With all the talk these days centering around the recruiting wars between Michigan and Ohio State, one is left wondering: Where does Michigan State fit into the picture? As much as Michigan fans would like to write off the Spartans, citing recruiting rankings as evidence, all of that might be a little premature.
After back-to-back 11 win seasons in 2010 and 2011, with a combined 14-2 conference record, the Spartans took a tumble in 2012, finishing just 7-6, including, of course, a hotly contested loss in Ann Arbor.
Mark Dantonio's squad began the season at home against Boise State, a team that lost a serious amount of talent; the Spartans won an ugly one, feeding Le'Veon Bell a whopping 44 times en route to a 17-14 victory. This was a good time for Bell's early season Heisman standing, but was an ominous indicator of what was to come, as Andrew Maxwell tossed three interceptions that evening. Not all of those picks were his fault, as the receivers were not exactly trustworthy all season.
The Spartans continued to struggle offensively all season, and when Bell wasn't able to carry the day, the Spartans lost; against the Wolverines and Buckeyes, Bell averaged 2.6 yards per carry. In a 20-3 loss at home against Notre Dame, Bell put up 77 yards on 19 carries, good for a solid but not transcendent 4.1 yards per carry. Unfortunately for the Spartans, even with Bell putting up nice numbers against Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern, they still ended up on the losing side.
At the same time, ignoring the thumping at the hands of the Fighting Irish, the Spartans' remaining five losses came by a margin of 2.6 points per game. I don't need to tell you how close the game in Ann Arbor was to tipping the other way. They did have some winning close calls, including a fourth quarter comeback against Indiana and a big overtime victory in Madison, but merely looking at MSU's 2012 record and assuming imminent demise is a little unfair.
Say what you will about the recruiting wars--that doesn't interest me so much right now, as we begin to look forward to the 2013 season in earnest. The Spartans lost some key pieces on both sides of the ball, with Le'Veon Bell being the headliner. If the Spartans can somehow find a way to replace his production, by committee or otherwise, they stand a chance at improving upon last season's disappointing mark.
However, it goes without saying that the offense is still looking for that spark from the signal calling position, one which took a serious dip post-Kirk Cousins. Andrew Maxwell had a shaky 2012, but is now a senior and has a season's worth of playing time under his belt. Yet, Connor Cook's positive performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU (albeit not statistically pretty) will make things interesting heading into fall camp. Whether it's Cook or Maxwell under center, the Spartans need someone who can take care of the ball; unfortunately for MSU, if a capable back doesn't step up, whoever the QB1 ends up being will likely have to press a little more than they would if Bell were still around.
All this talk of offense notwithstanding (and I didn't even mention offensive coordinator Dan Roushar's departure), Michigan State's hopes and dreams will continue to ride on the back of what should once again be a stout defense. The Spartans ranked 9th in scoring defense in 2012, relinquishing 16.3 ppg and finishing second in DFEI. The defense does have to replace Anthony Rashad White, Will Gholston and Johnny Adams, but star backers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen return, as does DE Marcus Rush and SS Isaiah Lewis. It might take a little time to get the new starters into the swing of things, but come Big Ten season the Spartans likely won't be giving up too many points.
After all, although the Wolverines finally pulled off a win against the Spartans for the first time since 2007, they did it without scoring a touchdown. A win is a win, of course, but hubris is the fog that clouds reality. As fans, it is easy to go down the rabbit hole of hypotheticals, but even for a team that is not our own, like Michigan State, if the needle pushed MSU's way just an inch more, maybe we are talking about a 9-4 squad coming into 2013. But, the breaks are the breaks.
On paper, the Spartans should be at least 7-1 heading into the Michigan game on Nov. 2. After that, the green and white head to Lincoln and then Evanston before finishing the season at home against an improving Minnesota squad. Assuming the Spartans don't crash and burn during the relatively manageable front end of the schedule, November will determine whether this season is merely an improved one or a great one.
If the Spartans can continue to maintain the level of defensive excellence of recent seasons while coercing at least competent quarterbacking from Maxwell/Cook, they should be on their way to a better 2013, as strange as that may sound, what with the whole losing 92 percent of their 2012 rushing production.
Then again, this is college football, where nothing ever makes sense, and words are feeble attempts at realizing the contours of logic. Will the Spartans put up a better mark in 2013? The odds are good, but, just to be safe, get back to me in November.