The case for
The defense will be good, and it has the potential to be dominant. Six starters return from a unit that ranked first in the Big Ten in rushing defense, pass-efficiency defense and scoring defense, led by hard-hitting linebacker Max Bullough and ball-hawking cornerback Darqueze Dennard (3 INTs). After limiting opponents to 16.3 points per game in 2012, the group's focus is now on creating takeaways—and scoring defensive touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the offense has four starters returning on the line, plus its two leading receivers, Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery. Michigan State lost five games by a combined 13 points last year. Even slight improvement could push the Spartans to the top of the league.
The case against
The offense faltered in key moments last season—and that was before it lost workhorse running back Le'Veon Bell to the NFL. Linebacker turned tailback Riley Bullough and an untested crop of freshmen will be asked to replace Bell's rushing production, which will be critical if senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell struggles again. Maxwell completed only 52.5% of his attempts last year, connecting on just 42.7% over the final four games.
You finished fourth in the nation in total defense last year. What can you do to improve in 2013?
The defense played spectacular, but what we have to be able to do is close out games, to play better in two-minute situations.
How can the offense be more effective?
The bottom line is we have to score touchdowns more often. I think we ended up kicking 32 field goals. It wasn't the fact that we weren't in the red zone. We got down there, but we need to score touchdowns.
Quarterback Andrew Maxwell struggled as the starter. What does he bring to the table this fall?
Andrew brings experience in game-time situations, which is so valuable. He's got great knowledge of our offense, and he understands who our guys are.
Does the team think about all those close losses?
There's no question we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. I think that when you look at us, we won four very close games and we lost five very close games. So we have to find the inches. And we have to understand that the inches count.
Player to Watch
CornerbackTrae Waynesfilled in for injured Johnny Adams in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and tallied three tackles and half a sack in a 17--16 win over TCU. The sophomore impressed throughout the spring and enters this fall as a presumed starter.
GREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES (BULLOUGH)
MIKE CARTER/US PRESSWIRE (DANTONIO)
Projected 2013 Stats
QB Andrew Maxwell
Pass: 2,500 yards, 16 TDs
Run: --75 yards, 0 TDs
RB Jeremy Langford
Run: 725 yards, 6 TDs
Rec.: 70 yards, 0 TDs
WR Aaron Burbridge
Rec.: 650 yards, 6 TDs
Run: 25 yards, 0 TDs
Outside a trip to Notre Dame on Sept. 21, the Spartans' early slate seems manageable. That changes in November. Michigan State hosts No. 18 Michigan and visits Nebraska and No. 22 Northwestern in what will most likely be a season-defining three-game stretch. Each of those teams beat Dantonio's squad in 2012.
SI Power Rating
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