Michigan State enters the 2015 season on the back of two of the most successful campaigns in program history. Over the past five seasons, the Spartans have taken several steps toward the top of college football's national pyramid of prestige and established itself as one of the Big Ten's premier programs.
Expectation for Mark Dantonio's team this fall vary depending on the site or publication you read. The team is once again expected to be among the best in the Big Ten — if not the country — by most accounts. The question remains, however, whether this group has what it takes to crack that all important final four at the end of the year and qualify for the College Football Playoff. Let's look at three reasons to believe these Spartans will and three reasons to believe they will not.
Three Reasons Why Michigan State Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. Connor Cook's Leadership and Grasp of the Offense
You can't put a value on quarterback and system continuity at any level of football. Michigan State has both in Cook. He has mastered Jim Bollman's offense over the last two seasons and become one of the elite signal-callers in the nation as a result of doing so. You can count on one hand the number of college teams who have a surefire, NFL-caliber quarterback under center. Michigan State is one of them.
2. Veteran Leadership on Defense
Defense has been the catalyst of Michigan State's recent rise to the elite ranks. The talent on the field this season should be on par with recent units. Shilique Calhoun, the All-Big Ten defensive end who will appear on just about every watch list for the awards he's eligible for, leads another stout unit that will feature seven senior starters. This is a group that is accustomed to winning at a high level with players who know their individual role in a proven system. Their experience should ease the transition for the two new defensive coordinators.
3. Parity in the Other Power 5 Conferences
The reality of the new Playoff selection system is that wins and losses still matter. Many — including myself — believe the Big Ten is a two-deep conference when it comes to actual national title contenders. The ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 all feature four or five teams capable of roughing up one another's records throughout the season to the tune of at least two losses. The puts Michigan State in a pretty favorable position, possibly able to lose the game to Ohio State and still make it into the final four without playing in the conference championship game.
Michigan State's 2015 Schedule
Athlon Projected Rank for 2015
at Ohio State
Three Reasons Why Michigan State Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. The Departure of Pat Narduzzi
Narduzzi was the architect of Michigan State's elite defense, widely viewed as one of the best coordinators in the country. He has been replaced by two co-coordinators in Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. Both have been with Dantonio for a while, which should help maintain continuity. We shall wait and see if two heads are better than one in East Lansing when it comes to scheming for a variety of offenses and looks as the season progresses. Until we have evidence to prove otherwise, I'd expect the loss of Narduzzi to cause some degree of regression — even if only temporary — in the Spartans' defensive performance.
2. The Ohio State Game
The Spartans will be underdogs in the matchup with the Buckeyes. As I mentioned earlier, I believe they can lose the game and still qualify for the College Football Playoff — but that depends on how they lose. A hard-fought, back-and-forth battle with the defending champion could leave people wanting more. A blowout loss at the Horseshoe in what is likely to be a nationally televised primetime game would be detrimental to Michigan State's title hopes.
3. Lack of Proven Offensive Weapons
As good as Cook is, he'll be without his three leading receivers and two leading rushers from a season ago. There will be a ton of pressure on guys like Aaron Burbridge and R.J.Shelton to replace Tony Lippett's production in the passing game. Meanwhile, the Spartans will rely on a committee of young and inexperienced running backs, hoping they can produce numbers similar to what Jeremy Langford did a season ago. It's tough to reload and play for a national title simultaneously, but that's what Michigan State will be attempting to accomplish on offense.
Taking the Ohio State game out of the equation, Michigan State will need to run the table to stay in the College Football Playoff conversation throughout the season. The Spartans should be favored in every game on their schedule, but Oregon, Nebraska and Penn State all have the talent to give them trouble — if not beat them outright. Going 11-1 or 12-0 would be a monumental achievement given the slate before them. Even if Michigan State can beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten East, beating a Nebraska, Wisconsin or Minnesota in the Big Ten Championship Game would not be a slam dunk. Finishing the year undefeated or with only a single close loss is possible for this team. That said, there are too many hurdles to say that it's probable. Because of that, another fine season where the Spartans finish in the top 10 but outside of the final four is the likely outcome.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 7
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
CG Technology Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5