The Spartans rank No. 12 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2018
Michigan State bounced back in a big way in 2017 and should remain a legitimate threat in the Big Ten East Division this fall. Mark Dantonio has one of the most experienced teams in the nation with 19 starters returning. Quarterback Brian Lewerke spearheads a veteran offense while the defense has a chance to repeat as a top-10 unit. The East will be one of the toughest divisions in the country, but don't overlook the Spartans' chances of making some noise in 2018.
Previewing Michigan State Football's Offense for 2018
Quarterback Brian Lewerke has added a level of fleet-footed slipperiness to Michigan State's foundation of two-back, between-the-tackles power, yielding a potential for entertaining success in 2018 for Mark Dantonio's team. Lewerke can go to the air from the pocket, on the move or while executing run-pass options, and do it with touch, zip and creative downfield vision.
He will pilot an offense that returns 10 starters from a unit that ranked No. 35 in the nation in points per possession.
Left tackle Cole Chewins is solid but struggled against Ohio State. Right guard Kevin Jarvis is a rising star, as is Jordan Reid. Reid is a threat to start at tackle, guard or center - he's that versatile. Matt Allen is the leading candidate to step in for his graduated brother at center.
Michigan State returns a pair of 50-catch receivers in Felton Davis and Darrell Stewart. Davis is a muscular, 6'4" monster who is blossoming as a mismatch target. Stewart is a smart hustler with good run-after-catch skills. Cody White, a 6'3" glider with 35 catches as a true freshman, is the next breakout receiver for MSU. A decent blocker, Matt Sokol has well-rounded skills at tight end, with 21 catches last year.
Senior LJ Scott has led the team in rushing for three straight years but has yet to break the 1,000-yard mark in a season. He provides big-back power but is inconsistent. A backup is needed. Sophomore Connor Heyward, son of former NFL standout Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, seems to have the chops.
Previewing Michigan State Football's Defense for 2018
Michigan State is back as a defensive force. The Spartans returns nine starters from a defense that ranked No. 7 in the nation in total defense and No. 2 in rushing defense.
Stubborn defensive tackles Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams are of championship quality, and they have good backups. Quick, sturdy hammerhead Joe Bachie might be the best middle linebacker of the Dantonio era. Kenny Willekes is a productive tornado against the run and pass at defensive end, but the Spartans are thin at that position and don't have the type of freak athlete on the edge that the true national championship contenders possess.
The secondary is heading toward exceptional, with obstructive 6'3" Justin Layne and handsy Josiah Scott forming a terrific tag team at cornerback, with capable backups in Tyson Smith and Josh Butler. Junior safety David Dowell had five interceptions and is improving as a hitter. Khari Willis is a great leader at strong safety.
Previewing Michigan State Football's Specialists for 2018
Sophomore placekicker Matt Coghlin is reliable (15-of-19 last year). He nailed a 34-yarder on drenched grass to beat Penn State in the final seconds. Punter Jake Hartbarger ranked seventh in the Big Ten at 42 yards per punt, but his air time and MSU's coverage unit allowed only 31 punt return yards all season, ranking No. 3 in the country.
Michigan State bounced back from a 3-9 season to reach double-digit wins for the sixth time in eight years. With 19 returning starters from a team that went 10-3, the Spartans are a dangerous contender in one of the best divisions in college football and will continue to be a problem for Penn State and Michigan. A return to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2015 is unlikely but not impossible. No one is expecting Michigan State to leapfrog Ohio State, but that's the way Dantonio likes it.