If the old adage “defense wins championships” always held true, then Michigan State would be a top team in most preseason polls. But they'll still have to play offense, and it might not be a good thing that the Spartans' success this season will hinge on how the unit moves the ball.
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Coach Mark Dantonio (69-45 overall, 51-28 at Michigan State)
2012 record: 7-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten
Key returnees: QB Andrew Maxwell, WR Keith Mumphery, WR Bennie Fowler, WR Tony Lippett, WR Aaron Burbridge, RB Riley Bullough, OL Travis Jackson, CB Darqueze Dennard, LB Max Bullough, LB Denicos Allen
Newcomer to watch: Running back Riley Bullough. The redshirt freshman converted linebacker can be considered a true newcomer because this is his first season at the position. The Spartans are looking for someone to step into the big shoes Bell left, and Bullough has seemed to rise to the occasion throughout fall camp.
Biggest games in 2013: at Notre Dame (Sept. 21), at Iowa (Oct. 5), vs. Michigan (Nov. 2), at Nebraska (Nov. 16), at Northwestern (Nov. 23)
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Will the offense really be able to get it going? Maxwell remains the biggest question mark. Dantonio pulled Maxwell during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last season and put in Connor Cook. The same could happen this season as the two battle it out trying to find consistency in the offense and chemistry with wide receivers. Bullough should help, but neither he nor junior Nick Hill has ever been a featured back in an offense. Running back by committee could be the Spartans’ best bet.
Forecast: The Spartan defense will be stout, even without Gholston. It returns most starters and Max Bullough is ready to lead. It’s the offense that will struggle to find its identity, which happens to most teams when they don’t have a starting quarterback who has consistently proven himself. This season, Michigan State might head into the fall with that part still unanswered. The Spartans return multiple wide receiver threats, so Maxwell should have some kind of chemistry there, but how long his leash will be remains to be seen, and Cook could be thrown into the fire relatively quickly.
The schedule does set up the Spartans to play their best football later in the season. The front half of their conference schedule isn’t too bad. The Spartans should be better than the Hawkeyes, but playing at Iowa is never easy. Indiana and Purdue at home, as well as a road game against Illinois, should provide ample confidence building as the Spartans face a tougher three-game stretch in November. They’ll host in-state rival Michigan before hitting the road for Nebraska and Northwestern, which could be a true contest this season, unlike in most. Minnesota at home should be a fine way to close out, especially considering that will be the week that fellow Legends team Michigan faces a tough competitor in Ohio State, possibly with both teams vying for a spot in the Big Ten championship game the following weekend.