SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #4 Michigan State

The college football staff at SQ have put together a ranking of the top-25 teams heading into 2015. To get our readers prepared for the upcoming season, the staff has created a preview for each one of these teams. Baylor came in at #5, but today’s focus is on #4 Michigan State.

Team: Michigan State Spartans

Location: East Lansing, Michigan

SQ Ranking: 4th

2014 Record: 11-2

Finish in AP Poll: 5th

Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (9th Year)

Key Arrivals: RB LJ Scott, WR Darrell Stewart, DB David Dowell, LB Andrew Dowell

Key Departures: DB Kurtis Drummond, LB Taiwan Jones, WR Tony Lippett, RB Jeremy Langford

Previewing the Spartan Offense: Losing a top wide receiver in Tony Lippett and top rusher in Jeremy Langford is tough, but the Spartans are still loaded on offense. 

Senior quarterback Connor Cook looks to avenge the two losses in last year's schedule –Oregon and Ohio State – by taking the Spartans into playoff territory. Cook managed to pass for over 3,000 yards last season, while firing 24 touchdowns on eight interceptions. For Cook, there is also the added pressure of being on the NFL Draft radar. Ten years ago, this might've not been the case, but with the likes of Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins being products out of East Lansing, eyes will be on Cook to succeed – especially in the big games against the Ducks and Buckeyes. 

Cook will be one of the best quarterbacks in college football this season.

While the quarterback position is extremely solid, the rushing game will need to find a hero. Red-shirt freshman Madre London is projected to lead the Spartans ground game, but that could change if highly touted recruit LJ Scott shines. Throw in sophomore Gerald Holmes, and you have competition. One of these three will become a breakout rusher. Scott has the most upside, and expect him to get some cracks in the early going. If he shines bright with the carries he's given, don't be surprised if Scott becomes the starting rusher by the time Big Ten play heats up.

Unlike the rushing game that relies on one standout, the receiving game has multiple weapons. However, nobody returning will match the production of Tony Lippett. Last season, Lippett led the team with 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns. The top returning receiver (in terms of receiving yards) is senior Macgarrett Kings, who brought in 404 yards and one touchdown. If this team was like most programs, I would say that the passing game is a lost hope. However, with someone like Cook at the helm, this receiving core will prove solid enough to put up points. Freshman Darrell Stewart will get some receptions, as coach Dantonio will see if Stewart is the next Lippett. 

The Spartans might have one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten. The front five returns intact, including senior Jack Allen, who picked up third team All-American honors last year. If the frontline gives adequate support, then the rushing game should have no problem being destructive. This helps the inexperience depth at the running back position. On top of that, it gives Cook a wall of protection, which will make him one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.

Previewing the Spartan Defense: Like the offense, the Spartan defense returns seven starters. Just like the offense, the Spartans will be without a couple of their best players from last year.

As Drummond and Jones have moved on, the Spartan defense will need to fill the void left by their top two tacklers, respectively.

Senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun will be one of the leaders on defense, and leads a premier defensive line in the process. Senior defensive tackle Joel Heath adds to the experience at the line. If everyone stays healthy, the Spartan defense will continue to be a strong spot, and one of the biggest reasons why the Spartans can be a real playoff contender come late November. 

Moving away from the line, there is still plenty of experience on the field. At free safety, senior RJ Williamson is tasked with shutting down the passing game. Of the returning starters, Williamson is team's leader in tackles (59), and expect that number to be around the same this year as teams will avoid his side of the field. 

Pat Narduzzi has created a monstrous defensive unit at Michigan State.

Linebacking is still strong for Michigan State. Senior Darien Harris and senior Ed Davis highlight a core that can do damage this year. Behind Williamson, Davis and Harris round out the top three Spartans in returning tackles. 

Overall, it's a solid defense that might be better than last year's squad. It's a close call, as some new members will begin to fill the void left by the stars from last season. Either way, the defense is another strong suit for the Spartans. As noted before: defense wins championships. That will be an important saying, as the Spartans will strong showings from both their offense and defense in their 'three key games'. 

Three Key Games

1. Ohio State vs. Michigan State (Nov.21)

Whoever walks out of this game with the win might as well be crowned Big Ten Conference champion. For the Spartans, this game has playoff implications written all over it. An interesting scenario to thing about: what if the Spartans are undefeated entering this game, lose by less than a touchdown to the Buckeyes and end the season with just that loss? Are they still in the playoff hunt? I say 'yes'. Michigan State has the best chance to follow the Alabama track for a championship appearance – by backing into the title game. If the BCS put the Crimson Tide in a title game when they didn't win the SEC, and shut Michigan out in 2006 for a rematch with Ohio State, you can make a strong case why the Spartans should get another shot at the Buckeyes in the playoffs. That is, only if the Buckeyes are the Spartans only loss. 

On the other side, if the Spartans win in Columbus, they have the inside track for the Big Ten title, and very well will sit in a top two position in the playoff ranking. 

Nick Saban coached a Spartans team that rolled into Columbus and defeated a top ranked Buckeye team.

2. Michigan State vs. Oregon (Sept. 12)

This is where we find out how good the Spartans are. Oregon has no Mariota, and will travel to East Lansing; it's a must win for Michigan State. Also, if Cook wanted to jump into the Heisman conversation, having a great game would put him in the early consideration pool. This game has the potential to be close, so expect Dantonio to be typical Dantonio, and take some risks to win. 

If the Spartans win this game, they are well on their way to a collision course with Ohio State on Nov. 21...

3. Michigan vs. Michigan State (Oct. 17)

...but brother Michigan stands in the way. New coach Jim Harbaugh will have his squad ready to take on the Spartans. With this game being in Ann Arbor, all bets are off. Michigan State has pummeled the Wolverines in the past two years, so look for redemption to be on Michigan's mind.  

Michigan is the only roadblock for the Spartans after Oregon, and before Ohio State. This test will be perfect to gauge what the Spartans are excelling at, and what they are still struggling with.

Final Analysis

The endgame for Michigan State is totally dependent on what happens between Oregon and Ohio State – and what happens to the SEC in late November. If chaos is reining supreme, then Michigan State could sneak into the playoffs. If the season is normal, then the Spartans will need to go a minimum 11-1 in the regular season to even have a playoff shot.

With that being said, the Spartans should go 11-1 this season, at a minimum. Between Oregon, Ohio State and Michigan, the Spartans will at least win two of those. The big question mark is what will come out of the Ohio State game. The picture will become more clear as Nov. 21 approaches, but for now, it's the game of the year for the Big Ten.

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