By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – When Ohio State lost quarterback Braxton Miller for the season, many deemed Michigan State as the new favorite in the Big Ten Conference. Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio will not dismiss the Buckeyes that easily.
“It’s too bad,” Dantonio said last week following the team’s final preseason camp practice. “It’s tough. Tough deal. But I will say this – [we] played without [All-America linebacker] Max Bullough in the Rose Bowl, so usually when those things happen, people rise up around them, everybody becomes a little bit better, and what becomes a negative becomes a strength later on.”
As strong as Ohio State may still turn out to be, Michigan State – winner of the aforementioned Rose Bowl and the Big Ten championship game last season – also looks poised for another banner year.
Dantonio has built a culture of success, with the program logging 11 wins or more in three of the last four seasons. The Spartans have also won three straight bowl games.
Outside expectations for the Spartans are high, with ESPN the Magazine ranking Michigan State seventh in the nation and Sports Illustrated ranking the Spartans sixth. The players do not seem daunted, however, because they expect as much or more.
Not surprisingly, that starts with Dantonio, who declined to speak too glowingly about how the team looked at the end of preseason camp.
“I’m always looking for more,” Dantonio said. “Really, I am. I’m always looking for a little bit more … We look for guys who aren’t making mental mistakes, we look for a little bit more effort, we look for a little bit more control when you’re playing out of control, we look for a little bit more focus. I think that’s just the nature of what we do; you can always get better. We’re not there yet. We’re looking forward to next week.”
Currently ranked eighth nationally in the Associated Press poll, the Spartans begin their season with a home game against Jacksonville State, but their second non-conference game will be one of great interest across the country. Michigan State will play at No. 3 Oregon before returning to East Lansing to face a more ordinary non-Big Ten opponent in Eastern Michigan.
If Michigan State can upset the Ducks, the Spartans may be an early favorite for the four-team playoff, because other than the trip to Eugene, the Spartans have a rather favorable schedule this season. They play No. 22 Nebraska, in-state rival Michigan and No. 5 Ohio State in East Lansing.
Michigan State returns key players from 2013 in each phase of the game, and ESPN’s preseason Big Ten team includes seven of them. The number of Spartans on the list is more than double the number of players from any other school.
Admittedly in light of Braxton Miller’s injury, ESPN listed Spartans quarterback Connor Cook, who as a sophomore threw for 2,755 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions on his way to MVP honors in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl. Center Jack Allen also made the list. Also included were defensive end Shilique Calhoun, cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond. Michigan State’s special teams was represented by kicker Michael Geiger and punter Mike Sadler.
Though Allen will anchor the offensive line, some offseason injuries could make that unit a bit of a question mark. The Spartans lost reserve guard Zach Higgins for the season in the spring, and Dantonio has said that right guard Connor Kruse may or may not be back by the Oregon game. A shuffle on the line has ensued, meaning the continuity there might not be quite what it was at the end of last season.
Dantonio has called Jeremy Langford the clear starter at running back, but he said there could still be “or”s on the depth chart at wide receiver and tight end. Michigan State’s defense has been so solid that its offense is an afterthought for most fans, but what will likely continue to elevate the Spartans are the men on the sidelines – Dantonio and his staff.
As an opposing coach told Sports Illustrated, “The most important thing about Michigan State is that they really play hard. That’s good coaching.”
That element should give the Spartans an edge in every game this season, and in combination with the team’s experienced talent, it seems the high expectations are warranted. As always, time will tell.