Tuesday, August 25, 2009

CFI Countdown: #21 Michigan St. Spartans

2008 Record: 9-4 (Big Ten: 6-2)
Bowl Game: Lost Capital One Bowl to Georgia, 24-12
Location: East Lansing, Michigan
Stadium: Spartan Stadium (75,005)
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio
Overall: 34-27 (6th season)
@ Michigan St.: 16-10 (3rd season)
Link to MSU Football Page

After taking over a four-win team and leading them to seven victories and a bowl game in 2007, followed by a nine-win season and New Year’s Day bowl in 2008, headman Mark Dantonio has proven in two seasons that he is the real deal. There is no reason to expect the Spartans to do anything but continue that progression under his leadership. Everything they’ve lacked in the past in terms of discipline and mental toughness, Dantonio has supplied.

When the Spartans Have the Ball

Offensive Coordinator: Don Tredwell
Scheme: Multiple
Starters Returning: Seven
Key Losses: QB Brian Hoyer, RB Javon Ringer, OT Jesse Miller, OG Roland Martin

Losing someone like Javon Ringer is obviously going to hurt—as a senior he averaged 30 carries per game. However, the Spartans believe they can actually have a more efficient rushing game in 2009 (MSU averaged just 3.3 yards per carry). No one player can replace Ringer, but there are about a half dozen Spartans competing for the opportunity to do so. Sophomores Ashton Leggett and Andre Anderson, as well as redshirt freshman Caulton Ray are among those in the mix. A more balanced offense would serve Sparty well in opening things up for the rushing attack. There is also competition at quarterback between sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nicol, both of whom possess strong arms with Nicol also possessing the ability to run the ball. Whichever playmaker ends up getting the most reps will have more than enough weapons at their disposal. Junior Mark Dell has the most upside of the wideouts, while senior Blair White was the most productive in 2008. Also keep an eye on sophomores Keshawn Martin and B. J. Cunningham. They are deep at tight end as well with Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum backing up the very talented Charlie Gantt. The offensive line returns three starters with sophomore Joel Foreman serving as a powerful run blocker from his guard position.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) TE Charlie Gantt (JR), 2) Mark Dell (JR), 3) QB Kirk Cousins (SO)

When the Other Team Has the Ball

Defensive Coordinator: Pat Narduzzi (3rd season)
Scheme: Multiple 4-3
Starters Returning: Eight
Key Losses: DE Brandon Long, DT Justin Kershaw, LB Ryan Allison, S Otis Wiley

The strength of the Spartans is their defense, specifically their linebacker corps, led by All-American candidate Greg Jones. The speedy, sideline-to-sideline hard-hitting junior is making the move from WILL to MIKE and while there may be an adjustment period, once Jones settles in the middle he will be a tacking machine. Replacing him at the weakside is fellow junior Eric Gordon, who has pass-rushing potential and, like Jones, is entering his third season in the starting lineup. Up front they are deep with defensive end Trevor Anderson their top pass rusher. There are high hopes for red-shirt freshman Jerel Worthy on the inside. The secondary should be solid as well, beginning with cover men junior Chris L. Rucker and senior Ross Weaver. Expect this experienced group to be more aggressive and make more impact plays at every level in their third season under Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) LB Greg Jones (JR), 2) CB Chris L. Rucker (JR), 3) LB Eric Gordon (JR)

The Schedule

The Spartans face three difficult road games in the first half of the season—at Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Illinois—which will go a long way to deciding the type of season Michigan St. will have. On the plus side, they miss Ohio St. this season and play host to both Iowa and Penn St., the latter in their season finale. Last season, the Spartans were the surprise team in the Big Ten title race, in it right up until the final week. If they are to compete again, it’s time to win some big games—they lost by a combined score of 94-25 against Ohio St. and Penn St. in 2008.

Pivotal Point

The key unit for the 2009 offense is their offensive line. There are few questions, if any, regarding Dantonio’s defense. Offensively they are looking to replace both their starting quarterback and running back, with inexperienced players waiting to step in. Cousins has attempted a mere 43 passes, which are 43 more than Nicol. Their leading returning rusher is Anderson, who had 97 yards on 26 carries last season. However, there is little doubt that Michigan St. has significant talent at both spots. The expectations for the offensive line aren’t necessarily as high, particularly on the right side where they have to replace two starters. Sophomore Jared McGaha and junior J’Michael Deane are the expected starters. Pass protection will be critical as well.

CFI Final Analysis

In the three seasons prior to Dantonio taking over in East Lansing, MSU won a total of 14 games and failed to make a bowl game. In 2003 they made a bowl game, but not before turning a 7-1 start (and #9 AP Ranking) into an 8-5 record. Gone are the underachieving and the collapses that the Spartans had become known for. Now it’s time for Michigan St. to take the next step—handle expectations and win some big games.

College Football Insiders Top 25 Countdown:
The Next 25 (26-50) Plus 18 Bowl Teams
#25 West Virginia Mounainteers
#24 Tennessee Volunteers
#23 Clemson Tigers
#22. Pittsburgh Panthers

Contact Daniel Mogollon via email dan@collegefootballinsiders.com

Photo Credit: Michigan State Athletic Communications