OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Don't sleep on the Spartans. They finished strong with a 42--17 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl and had big wins over Michigan and Penn State.... After a 3--9 season [in 2016], they went back to their bread and butter: defense and ball control. Their turnaround last year wasn't a fluke—they're one of the better teams in their division, and this season it will be all about the defense, which was top 10 last year and has a chance to be better. These guys are very well coached under Mark Dantonio. They mix it up without doing too much at the same time. The key last year was that the unit took a big jump from 11 sacks in 2016 to 28 a year ago. Middle linebacker Joe Bachie is the leader, but the biggest thing was improvement in the secondary: free safety DAVID DOWELL, who took over as a starter during the season, was key.... Whatever issues they have on the passing side, they'll be able to rely on a good running game. LJ Scott and Connor Heyward are fast but also physical, Michigan State--style rushers: quick on their feet but can also bring some physicality to their runs.... There's nothing really sexy about these guys, but they are rock solid.
BY THE NUMBERS
Rushing yards allowed last year, the second-lowest mark in the country.
Wins MSU improved by last season from its 2016 total, the biggest swing in school history.
After a young team exceeded expectations last season, the Spartans are poised to make a run at a Big Ten title.
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12-2 (BIG TEN CHAMPS)
During Mark Dantonio's tenure, Michigan State has sent QBs Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins, Connor Cook and Drew Stanton to the NFL. The next Spartans signal-caller poised for the pros is BRIAN LEWERKE, who's as talented as any of his predecessors. He took over the starting job and led the team to a seven-win improvement from 2016. Lewerke, who passed for 2,793 yards and 20 TDs, flashed a big arm and had surprising success on the ground: He rushed for 559 yards, giving Dantonio a dual threat at the position that he's never had. Lewerke needs to become more efficient in the air, but if he puts it all together, the Spartans could be the team to beat in the Big Ten.
FRI., AUG. 31
@ ARIZONA STATE
@ PENN STATE (7) [BIGGEST GAME][SI RANKINGS]
MICHIGAN (15) [KEY MATCHUP][SI RANKINGS]
OHIO STATE (9) [KEY MATCHUP][SI RANKINGS]