NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
This is no ordinary tuneup for Michigan State.
The eighth-ranked Spartans open the season Friday night against Jacksonville State of the Ohio Valley Conference, but the Gamecocks are hardly pushovers.
They reached the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision last year and are only a few seasons removed from a road win over a Southeastern Conference team. Their 49-48 victory at Mississippi in 2010 still resonates.
“That’s a very well-coached team that we’re playing,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Defensively you don’t really know because it’s the first game out the gate, but you can see from an offensive standpoint they’re very well tied together, their structuring concepts are excellent, and they’re challenging. They’re going to spread you out.”
Coming off its Rose Bowl victory a season ago, Michigan State now boasts its highest preseason Associated Press ranking since 1967. There’s talk that the Spartans could make it to the four-team playoff that will determine the national champion — and already their matchup at Oregon next week is drawing lots of attention.
That makes this opener a bit intriguing. Like Oregon, Jacksonville State tries to push the tempo offensively. The Gamecocks averaged 442.5 yards a season ago.
So they should provide at least a bit of a test for a Michigan State defense that was among the nation’s best last season.
“It is an honor for our football team to play on that stage and travel there and get to play,” Jacksonville State coach John Grass said.
“We are excited about it and excited just to get the season started. We get to see where we are as a team against a team that people are predicting to be in the national championship.”
Here are a few things to watch when the Spartans host the Gamecocks:
REPLACING STARS: Michigan State lost linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen from its stellar defense, along with defensive backs Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. The Spartans will need to move on without those standouts, but defensive end Shilique Calhoun returns, and linebacker Taiwan Jones and safety Kurtis Drummond — both seniors — could have big seasons ahead.
ON THE GROUND: Michigan State was particularly tough against the run for most of last season, so it will be interesting to see if Jacksonville State can have any success with DaMarcus James, who set an OVC record last year with 29 rushing touchdowns.
COOK IS READY: Connor Cook wasn’t even Michigan State’s undisputed starter at this point last year, but he eventually settled in at quarterback and finished with 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions. His experience means the Spartans could be significantly improved on offense this year.
“I think that our offense grew immensely from Game 1 last year through Game 14, and I think what we’ve done offensively, we’ve had a very strong spring,” Dantonio said. “I think we have a lot of weapons. I think we had a lot of weapons going into last year, but now what we have I think is a lot of confidence, and I think that bears out in terms of how we’re playing and our skill level.”
EXPECTATIONS: Michigan State’s uncertainty at quarterback — and general offensive malaise — at the beginning of last season meant the Spartans didn’t look like bona fide Rose Bowl contenders until much later in the season. They won’t be able to sneak up on anyone in 2014, and it’ll be interesting to see how they handle the season opener in front of a hopeful crowd under the lights at Spartan Stadium.
SMOOTH TRANSITION: Grass took over the Gamecocks after Bill Clark left to take the coaching job at Alabama-Birmingham. There should be plenty of continuity, however. Grass was Jacksonville State’s offensive coordinator last year, and the school hopes to continue building an impressive tradition. The Gamecocks have 11 straight winning seasons — among FCS teams, only Montana State (12) and Harvard (13) have longer streaks.
Jacksonville State is No. 6 in the FCS in The Sports Network poll, the highest preseason ranking in the program’s Division I history.
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