- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Record: 4-3, 1-2 Big Ten
No team in the Big Ten has been more disappointing than Michigan State this season.
The Spartans began the year in the Top 15 and were picked by many pundits, including both Big Ten bloggers, to win the league. Yet very little has gone as expected for Mark Dantonio's team in the first half of 2012.
We underestimated just how difficult it would be to replace three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins and the top three receivers from last year's Legends Division champions. Junior Andrew Maxwell and his green receivers have had a rough go of it in the passing game, and it says something that the team's most reliable wideout now appears to be a true freshman (Aaron Burbridge) who really didn't get involved until two weeks ago.
We also overestimated the improvements that a veteran offensive line would make. Injuries to starting tackle Fou Fonoti and starting center Travis Jackson have hurt, but this unit was supposed to have enough depth to overcome those kinds of setbacks. Instead, it has been average at best, another reason why Michigan State has scored just 35 total points in its three losses.
The defense was heavily hyped going into the year and has put up outstanding numbers, leading the conference in points and yards allowed and ranking No. 7 nationally. But in key situations, with the game on the line, that defense hasn't been able to come up with game-winning plays. That may be an unfair assessment, but the Spartans 'D' has to carry a heavy burden given the struggles of the offense.
Michigan State's schedule has been demanding, including games against No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 22 Boise State and Ohio State, which is ranked No. 7 in the AP poll. According to NCAA statistics, the Spartans have played the eighth-toughest schedule in the country. But it's also true that they have lost three times at home and scuffled against unranked teams Eastern Michigan and Iowa.
Things don't get any easier in the second half, with games coming up at Michigan, at Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern in the next four outings. If Michigan State doesn't experience a major turnaround, this season could go from disappointing to disastrous in a hurry.
Offensive MVP: Le'Veon Bell. There have been times this season where the junior running back was the entire offense. He has already had two 200-plus yard rushing days and his eight touchdowns are more than half of his team's season total. The Big Ten's leader in rushing yards already has 200 carries for the season, putting him on pace for 342 for the season. Good thing he's 244 pounds.
Defensive MVP: Max Bullough. It's hard to single out one guy on a defense full of veterans who are doing their jobs very well but not spectacularly. Defensive end William Gholston, outside linebacker Denicos Allen and cornerback Johnny Adams haven't quite lived up to preseason billing. That's why we'll hand the midseason award to the middle linebacker Bullough, who's the group's leader and steady hand. He leads the team with 58 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, adding one forced fumble.
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