Despite losing over a half dozen key contributors to the NFL Draft and graduation, not to mention arguably the best defensive coordinator in the country leaving for another job, the Michigan State Spartans enter 2015 fall practice as a dark horse contender for the College Football Playoff.
The Spartans need to replace three elite offensive weapons if quarterback Connor Cook is going to emerge as the Heisman candidate many are touting him as. Additionally, Mark Dantonio has the added pressure of entering the season without longtime defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who left East Lansing to take the head coaching job at Pitt.
Michigan State's Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Narduzzi's Departure
Michigan State's defensive unit has been one of the best in the country over the last half decade or so. Much of that can be attributed to Narduzzi. For the first time since 2006, the Spartans will be looking at a different coordinator — two of them, actually — for defensive direction from the sideline. Getting the kinks ironed out in in camp is going to be of critical importance if Michigan State is going to be a player in the national championship picture.
2. Replacing NFL-Caliber Talent on Defense
This is where we'll see how well Dantonio has actually recruited recently. Part of what made Michigan State's defense so good over the past few seasons was the play of the secondary. Two corners and two safeties from the last two Michigan State teams are currently in NFL camps. Do the Spartans have the depth at those positions to maintain the dominance they've shown in recent years?
3. Finding Playmakers at Wide Receiver
Cook has been the flavor of the offseason in the Big Ten. Big things are expected from him, but he'll need to do those big things with some receivers he hasn't had a lot of experience throwing to in actual games. Guys like Aaron Burbridge, Monty Madaris and R.J. Shelton are going to need to step up as dependable weapons quickly to replace Cook's top targets from 2014.
4. Finding Consistent Production at Running Back
Jeremy Langford was one of the toughest, most dependable runners in the Big Ten in recent memory. His are big shoes to fill, and right now, it appears those shoes will be filled by committee. From a numbers standpoint, that should be ok for now, as the Spartans are projected to field one of the better offensive lines in the conference. Down the stretch, however, Dantonio is going to want one guy he knows he can count on to get those tough yards in crunchtime.
5. Focusing on One Game at a Time
Outside looking in, Michigan State has two big games — Oregon and Ohio State. The ground truth, however is that Michigan State's schedule is full of underrated teams and potential trap games. The Spartans can't let up after those two big games and they must avoid letdowns in the event that they lose one or both. Trips to Nebraska, Michigan and Rutgers — as well as a season-ending home game against Penn State — are going to require the Spartans to be firing on all cylinders both mentally and physically.