LET THE CHIPS FALL
The Spartans have won 11 or more games in four of the last five seasons. Still, they treat success with wariness. Their workout shirts feature pictures of poker chips on the shoulders. (Get it?) Last season they finished fifth in the final polls after a 42--41 Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor; to open spring practice, coach Mark Dantonio reminded them they had failed to accomplish their goals. "What we hang on to," says senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun of his team's motivation, "is losing."
The reality? Michigan State is a team with top-shelf players and top-end consistency worthy of championship expectations. Senior quarterback Connor Cook, a potential first-rounder next April, has thrown 32 more touchdowns than interceptions the last two years. Tackle Jack Conklin, a 6'6", 317-pound junior who could have been drafted in round 1 last spring, anchors a line that allowed only 11 sacks in 2014. Calhoun also returned, to boost a defense that has allowed just 18.3 points per game since 2010.
For all its talent and reliability, Michigan State might still miss out on the playoff—its two defeats in 2014 were to the teams that played for the national title. "A lot of people give us credit right now," Dantonio says. "We have to reach higher."
A high-impact visit from Oregon on Sept. 12 won't determine whether the Spartans are a playoff contender—but it will define the context of their season. Win, and they're a top five team. Lose, and the margin for error in Big Ten play is zero, with road games at Michigan, Nebraska and OSU. That Nov. 21 tilt with the Buckeyes screams playoff play-in.
In a former life Lawrence Thomas was a four-star linebacker recruit. Now he's a 6'4", 300-pound senior D-lineman who will shift between end and tackle depending on the personnel package. If Thomas can improve his sack numbers—he had three in '14—he can keep teams from sliding protection to Shilique Calhoun, much as now-graduated Marcus Rush did for the last three years.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Mark Dantonio is Iceman from Top Gun. He's precise and doesn't make many mistakes. They don't necessarily beat you, you beat yourself because they create so many disadvantages.... Connor Cook has so much poise and accuracy. He's valuable, but [center] Jack Allen is probably more so because he gets everybody where they need to be. They're not a huge vertical pass attack except on play-action, but they do that a ton because they run the ball so well.... The departure of [defensive coordinator] Pat Narduzzi will bring new wrinkles, but it's always been Dantonio's defense. Shilique Calhoun is one of the best. They play a quarters-type coverage to limit the pass, but with time your quarterback can pick them apart. Not many get that opportunity because their front four is ridiculous.
PAUL SANCYA/AP (CALHOUN)
SCOTT BOEHM/AP (THOMAS)