division (reminder: They are Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota), the swing game looks to be the date with Nebraska at home. By the time of the Nov. 3 game with the Cornhuskers, we’ll know where both teams stand, but that could be the defining game in the Legends should division favorite Michigan falter. I know others are optimistic about Michigan State in 2012. The Spartans will be strong along both lines, they’ll have a solid running game and potentially one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. The question is how Sparty will replace Kirk Cousins plus all his receivers. I also wonder how losing a dominating presence like Jerel Worthy on the line will impact the rest of the defense. In facing Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders, Michigan State is going to have a tough time competing for a spot in the Big Ten title game. Michigan State will be able to win some of those games, but the Spartans probably will have to grind out those match ups with the run game and defense. That’s going to be enough to defeat Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota, but probably not Michigan in Ann Arbor. That leaves the home date with Nebraska, who defeated Michigan State 24-3 in East Lansing. I’d expect Nebraska’s second season in the Big Ten to go a little smoother and for Taylor Martinez to continue his development into his junior year. I’ll take the Cornhuskers in that matchup, leaving Michigan State with a 3-2 record in the Legends.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Michigan State might be the most intriguing team in the Big Ten heading into the summer of 2012. Mark Dantonio has elevated his program to levels not seen in East Lansing in decades and it means that the Spartans can watch some of the program's greats — Kirk Cousins, Jerel Worthy, BJ Cunningham — depart and still be in the mix for a conference title. This defense is still stacked on every level, the offensive line will be a strength and all signs point to Andrew Maxwell being capable of leading this program to victories.
Yet, after the only two 11-win seasons in program history, Dantonio will have a much more traditional Spartan team this fall. The offense will be more vanilla and wins will come from the defense on a team breaking in an entirely new receiving corps and new quarterback. Michigan State has reached a level where games against Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota should be wins. But a three game stretch in which Sparty visits Ann Arbor and hosts Nebraska (sandwiched around a trip to Madison) will determine if this team is a conference title contender or is in true rebuilding mode. Michigan will be focused on removing the four-year in-state monkey from its back and it is hard to erase the memory of the 24-3 performance in Lincoln last year. Without the greatest quarterback in school history, Michigan State will finish 3-2 within the division this fall. If Sparty is anything better than that, Mark Hollis needs to draft a lifetime contract for Dantonio as soon as possible.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
With Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska all capable of winning the Big Ten, the Legends Division could be one of the most difficult in college football. Although Iowa, Northwestern or Minnesota likely won’t rank in any preseason top 25 polls, none will be an easy out for the top three teams in the division.
The Spartans are the defending champs, but it won’t be easy to repeat without quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. New quarterback Andrew Maxwell looks like a solid replacement, but he does not have any starts under his belt. The receiving corps is largely unproven, and it’s uncertain if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett will be granted eligibility for 2012. Worthy’s presence had a huge impact on the defense, and he is no longer around to command double teams from opposing offensive linemen.
Although losing Cousins and Worthy is a huge blow, the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans can lean on a much-improved offensive line and running back Le’Veon Bell to carry the offense until Maxwell is ready. The defense is loaded with NFL talent at each level and finished first in the Big Ten by allowing just 277.4 yards per game last year.
Michigan State did not catch an easy road to repeating as Legends Division champions. The Spartans open Big Ten play with Ohio State and have back-to-back road trips in October to Michigan and Wisconsin, followed by a home date against Nebraska on Nov. 3. Michigan State finished with a 4-1 record in Legends Division play last year, but I think it’s more likely this team goes 3-2 in 2012. Although the Spartans have won four in a row over Michigan, the Wolverines should have the edge in their meeting on Oct. 20. I give a slight edge to Nebraska over Michigan State for their meeting on Nov. 3, but could see that game going either way. And don’t overlook the season finale against Minnesota – the Spartans won by just seven points last year.
Michigan State went 7-1 in the Big Ten last year, earning them a trip to the inaugural conference championship game, which the Spartans lost by three to Wisconsin. To help get them to the title game in Indianapolis, the Spartans went 4-1 against their fellow Legends Division foes, losing only to Nebraska in Lincoln, albeit by 21 points.
This year Michigan State will get Nebraska at home in November, but first it has to go the Big House in Ann Arbor to play in-state rival Michigan on Oct. 20. These two are clearly the teams that should be the Spartans' toughest opposition in the Legends division, so as long as they find a way to split these two games, then another 4-1 divisional record is entirely possible.
To that end, the defense, which should be among the Big Ten's best, is certainly going to have to be at its best against the Cornhuskers and Wolverines. On the other hand, Michigan State's offense will be green, and that's not just because it's the color of the uniforms. Only four starters return on that side of the ball and they are all offensive linemen. That is a good thing as the Spartans will have Andrew Maxwell at quarterback. However, even though Maxwell is a junior, he enters 2012 with no career starts under his belt as he has played in a total of nine games.
The Spartans will have experience in the backfield in junior Le'Veon Bell and senior Larry Caper, but that's not the case with the receiving corps. Last season, Michigan State receivers caught a total 288 passes, those who are back in 2012 caught 66 of those, or 23 percent, and Bell and Caper account for more than two-thirds of that total (45 receptions combined). Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett will have an impact in the passing attack as a wide receiver, but no one should be surprised if this season's Spartans' offense isn't as productive as it was last year when it finished third in the Big Ten in scoring offense and fourth in total offense.
When it comes time for Michigan State to test its mettle against Michigan and Nebraska, the Spartans can't go in thinking they can match either team when it comes to offensive firepower. They should have the edge on defense though, so if the offense can hold onto the ball and maintain some long drives that produce points, they should be able to manage a split of these two games. If not, I don' think Michigan State's offense has the weapons to win any type of shootout. And if the Spartans lose to both the Wolverines and Cornhuskers, then I wouldn't advise Michigan State fans to make any travel plans for Indianapolis in December.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I see the Spartans going 3-2 in the Legends Division, although they could win it again if the passing attack develops quickly. Obviously stars like quarterback Kirk Cousins and receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin will be missed, but the running game and defense will make MSU a contender to get back to Indianapolis. Andrew Maxwell was developing as Cousins’ replacement but had to miss the spring game because of a sprained knee. He will rely on a solid group of running backs led by Le’Veon Bell, as well as four offensive line starters returning. The defense loses Jerel Worthy up front, but defensive end William Gholston is as talented a defender as you will see in the Big Ten. The linebackers unit is the best in the conference with Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Chris Norman, and the secondary has stars in Isaiah Lewis and Johnny Adams.
While the defense should keep the Spartans in every game, the offense may struggle with a lack of playmakers in the passing game. MSU has defeated rival Michigan four years in a row, which will make the trip to Ann Arbor very difficult this season. Nebraska handled MSU easily last year, but the Cornhuskers do travel to East Lansing this year. Mark Dantonio’s bunch should defeat Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota, but at this point I would forecast close losses against Michigan and Nebraska.
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