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Big Ten Football Preview 2015: Michigan State season outlook

Michigan State continues to defy the odds. How high will the Spartans go this year?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State continues to defy the odds in its astronomical rise to a national power.

The Spartans were underdogs in each of their past four bowl games and managed to win all four, per Maize n Brew writer Alex Kolodziej.

So, what kind of encore is in store for this year?

This week, we examine Michigan State in our Big Ten Football Preview season outlook series.

Key returnees

Heisman candidate and future NFL quarterback Connor Cook headlines Michigan State's returnees. 

Like a fine wine, the fifth-year senior has improved with age. Cook completed 212-of-365 passes for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns in 13 games last season. His passing yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and passer rating all improved from his sophomore year in one fewer game played.

If statistics don't impress you, this will: as a starter, Cook has quarterbacked Michigan State to a 23-3 record, two wins against Michigan and one against Ohio State, a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl championships.

Expect Michigan State's aerial assault to continue with Cook under center. As it stands, he's going to finish his career as the best quarterback in team history.

Senior Macgarrett Kings Jr. is Michigan State's leading returning receiver. He caught 29 passes for 404 yards and a touchdown in 13 games last season.

Redshirt junior Josiah Price will also be a force in the passing attack this season. Playing in all 13 games last season (six starts), he caught 26 passes for 374 yards and six touchdowns.

Donovan Clark and Kodi Kieler anchor a strong offensive line. A fifth-year senior, Clark started all 13 games last season, while Kieler logged eight starts as a third-year sophomore.

Brian Allen played well as a true freshman, earning first-team freshman All-American honors from Football Writers Association of America and Michigan State's athletic site reports Allen enters the preseason as the team's starting left guard.

Michigan State's offense has Cook; its defense has Shilique Calhoun.

The fifth-year senior earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second consecutive year after leading the Spartans with 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks last season.

Expect a big season from Calhoun, who, like Cook, will be NFL-bound soon.

Another talented defensive lineman is Malik McDowell, who played in all 13 of the Spartans' games as a true freshman. He totaled 15 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks last season. McDowell seems poised for a breakout at nose tackle.

Fifth-year senior RJ Williamson has big shoes to fill at defensive back — Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes departed for the NFL — but he posted a solid season in 2014. He finished third on the team with 59 tackles and second in interceptions with three.

The schedule

Sept. 4 at Western Michigan
Sept. 12 vs. Oregon
Sept. 19 vs. Air Force
Sept. 26 vs. Central Michigan
Oct. 3 vs. Purdue (Homecoming)
Oct. 10 at Rutgers
Oct. 17 at Michigan
Oct. 24 vs. Indiana
Nov. 7 at Nebraska
Nov. 14 vs. Maryland
Nov. 21 at Ohio State
Nov. 28 vs. Penn State

Michigan State's schedule is top heavy. It features a home contest vs. Oregon and road games at Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State. Penn State comes to East Lansing to round out the regular season.

The Spartans might be able to reach November with just a single loss. Or undefeated, even. The Week 2 matchup with Oregon is critical, one Michigan State could win.

Oct. 17 will be a big day throughout the Mitten State: Mark Dantonio battles Jim Harbaugh's Michigan for the first time.

Michigan State has more talent than Michigan, but this could be a trap game. Remember when Harbaugh's Stanford team toppled USC? That's what Oct. 17 could be.

Nebraska offers Michigan State a unique challenge. The Spartans were cruising with a solid lead against the Cornhuskers last year and nearly suffered a fourth-quarter collapse. There's a new regime at Nebraska which adds to the intrigue.

But the game the nation will be tuning in to is Michigan State-Ohio State. The past two Big Ten champions, a defending national champion, three Heisman-caliber quarterbacks battling in the Horseshoe; so many storylines. This game could decide the Big Ten, let alone its East division.

Michigan State could win only eight games in the regular season. It could win 10 games and head to a prestigious bowl. Or it could do well enough to make the College Football Playoff, and perhaps win it. Vegas has Michigan State's win total at 9.5.

All options are possible, although the second one seems the most realistic.