Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2018: 12. Michigan State Spartans

12. Michigan State Spartans

Last year's big leap showed the upside of this roster, particularly with a capable QB leading the way

Brian Lewerke & Mark Dantonio

Offense: After a brutal 2016 that was a major reason for the Spartans stunning 3-9 collapse, Michigan State's offense improved mightily over the course of the 2017 campaign. The Spartans once again leaned heavily on their power run attack, but the improvement of quarterback Brian Lewerke, who missed most of '16, was the guiding force behind the improvement.

Lewerke may not be at the level of former MSU quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins or Connor Cook, but the junior signal-caller showed an excellent command of the offense last season, finishing with 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns. Lewerke is a very efficient quarterback that doesn't turn the ball over, with pretty nimble feet, giving this backfield a variance it hasn't had in some time. If he can improve throwing the ball deep down the field, this is a legitimate All-Big Ten QB.

A familiar face by now in East Lansing, senior L.J. Scott returns as the Spartans' workhorse back. Scott has proven to be a pretty consistent weapon for head coach Mark Dantonio, but hasn't really been able to take the big step forward in his career, never rushing for over 1,000 yards (898 last year). He will be used a lot, but Michigan State is still hoping a quality change of pace option emerges. Sophomore Connor Heyward had just three carries in 2017, but rumors are the MSU staff is very excited about him and he has the lineage, being the son of former NFL standout Craig Heyward.

Senior Felton Davis cemented himself as Lewerke's top option in the passing game last year, and it should be much the same in 2018. Davis is still prone to drops, but there is no denying the senior's ability to make plays, and it really feels like he has the talent to become one of the conference's best wide outs. Sophomores Cody White and Cam Chambers both should be expected to see larger roles, with White really having some moments last season (490 yards, four touchdowns). At tight end, the steady Matt Sokol is back for his final year. Sokol is best as a blocker, but he has proven he can get out there and make plays as a weapon in the passing attack, managing 21 receptions a year ago.

Up front, Michigan State has a good amount of experience and talent returning. Junior left tackle Cole Chewins has established himself as a rock-solid piece on the perimeter, while senior guard David Beedle is an important leader. There are high expectations for sophomore RT Jordan Reid and sophomore center Matt Allen. Reid looked really good in flashes last year and should start, while Allen is slated to fill in for his departed brother, Brian.

For a long time under Dantonio, the Spartans have utilized a plodding, relatively unexciting offense to stay alive in the Big Ten. However, with the talent and versatility back in this particular group, we will likely see MSU attack in different ways and try new things. There is a good chance this could be the most best overall group Dantonio has had in East Lansing.

Defense: Even with the offense set to be very good, it is still likely Michigan State will be defensive-minded. Coordinator Mike Tressel had the country's 19th best scoring defense last season, and the defense now returns nine starters.

The defensive line doesn't have any big stars, but this is a unit filled with quality Big Ten talent that go out and compete every week. Junior defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk and junior end Raequan Williams are physical, aggressive defenders that are key to the Spartans' rush defense. Another junior, Kenny Willekes may be the team's best pass rusher, with seven sacks a season ago.

Dantonio and staff do a great job developing linebacker talent, and there are some who believe junior middle linebacker Joe Bachie is the best Dantonio has ever had. Bachie had 100 tackles last season, showing an incredible mind for the game, along with top notching closing speed. Senior outside linebacker Andrew Dowell returns, coming off a year where he was second (only behind Bachie) on the team in tackles. Senior Byron Bullough is the younger brother of former MSU greats Max and Riley, and has proven himself as an important reserve.

The secondary will not be a problem at all, as all four starters return to a unit that allowed 202.3 YPG through the air in 2017, 37th nationally. Cornerbacks Josiah Scott and Justin Layne are proven commodities in the rigorous Big Ten, particularly the physical Scott, who had nine pass breakups in '17. Safety is in good hands, with senior Khari Willis back at strong and junior David Dowell at free. Dowell is already an established interception machine, racking up five last season, but all word out of Michigan State camp is that he has gotten much better in other aspects of his game this off-season. Depth is not a concern for this group either, as quality defenders like Tyson Smith and Josh Butler are returning as well.

Michigan State's defense was incredibly strong all last season, finishing seventh in total defense. There is a reasonable chance it could be even better in 2018, with so much experience and depth back at every position group. As long as this team avoids injury and the veterans play well, this defense will be absolutely terrifying for opponents.

Special Teams: Special teams should also be considered a strength for the Spartans heading into 2018, as kicker Matt Coghlin and punter Jake Hartbarger both return. Coghlin was 15 for 19 on field goals last season and should only get better with more experience, while Hartbarger has a huge leg. 

Mark Dantonio silenced all critics last season when Michigan State jumped from three wins to ten, including a 7-2 mark in the Big Ten. This team should be even better, but there are some interesting challenges facing them. Chief among them is the fact the Spartans have to deal with the rest of the Big Ten East, the best division in football. Despite them being a fringe Top 10 team, I still have them finishing fourth in the division. The schedule is just tough overall, which includes a tough non-conference trip to Arizona State in early September. Yet, the upside of this team is immense, if Brian Lewerke can take a next step. If he does, the offense could be perhaps the best it has ever been under Dantonio, and the defense looks stacked. Things will be tough in the East, but I wouldn't rule out a Big Ten title and Playoff berth just yet for MSU, considering all the pieces returning to East Lansing.

Team Projections
Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: QB Brian Lewerke
Defensive MVP: LB Joe Bachie
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Connor Heyward

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.