Coach Dantonio has enjoyed an abundance of in-state talent for his recruiting classes these last few seasons. Enter Jim Harbaugh with a...shall we say, high level of enthusiasm. What's Dantonio's plan for continuing to woo those in-state blue chip prospects toward the program with more success of late over the program that promises eventual success?
Oh, 'crootin. I think you hit the nail on the head in the question itself; Mark Dantonio has often referenced "selling results" instead of "selling hope" after consecutive Top-5 finishes. That's something that has to continue to play out on the field, as MSU doesn't have the historical strength that Regular Michigan* does. But at this point it seems foolish to expect that MSU and Dantonio would be anything other than highly competitive.
MSU has also upped their recruiting game in the rest of the midwest. For the 2016 class, the top prospect in both Illinois (Josh King) and Indiana (Auston Robertson) are MSU verbals. I think Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania will continue to be major recruiting areas for the program.
Sidenote: I've adopted calling U of M Regular Michigan after this article.
Harbaugh, like Dantonio, is extremely competitive and knows Michigan State well. Does it change the dynamic of the rivalry at all for how these two will try to one up one another?
Well, I'd certainly expect better than a lame stake in the field from Harbaugh! But seriously, I don't know. The Regular Michigan game will always be huge for MSU as a program and as a fanbase. And since Dantonio took over, I think it has been a little bigger for Regular Michigan fans as well. Ultimately, the biggest change Harbaugh could have with the rivalry is by making the Wolverines more competitive.
Connor Cook has become an outstanding QB in MSU's system. Do you expect that development to improve this year with the returning offensive starters? Which notable guys are coming back to help him continue to get better?
The transformation from the days in 2013 of four co-starting quarterbacks has been incredible. Connor Cook is truly a Heisman candidate (albeit fringe) and for good reason; he's been significantly more explosive and efficient even than Kirk Cousins had been. Cook still struggled at times last year with some basic stuff like footwork, and I expect that to improve with an additional offseason.
Gone are standouts Jeremy Langford, Tony Lippett, and Keith Mumphery. Despite these losses, significant experience returns with receivers R.J. Shelton, Macgarrett Kings (back from a spring suspension) and Aaron Burbridge as well as tight end Josiah Price. At running back there's a four-way competition between Junior Delton Williams (also back from suspension), Sophomore Gerald Holmes, redshirt frosh Madre London and true freshman L.J. Scott. As Dantonio himself said, "Our tailbacks will run for yardage." One or two of those guys will emerge at the beginning of the season.
Much to the delight of everyone in Ann Arbor, Coach Narduzzi has left to go coach Pitt. Will the defensive scheme change at all this season or does the returning personnel allow for some continuity?
Dantonio has suggested that the defense will "stay the course" with new co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett (formerly defensive backs coach) and Mike Tressel (nephew of Jim Tressel and former linebackers coach). In my opinion there needs to be some change to handle elite offensives, since MSU got shredded by Oregon, Ohio State, and Baylor last year. I don't think we'll know if that's happening until the Oregon game.
What's going to be MSU's strength this year: Cook's play, running game, defense, or something else?
I think the strength will be in the trenches on both sides of the ball. On the offensive side, five guys with starting experience return including potential first-round Left Tackle Jack Conklin and All-American Center Jack Allen. Allen's brother Brian Allen will also start along the interior, with Donovan Clark at right guard and Kodi Kieler at right tackle. Last year, MSU's offensive sack rate was 7th best in the nation last year, and I expect that to continue.
On the defensive side, defensive end Shilique Calhoun will get significant praise (and a shot in the NFL) but there's also significant depth with senior tackles Joel Heath, Damon Knox, and Lawrence Thomas, who has moved out to end (at 300 lbs!). There are legitimately eight different guys who would probably be starters elsewhere in the Big Ten.
MSU didn't pull a Baylor and whine about not being in the playoff last year (and promptly beat said Baylor team). Does Dantonio have the team to climb into one of those four spots this year?
To me it all depends on the defensive secondary and the adjustments made to handle elite quarterbacks. This defense was built to run on NFL corners like Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. Absent that type of talent, it could be difficult to stop the pass effectively without some adjustment to the defensive strategy anyways. But if guys who can do their best impressions of Waynes and Dennard do emerge, there still need to be some differences in the way this defense handles vertical pressure. If they can mitigate the effectiveness of Ohio State and Oregon (and to a lesser extent, Nebraska) then this team could run the table with Connor Cook running the offense.
First game on your schedule is a semi-home game against an up-and-coming Western Michigan team. What will you be looking for in that game to know what kind of season it's going to be for the Spartans?
As mentioned above, I'll be watching the secondary. There are probably five different guys vying for time at cornerback: Darian Hicks (who got toasted against Oregon and Ohio State last year), Demetrious Cox (a former safety), Arjen Colquhoun, Jermaine Edmondson, and Vayante Copeland. Whoever gets significant playing time will be the guys to see time against Oregon in week two.
Pick one: beating Michigan to tone down the Harbaugh chaos, or getting into the college football playoff.
It seems like beating Regular Michigan would be necessary for getting into the playoff. But if someone I could only choose one, you have to go with getting into the playoff - especially if that meant there would be a chance to play Michigan again.
Beer question: Two weeks and change to go. What local brews are getting you and the crew of TOC to that September 4th opening game?
This will probably surprise TOC readers, but I've been dry as of late. Personally I'm hoping for a return of Founder's Mosaic Promise; I enjoyed that at a number of tailgates.
Thanks, Joe! Follow him @Jobin2E