It was 1987 the last time Michigan State won an outright Big Ten championship or played in the Rose Bowl. Mark Dantonio ended both of the streaks in one awesome performance against undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten title game last fall.
Then he capped the emotional trip to Pasadena by suspending his senior captain and MSU legacy and still managed to topple mighty Stanford for a Rose Bowl championship — winning a school-record 13 games in the process.
Now Dantonio, a coach who has built his legacy on elite defensive football and a power running game, faces arguably his toughest rebuilding test — in particular, on defense. Six senior starters are gone from the defense and three All-Big Ten players have moved on from the offensive line.
So if Sparty wants to repeat as Big Ten champs, this coaching staff will have to plug holes in the back seven of the defense and in the trenches along the offensive line.
Michigan State Spartans 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 13-1 (8-0 Big Ten)
Spring Practice Opens: March 25
Spring Game: April 26
Three Things to Watch in Michigan State's 2014 Spring Practice
Find leadership at linebacker
Max Bullough didn’t play in the Rose Bowl, but he was as big a part of a title run as any player in school history. He hails from a family steeped in Spartans' football history and was a four-year starter. He and playmaking linebacker Denicos Allen have expired their eligibility and that leaves major leadership voids in the middle of the Spartans defense. Taiwan Jones (67 tackles) has some experience and may be looked to as the future leader of the unit as he moves inside to middle linebacker. Ed Davis, Jon Reschke and Darien Harris got limited playing time a year ago and should gain more prominent roles as well. Dantonio and coordinator Pat Narduzzi have plenty of options to choose from as MSU always seems to find quality bodies at linebacker, (SEE: Kyler Ellsworth) but this group needs to come together quickly this spring as the Spartans enter a dramatically more intense offensive division in the East.
Fill holes along the offensive line
Connor Cook developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten last year. Jeremy Langford returns with All-American aspirations in 2014. And the receiving corps is quietly becoming one of the deeper units in the league. But the offensive line — Michigan State’s bread and butter — needs to fill three large voids left by right tackle Fou Fonoti and guards Blake Treadwell and Dan France. Jack Allen returns to anchor the O-Line and Jack Conklin started 13 games at left tackle, so Dantonio has two quality pieces to work with before trying to fill the other three spots. Donavan Clark, Connor Kruse and Travis Jackson should figure in the mix prominently and are listed atop the spring depth chart currently. How quickly this group comes together may determine how far Sparty can go in 2014. It’s one thing to have a great backfield and great playmakers on offense, but if you cannot open up running lanes or protect the passer, it can all go to waste.
Rebuild the secondary
Darqueze Dennard was considered the best defensive back and top cover corner in the nation when he was awarded the Thorpe Award. He and honorable mention All-Big Ten safety Isaiah Lewis were mainstays for Sparty on the backend and will be missed in 2014. Safety Kurtis Drummond returns to anchor the safeties, and Trae Waynes has loads of upside at cornerback, but little in the way of experience returns to the secondary outside of those two. Demetrious Cox and RJ Williamson will play a bunch at safety and should replace Lewis capably. Jermaine Edmondson, Darian Hicks, Arjen Colquhoun and Ezra Robinson will try to fill the massive void left by Dennard at cornerback. Hicks and Cox are listed as the starters in the spring depth chart and have the inside track on earning starting positions.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
With at least 11 wins in three of the last four seasons, Dantonio has proven that he reloads rather than rebuilds. This team has some glaring holes to fill at offensive line, linebacker and in the secondary. However, the roster has steadily improved over time and replacing talent is getting easier for the Spartans. Cook and Langford is arguably the top QB-RB tandem in the Big Ten and the offense, shockingly, could carry this team through an “easier” early schedule. Removing a premier national non-conference game with Oregon in Eugene (which doesn’t impact the Big Ten race obviously), the Spartans should be heavy favorites in their first six (maybe seven) games. Following an off weekend, the slate toughens up in the final month but both Ohio State and Maryland come at home. A repeat as Big Ten champs will likely come down to two November games with the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions.