After back-to-back 11-win seasons, Michigan State slipped to a 7-6 mark in 2012. The Spartans expected to take a tumble with the departure of quarterback Kirk Cousins, but most expected coach Mark Dantonio to keep Michigan State among the top-25 teams in the nation.
Michigan State’s offense was the main culprit of last year’s 7-6 record, finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring. The Spartans also ranked ninth in the conference in total yards per game (359.3). But the defense was one of the nation’s best, as coordinator Pat Narduzzi led this unit to a top-10 national finish in the four main defensive categories.
The Big Ten Legends Division should be one of the most competitive conference battles in 2013. Four teams – Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern – have a legitimate case to be ranked as the preseason favorite.
What will Michigan State's record at the end of the 2013 regular season? Athlon’s panel of experts debates:
Michigan State's 2013 Game-by-Game Predictions
8/30 Western Michigan
9/7 South Florida
9/14 Youngstown State
9/21 at Notre Dame
10/5 at Iowa
10/26 at Illinois
11/16 at Nebraska
11/23 at Northwestern
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Michigan State’s Legends Division title hopes rest solely on an offense that averaged only 20 points per game last year. Although the Spartans figure to be better on offense by default, that task isn’t easy with running back Le’Veon Bell leaving for the NFL. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell had his struggles last season but is working with an improved receiving corps, and an offensive line that returns three starters. The strength of Mark Dantonio’s team is on defense, and with six starters back, the Spartans should once again rank near the top of the Big Ten in fewest points allowed. Michigan State’s schedule is backloaded, with matchups against fellow Legends Division contenders Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern in November. If the offense improves, the Spartans have a chance to convert some of the close losses into wins. But there’s still plenty of uncertainty about quarterback Andrew Maxwell, along with which running back steps up as a workhorse to replace Bell.
Brent Yarina, Big Ten Network, (@BTNBrentYarina)
Give Michigan State an average offense to pair with its filthy defense, and it might be the favorite to meet Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten title game. The offense isn’t average, though; in fact, it was one of the Big Ten’s worst a season ago, and that was with stud Le’Veon Bell taking handoff after handoff. Bell’s in the NFL now, as is Dion Sims, the team’s best pass-catcher. So, how are the Spartans going to move the ball, keep their defense from wearing down? That’s TBD. The good news: Andrew Maxwell and the receivers can only get better. Even with the likely offensive struggles, Michigan State’s defense is good enough to carry the team, particularly early on. The Spartans have a backloaded schedule, meaning they could gain confidence and—believe it not—bring an 8-0 or 7-1 record into their grueling final stretch (vs. Michigan; at Nebraska; at Northwestern; vs. Minnesota).
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), No2MinuteWarning.com and NittanyLionsDen.com
Michigan State's defense deserved better last year. The Spartans had the top defensive unit in the Big Ten (first overall, first against the run, third against the pass and first in scoring). The defense in 2013 should once again be solid and among the best in the Big Ten, but an ability to bring a pass rush needs to be emphasized early on for the Spartans. On the other side of the football, as poor as the Spartans were on offense in 2012, I have a good feeling that things will almost have to be better with the coaching staff and talent available. I think last year was a bit of a mirage for Michigan State's offense and have faith in Mark Dantonio and his staff to make at least some tweaks and improvements on the offense to step up from putrid to average.
The beginning of the season should see the typical solid start by Michigan State before things start to get tough. A road game at Notre Dame is always going to be tight but I'll give the edge to the Irish right now. And I can't help but think the second game against South Florida will end up being a closer bout than most will suspect. Same with a road game at Iowa. Michigan State should be in contention in a wild Big Ten Legends Division, with late games against Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern all playing a huge factor in to the division outcome. I have two losses in the road contests and Nebraska and Northwestern but a win at home against the Wolverines. You can probably flip the Michigan and Northwestern outcomes but either way I have them going 1-2 in that key three-game stretch.
Mike Fiammetta, (@B5Q), Buckys5thquarter.com
You know the defense will be there, especially with six starters returning. But what improvements will Michigan State make on offense without Le’Veon Bell? Dion Sims is also in the NFL, leaving quarterback Andrew Maxwell without his top receiving target from a year ago. A backloaded schedule could give the Spartans time for things to gel, though a trip to Notre Dame does loom Sept. 21. The last four weeks are killer, though: vs. Michigan, at Nebraska, at Northwestern and vs. Minnesota. The potential for Michigan State is wild, in varying respects: 7-5 and 10-2 seasons both seem within the realm of possibilities.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The Spartans will be extremely recognizable in 2013: salty on defense, physical along the line of scrimmage and mediocre on offense. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell returns to this offense but has to prove he can develop into a dependable playmaker before anyone can make the case for this team to win the Legends Division. Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern boast elite offenses, and Michigan State will have to score points to upset one of the big three contenders in the division. Otherwise, the schedule is actually very manageable as Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin are noticeably absent from the slate.
Michigan State lost a bunch of close games last season (five by four points or less), but also won its share of close ones (four by four points or less). That is one of the reasons why I am expecting the Spartans to finish this season with a record along the same lines as the 7-6 mark they posted in 2012. One thing MSU does have going for it this fall is that Ohio State and Wisconsin aren't on the schedule, as they have been replaced by Illinois and Purdue. That could be a two-game swing in and of itself.
That said, Notre Dame is still on tap, as is a brutal November that has Mark Dantonio's team facing Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern in a row, with the last two coming on the road. As good as the defense should be, led by an experienced and talented back seven, the offense has plenty of question marks, such as who will replace Le'Veon Bell and his 1,700 rushing yards? Unless quarterback Andrew Maxwell makes some huge strides in his final season, the ceiling for this Spartans team is probably around eight wins, not including its bowl outcome.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I don’t think Michigan State is all that great of a team, but they’ve got a nice stretch to start the season. Tough to beat a four-game Big Ten stretch against Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois, plus the first two games against teams with new coaches. Michigan State’s offense isn’t going to be that great, so they’re going to have trouble scoring on a team like Notre Dame and keeping up with teams like Indiana, Nebraska and Northwestern. So why is that Michigan win sitting there? Well, I picked it on a lark back in the game picks for the Wolverines. Besides, what’s a college football season without some inexplicable upsets in rivalry games?
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