No. 52 Michigan State
The last time Michigan State won three games in a season, they averaged 5.9 wins over the next seven years. This time the Spartans are trying to rebound from not only a disappointing three-win campaign that featured the largest win drop in the FBS (nine) but also a tumultuous offseason included arrests, sexual assault charges, dismissals and other departures.
Still, they have a few talented playmakers, young defensive line, and a senior leader at linebacker.
2016 Record: 3-9 (1-8, Big Ten)
The fall was hard and fast. No one saw it coming — not even Michigan fans, whose wildest dreams fell short of one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory.
The writing may have been on the wall when they needed a fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull away from Furman in their season opener. However, the Spartans have routinely struggled with inferior non-conference foes under Dantonio and when they won a thriller at Notre Dame a week later, everything appeared good and well.
Then the wheels fell off in a blowout loss to Wisconsin and they never came back on. Most of the defeats were close — three one-score losses and six by 14 or fewer points — but it didn't matter. Michigan State went from 12-3 and the College Football Playoff to 3-9.
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (11th year, 90-42 overall)
One year after winning his third Big Ten championship in the last six seasons, Mark Dantonio endured his worst season as a head coach or assistant coach at any level. He then compiled the No. 7 2017 recruiting class in the Big Ten, their worst-ranked class since 2011, and trudged through a roster-demolishing offseason.
In mid-December he rattled off 15 things that went wrong — among them injuries, turnover margin and red zone scoring — and vowed to fix the program.
"This will be fixed," he said. "We have young players. We have good football players on this football team. We got people we can identify as playmakers on this team. We just gotta grow. Growth took place last year, and it'll continue to take place."
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Brian Lewerke, RB LJ Scott, WR Trishton Jackson, WR Felton Davis III, WR Darrell Stewart, OT Cole Chewins, C Brian Allen
Michigan State lost nine starters from an offense that ranked 104th nationally in scoring (24.1 points per game) and stumbled through last-season losses to Ohio State and Penn State with poor play-calling and on-field execution.
LJ Scott is back at running back after finishing his sophomore season strong. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry, became a legitimate receiving threat (10 catches for 147 yards) and turned it on in the second half, recording four 100-yard efforts in their final six games. He had 19 carries for 160 yards in a near-upset of the Buckeyes on Nov. 19.
His backfield mate will be sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke, who played decent in two mid-season starts. A 6-foot-3, 213-pounder, he is good runner who should help an offense that lacked creativity and reliability.
"I feel like I've grown into a leadership position," Lewerke said. "I've grown in the quarterback position well, too. I feel like it's going pretty well."
Their top four targets are gone, leaving junior Felton Davis III and sophomores Trishton Jackson and Darrell Stewart Jr. as Lewerke's top options. They had 20 combined catches in 2016. Center Brian Allen and tackle Cole Chewins lead an offensive line that could give snaps to as many as five underclassmen.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Raequan Williams, DT Mike Panasiuk, DE Demetrius Cooper, LB Chris Frey, LB Andrew Dowell,
The Spartans went from a plus-14 turnover margin in 2015 to minus-five in 2016. The offense must protect the ball — obviously — but their defense also needs to ramp up the pressure. No player topped seven tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions or one forced fumble.
The defensive line is young but promising. Sophomore defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk were dominant at times as freshman. The biggest wild card up front is senior end Demetrius Cooper, whose status is pending after legal issues this spring. Cooper (below) has 13.5 tackles for loss the last two years.
Senior linebacker Chris Frey is the leader and has spent a lot of time this offseason changing the mentality of the team. He led the team with 96 tackles.
"They wanted us to be a more player-led team," senior linebacker Chris Frey said of their offseason leadership development that focused on shifting more responsibility from the coaches to players.
They don't return a single defensive back who had more than two passes defended.
Notable Player Losses
QB Tyler O'Connor, WR R.J. Shelton, WR Donnie Corley, DT Malik McDowell, LB Riley Bullough, CB Darian Hicks, S Montae Nicholson, S Demetrious Cox
Michigan State's nine-win decline was particularly shocking given how many seniors returned in 2016. Now they're all gone, along with a bunch of others who transferred or were dismissed.
Tyler O'Connor graduated after a so-so senior campaign — his only as starter — as did leading receiver R.J. Shelton. Second-leading receiver Donnie Corley was kicked off the team this spring.
Defensively, they were gashed at all three levels, namely by the departures of tackle Malik McDowell, linebacker Riley Bullough and safety Montae Nicholson. McDowell and Nicholson were selected in the second and fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, respectively.
Notable Player Additions
WR Cam Chambers, WR Hunter Rison, OT Luke Campbell, G Kevin Jarvis, DT Naquan Jones
Per usual, Mark Dantonio didn't infuse their roster with a parade of JUCO or FBS transfers. Instead, they'll use nearly a dozen true and redshirt freshmen, including two that could start Week 1. Cam Chambers was a four-star receiver in their 2016 class who redshirted last year, while tackle Luke Campbell did the same as a three-star signee from Ohio.
Rison, Jarvis and Jones will also compete for two-deep spots in August.
The Spartans then hit the road for six of their final nine games, a stretch that includes back-to-back road games vs. Michigan and Minnesota and a home game vs. Penn State followed by a trip to Ohio State.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Bowling Green|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Western Michigan|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Notre Dame|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Iowa|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Michigan|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at Minnesota|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Indiana|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Northwestern|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Penn State|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Ohio State|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Maryland|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Rutgers|