Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 15 Michigan State.
In 2015, Michigan State aced every challenge the Big Ten had to offer—Nebraska aside—earning itself a date with the Crimson Tide in the college football playoff. Making a return visit in 2016 will require an uptick in production from this year’s stars and a double dose of last season’s luck.
The Spartans advanced to the semifinal only to have their teeth kicked in by Calvin Ridley and Derrick Henry in a 38-0 blowout loss to Alabama. While it wasn’t the way they intended to go out, it’s hard to fault anyone for struggling against last year’s Crimson Tide defense. Prior to the loss, Michigan State proved itself to be amongst college football’s elite with close victories over Oregon, Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa. Hell, even if the Spartans would have gone 2-12 instead of 12-2, the season would have still been considered a success based solely on the single most exciting and unexpected play of the season:
Unfortunately, the Spartans couldn’t simply run around screaming, opting instead to pile their bodies on top of poor Jalen Watts-Jackson, whose hip was dislocated by Jake Butt’s tackle. The dogpile is a Bad Activity with no positive outcome after the initial jump, even following a truly amazing victory—unless your intended outcome looks like this, this, this, or this, don’t pile dogs.
Connor Cook, now concerned with backing up Derrick Carr in Oakland and keeping his dad away from social media, is gone; Tyler O’Connor is (still) here. The redshirt senior battled for the position of starting quarterback with junior Damion Terry and claimed the starting role last week. Going into the competition, O’Connor had the added benefit of being able to point to the 7-of-12, one-touchdown performance in last year’s upset win over Ohio State—he filled in for an injured Cook that game. Now, he takes the reins for a full season, or at least until head coach Mark Dantonio opts to pull him in favor of Terry, should September go poorly.
Providing O’Connor with a bit of relief will be three Michigan State running backs: LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London. Scott and London are both sophomores; Holmes is a junior. But class won’t mean much when it comes to who receives the most carries—although all three compiled 100-plus carries in 2015, Scott stood out as the team’s go-to back. The then-true freshman was responsible for one of the toughest 1-yard runs of the 2015 season, a resilient twisting effort for the go-ahead score against the then-No. 4 Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten title game. In total, six different Iowa players got a crack at downing Scott before he extended his right arm, football in-hand, to break the plane. The victory propelled the Spartans to the college football playoff and cemented LJ Scott as a the team’s closer.
Senior Kodi Kieler made the move from tackle to center, replacing the departed Jack Allen. Fellow senior Michael Machado and David Beedle will line up at the tackles, while Brian Allen and Benny McGowan take over at guard. The offensive line, much like the team’s defensive line, has a lot to make up for after losing a stellar class that boasted two All-Americans, but this collection, if it fits together on the field, has the ability to provide O’Connor the necessary time to air the ball out to Michigan State’s age-diverse receiver group.
Aaron Burbridge, named the Big Ten’s receiver of the year in 2015, is currently working for a spot on the San Francisco 49ers, leaving the Spartans with a considerable hole to fill out wide. R.J. Shelton will step be the No. 1 option at season’s open; the senior is coming off a 43-catch season and figures to provide some consistency at the position. Sophomore Felton Davis and freshman Donnie Corley represent the abundant youth in the unit, and should be O’Connor’s two next best options, not including senior tight end Josiah Price.
Up front on the defense, Malik McDowell, arguably the most outstanding returning starter Michigan State will have at its disposal, is also the only returning starter on the defensive line. The Spartans lost two starters to the NFL, then dropped four more players expected to step up in some fashion through the course of the off-season to transfer and retirement. Raequan Williams is now poised to line up next to McDowell at tackle, while Demetrius Cooper and Evan Jones inherit the roles of starting defensive ends.
Spring and summer were much kinder to the Spartan second level, as the team returns a deep crew at linebacker, with senior Riley Bullough leading the way in the middle. Bullough will be flanked by junior Jon Reschke and sophomore Andrew Dowell. Also back is sixth-year player Ed Davis, who is coming off a major knee injury but has proven himself capable of starting in the past, as well as Chris Frey; the pair will likely see playing time throughout the year off the bench.
Behind them will be Demetrious Cox and the Michigan State secondary, comprised in full by fellow starters Darian Hicks, Vayante Copeland, and Montae Nicholson. The Spartans struggled to slow people down through the air last year, allowing 233.9 yards and an average of 1.43 scores per game. The group they have back is largely made up of returning starters—Copeland is replacing Arjen Colquhoun—and given their talent, they should do better this year.
Malik McDowell is a bad man, and the 6-foot-6, 275 pound nose tackle is ready to prove it to NFL teams. After spending his sophomore campaign racking up 13 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and an interception return for touchdown, McDowell is back for his junior season, one in which he will be the outright star on the Michigan State defense. He gets incredible push off the snap and plays well with his hands while maintaining an arsenal full of spin moves and rushes that have left quite a few quarterbacks aching on Sundays last season. In addition to being a guard-eating terror on the field, McDowell knows what kind of talent he possesses; his supreme confidence has led to some lofty goals—he told media members he won’t leave East Lansing at the conclusion of the 2016 season if he is not projected to be a top-3 pick in next year’s draft.
This is legitimately tough to answer. The Spartans are set at running back and linebacker and are potentially good to go at offensive line; past that, there are a few question marks that lead me to lean toward saying Michigan State is likely not heading back to the semifinal this postseason.
The remaining position groups—receiver, defensive line, secondary, quarterback—all come with unproven players who need to continue the good, sometimes great, work completed by their predecessors. While the linebacker core is sound, the defensive line has to pressure the quarterback and help out its pass coverage, which ranged from mediocre to pretty good last year. On offense, O’Connor has the previously mentioned benefit of having downed the Buckeyes, but one game does not a season make. Non-conference clashes against Notre Dame and BYU will be dangerous but useful tests early in the season. Schedule-wise, the Spartans luck out this year by scoring both Michigan and Ohio State at home.
For now, Michigan State needs to hone in on the Sept. 17 clash in South Bend. While an early season loss against a top-10 team won’t necessarily throw them out of the running, it requires consistency through conference play, so coming away with a win would be huge down the line. Given the new faces and challenging schedule, getting back to the playoff is not impossible for this team, but for the time being, let’s agree to call it improbable. The meeting with the Irish will help determine just how long those odds are, though if Dantonio’s squads have taught us anything these past four years, it’s to expect the most out of the squad from East Lansing.
To my knowledge, Mark Dantonio is not a dick (prove me wrong in the comments)—but this man loves himself a good hype circle, and he’ll be damned if Heather Cox and her questions are going to hold him back from jumping in place and screaming vowels with his team. “Don’t flinch,” were his last words, for some reason.
Sept. 2: Furman
Sept. 17: @ Notre Dame
Sept. 24: Wisconsin
Oct. 1: @ Indiana
Oct. 8: BYU
Oct. 15: Northwestern
Oct. 22: @ Maryland
Oct. 29: Michigan
Nov. 5: @ Illinois
Nov. 12: Rutgers
Nov. 19: Ohio State
Nov. 26: @ Penn State