Am I going out on a limb here predicting the Spartans to get back into the B1G Championship Game? I don’t believe so, despite so many national pundits predicting UM or Nebraska to win the Legends Division.
The problem that occurs when prognosticators list their favorites, is they simply list a team they feel is the best and move on. I don’t feel that is the case with the Legends Division this season and there are a few things that do need to go the Spartans way to end up back in the Championship Game, but I think it is possible.
Reasons to believe:
1.) MSU has a very favorable schedule: Michigan State has only 2 small tests in their first 8 games, @ Notre Dame, who lost Everett Golson as their starting quarterback and that challenge became much easier once that spring shocker became a reality. The other is @ Iowa, a team MSU has had trouble with recently but should not have any issues beating them this season.
The big challenge comes vs. UM, @ Nebraska and @ Northwestern. If MSU can win 2 of those games, (home vs. UM and @ NW seemed to be the most likely) then more or less, they will have wrapped up the division.
There you have it, most of MSU’s entire season comes down to a 3 game stretch that has a bye week in the middle of it for extra preparation. It does not seem too far fetched that the Spartans can reach the Championship Game based on their schedule.
2.) MSU has a top 5 Nationally Defense. This is not news. Pat Narduzzi has built a blitzing, hitting, crazy and effective defense in his 7 years on staff under Mark Dantonio. The only way this year is different from last year is if it gets better. The level of talent in the secondary is unmatched in the B1G and possibly the nation and they keep getting better. Their Linebackers are as experienced and talented as you will find in the conference, led by Max Bullough who is looking to play his way into a high round draft choice next year.
The perceived weakness, which may just be the least talented part, has a third year starter and all Big Ten player, Marcus Rush, at one DE and a talented Sophomore, Shalique Calhoun, at the other. At DT, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas will make you forget how dominant Jerel Worthy was in 2011.
Thomas was a 5 star LB recruit from Detroit that bulked up to over 300 pounds during his first year on campus but still had enough agility to play fullback last season. Moving a 6’6″ 305 pound freak athlete with a LB training to DT will cause all sorts of match up issues for opponents and change the perception that the Defensive Line is the least talented group on Defense.
3.) MSU now has experience at WR and QB. Last year, the worry was that the inexperience of the WRs and QB would be an issue. It was. Now, despite so many inconsistencies last season, these two groups will be productive enough to turn those 1 possession losses into wins. Andrew Maxwell has a big arm and will produce this year and Bennie Fowler, DeAnthony Arnett, AJ Sims & Aaron Burbridge will provide much more value and be bigger threats to make plays this year.
4.) The RBs are better than you think. There is no questioning that Le’Veon Bell leaving early left a gaping hole at RB on this team. But, with the blazing speed of Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford and the bullish running of Riley Bullough and Gerald Holmes, this team can match together a hot hand and running style similar to 2010 in Bell’s Freshman year when Bell and Edwin Baker had over 100 carries each with Larry Caper pitching in as well.
5.) Continuity in coaching staff and the leadership from Dantonio will push them in tough moments and games. There is no mistaking that a coach being at one university for 7 years helps in many ways, including recruiting. But, a coach and the majority of his coaching staff being the same during 7 years helps build trust and confidence in his players and that transfers to the field as well.
Mark Dantonio has shown his trust in his players during his time at MSU, including some exciting last second wins and come backs, the BWW Bowl win over TCU, the Outback Bowl win over Georgia, the Hail Mary against Wisconsin, the Little Giants play against Notre Dame, the comeback at Northwestern in 2010 are great examples.
Those wins and that belief in his players will help this team come back from a disappointing 2012 season.
Less than 10 wins from this team should be considered a disappointment. The schedule is in their favor and they are an experienced, senior heavy team that has experienced success and disappointment and know how to win.
This Friday night the predictions become moot, the season begins against Western Michigan and the road to the B1G Championship Game begins. Its not going to be a cake walk but, for the above reasons, this team should expect to win the final year of the Legends Division.