The Michigan State Spartans check in at No. 18 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Andrew Maxwell, QB
That is, Spartans fans need to hope that Maxwell can be the MVP. If he possesses half of Kirk Cousins’ leadership skills, his raw talent should give Michigan State the ability to win most weekends. Maxwell has patiently waited his turn and learned from arguably the best quarterback in school history. The time is now for the 6-foot-3, 215-pound signal caller.
Offensive MVP: Chris McDonald, RG
With a new quarterback and new receiving corps, the leadership of this offense will fall to the big hog mollies up front. It will be their job to protect Maxwell, give him time to throw and open up lanes for the backs. McDonald is a three-year letterman with 26 starts under his belt and will be, along with Dan France, the stabilizing influence in the Spartans huddle.
Trap Game: Iowa (Oct. 13)
The divisional home test against the Hawkeyes comes right on the heels of a road trip to Indiana and one week before the Spartans head to in-state rival Michigan. With interesting match-ups with Boise State, Notre Dame and Ohio State in the first five weeks, Michigan State will be plenty tested when it faces Iowa. However, will it be looking ahead to back-to-back road trips to Ann Arbor and Madison?
Upset Alert: Boise State (Aug. 31)
With a brand new quarterback, a completely new receiving corps and one massive void on the defensive line, could Sparty be primed for an upset in the first week of action? Boise State is replacing even more than Michigan State, but Mark Dantonio’s bunch will be at its weakest point in Week 1. It’s better to get them early and a Friday night primetime match-up with a team that has lost three games in four years could be tougher than expected.
Unsung Hero: Dion Sims, TE
After missing the entire 2010 season, Sims returned to the field in 2012 to catch three touchdowns. In fact, Sims will be the only Spartan returning in 2012 with more than one touchdown reception on his 2011 resume. He posted a solid freshman line (11 rec., 133 yards, 3 TD) and as Michigan State breaks in a quarterback and a totally new set of receivers, Sims could turn out to be a quality safety valve.
Biggest Game: At Michigan (Oct. 20)
After losing six straight to the Wolverines, Michigan State has dominated its in-state archrival for the last four years. Following a BCS bowl win over Virginia Tech and renewed recruiting fervor, the Maize and Blue are considered the Legends Division favorite. With a tough early schedule, will Michigan State be battle tested or beaten-up when they head to Ann Arbor in Week 8? Bragging rights and a division title could be on the line.
Revenge Game: Notre Dame (Sept. 15) and Nebraska (Nov. 3)
The Spartans lost in embarrassing fashion on the road to both the Fighting Irish and the Cornhuskers by a combined 55-16. The visit from the Big Red carries heavy Big Ten title implications while the rivalry with Notre Dame has featured no love lost of late. You can bet that Dantonio’s bunch has both of these contests circled and underlined.
Freshman To Watch: Aaron Burbridge, WR
The unanimous top recruit in the state of Michigan, Burbridge brings excellent play-making ability to the top position of need for the Spartans. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder was a two-time first-team All-State selection and is the top-rated recruit in this class. If he can grasp the offense quickly, he should be able to contribute to the depleted receiver corps in short order.
Comeback Player: Larry Caper, RB
After 120 carries as a freshman, Caper seemed poised for a breakout career in East Lansing. Yet, he dealt with minor injuries over the next two seasons, missing three of the Spartans final five regular season games last fall. With Edwin Baker moving on to the NFL, Caper should slide back into the No. 2 role in the backfield behind Le'Veon Bell.
Defensive MVP: Max Bullough, LB
Along with Denicos Allen, Chris Norman and Taiwan Jones, the Spartans boast a deep and versatile linebacking corps. But Bullough rules the middle of the defense and leads the team in tackles (89). The 6-foot-3, 250-pound linebacker is a third-generation Spartan legacy and has never missed a game in his 27-game career.
Newcomer To Watch: R.J. Williamson, FS
The redshirt freshman safety is in a heated battle with sophomore Kurtis Drummond for the starting free safety position. While the first-year letterman may not win the starting job, he certainly will play a prominent role in nickel and dime coverages. Watch out for the Middletown, Ohio, native in 2012.
Newcomer To Watch II: Juwan Caeser, WR
With no depth whatsoever at the wide receiver position, Michigan State fans can expect many new faces to make an impact in the passing game. While Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey will likely earn the starting jobs, it appears a healthy Caesar could work his way into the three-wide packages. Any help Dantonio can give new quarterback Andrew Maxwell will be huge.
Season Defining Moment: October
The final two weekends in October will feature back-to-back road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin before the Spartans host Nebraska on November 3. If MSU can somehow make it through October with only one or two losses, it could be in the mix for a second straight Legends Division title. If it limps into the home game against the Cornhuskers, spoiler is all Sparty will be playing in final month of the season.
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