In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 12 Michigan State
Michigan State has the talent to win the toughest division in college football and make the College Football Playoff for the second time in four years. If this team stays healthy — particularly a defense that's thin in a couple areas — and their offensive efficiency improves even slightly, the Spartans can do it again.
2017 Record: 10-3 (7-2, Big Ten)
Michigan State rebounded from the disastrous three-win 2016 season with their sixth double-digit-win season since 2010. They beat Michigan for the eighth time in their last 10 meetings, beat Penn State and were a triple-overtime loss to Northwestern from their second eight-win conference season in program history.
Blowout losses to Notre Dame to Ohio State stung but it was a highly successful season for the Spartans.
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (12th Year, 100-45)
Michigan State's win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl was the 100th win for Mark Dantonio as head coach. He's nine wins away from the program's all-time wins leader, Duffy Daughtery.
A January report on widespread accusations of sexual assault by Michigan State players didn't stop the school from giving Dantonio a contract extension in February.
WR Hunter Rison, WR Trishton Jackson, C Brian Allen, DT Kyonta Stallworth, LB Chris Frey, S Jalen Watts-Jackson
Three-year starting center Brian Allen was a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and 2016 leading tackler Chris Frey graduated.
Among a large group of winter and spring transfers were receivers Hunter Rison (Kansas State) and Trishton Jackson (Syracuse) and defensive tackle Kyonta Stallworth (Southern Illinois). Safety Jalen Watts-Jackson — the guy who scored the blocked touchdown vs. Michigan in 2015 — also left the program, though he opted to join the Air Force instead of continuing his football career.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Brian Lewerke, RB LJ Scott, WR Felton Davis III, WR Cody White, WR Darrell Stewart Jr., TE Matt Skol, OT Cole Chewins, G David Beedle, G Kevin Jarvis
Ten starters and several other key players return from an offense that was great on third downs (45 percent) and had a sack rate under 5 percent but failed to score 20 points in six games, averaged just 0.3 points per play (98th in the FBS) and whiffed on nearly 20 percent of their red-zone opportunities.
Those efficiency numbers should improve with the return of quarterback Brian Lewerke, who accounted for 25 touchdowns in his first year as the starter. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior was spectacular outside the pocket, rushing for five touchdowns and nearly 600 yards, but often struggled with footwork and accuracy.
"I noticed I kind of threw off balance a lot," Lewerke said after watching all his passing plays from last year, "so working on that and make sure I can be more accurate and that kind of comes with your feet too, so I'm just kind of working on that."
He completed less than 60 percent of his attempts in six games, including 50 percent or worst four times. Among those games was a bizarre 2-for-14 showing vs. Maryland the 18-for-36, zero-touchdown, two-interception performance in the blowout loss to Ohio State.
Their top five pass-catchers return, led by leading receiver Felton Davis III. He and Cody White were the only regulars to average more than 11 yards per reception last year and should have more opportunities after the offense focused on their downfield passing attack over the offseason.
LJ Scott is back at running back for an offense that averaged just four yards per attempt last year. He didn't have back-to-back 100-yard games and had 101 total yards vs. Iowa, Ohio State and Penn State. Losing center Brian Allen stings but the return of guards David Beedle and Kevin Jarvis should help Scott have a strong senior year
Returning Defensive Players
DE Kenny Willekes, DE Justice Alexander, DE Jacub Panasiuk, DT Mike Panasiuk, DT Raequan Williams, LB Joe Bachie, LB Andrew Dowell, CB Justin Layne, CB Josiah Scott, S Khari Willis, S David Dowell
After sharing the co-coordinator title with fellow longtime Dantonio assistant Harlon Barnett the last three years, Mike Tressel is now the sole coordinator following Barnett's departure for Florida State. Despite the staff changes, very little will change for the 4-3 base defense that was among the nation's best last year.
In 13 games, the Spartans allowed only 31 drives to reach the red zone (tied for sixth in the FBS). They were dominant on third downs (32.7 percent, down from 44.1 percent in 2016), forced 1.8 turnovers per game (1.1 in 2016) and allowed 0.32 points per play (0.43 in 2016).
While there are depth issues up front, the first-team defensive line is one of the best in the business. Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams anchor the middle, and Kenny Willekes is the top disruptor.
One issue: They need a more consistent pass rush. Willekes (below) was the only player with more than four sacks last year and they still had a sack rate of less than 6 percent. Justice Alexander or Jacub Panasiuk — both of whom were praised by the staff for their offseason work — could fill that role.
Linebackers will be fine with the return of the team's top two tacklers in Joe Bachie and Andrew Dowell. No concern there.
Same goes for a secondary laced with a near-perfect mix of size, speed, aggressiveness and reliability. Josiah Scott (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) started 12 games, giving him the most starts by a true freshman position player in Dantonio's 11 seasons, and Justin Layne (6-foot-3, 185 pounds), have the corners locked down.
RB La'Darius Jefferson, RB Elijah Collins, RB Weston Bridges, WR C.J. Hayes, S Xavier Henderson
LJ Scott is their unquestioned No. 1 running back and sophomore Connor Heyward should get most of the backup duties. Behind them are three freshmen, including a former high school dual-threat quarterback in La'Darius Jefferson from Muskegon, Mich.
Elsewhere, redshirt freshman receiver C.J. Hayes is a 6-foot-1, 206-pounder who played well in the spring game, and redshirt freshman safety Xavier Henderson should see time in nickel and dime formations.
Michigan State plays a non-conference road Power Five game (at Arizona State), has an early bye (Week 3) and plays six of their final nine games at home.
Obviously, the big ones are at Penn State, vs. Michigan and vs. Ohio State. Win two of those games and they might win the Big Ten East.
|Friday, Aug. 31||vs. Utah State|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||at Arizona State|
|Saturday, Sept. 22||at Indiana|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||vs. Central Michigan|
|Saturday, Oct. 6||vs. Northwestern|
|Saturday, Oct. 13||at Penn State|
|Saturday, Oct. 20||vs. Michigan|
|Saturday, Oct. 27||vs. Purdue|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||at Maryland|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||vs. Ohio State|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||at Nebraska|
|Saturday, Nov. 24||vs. Rutgers|