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Thursday, August 14, 2014
Best case/worst case: Michigan State

By Adam Rittenberg

Our best- and worst-case series continues its school-by-school journey through the Big Ten.

Remember, these are not predictions. They outline potential peaks and valleys and give us an opportunity, before we get down to the business of the season, to have a little fun. Don't take these too seriously (although many of you will).

Up next is a team that couldn't have envisioned a much better case than what happened last season: the Michigan State Spartans.

Best case

Sparty on! This time, all the way to JerryWorld. Michigan State continues its remarkable ascent under Mark Dantonio and reaches college football's apex.

The run begins in Week 2 at deafening Autzen Stadium, which quickly grows silent as the Spartan Dawgs make fois gras out of the home team. Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond both intercept Marcus Mariota in the first half, and Connor Cook is the best quarterback on the field, shredding Oregon's defense for three touchdown passes. Sparty steals The Duck's motorcycle and pops wheelies around the field afterward.

Four weeks later, MSU opens Big Ten play the way it left off in 2013: With a double-digit win. The defense holds Ameer Abdullah to 27 rush yards on 27 carries and Jack Conklin makes sure Randy Gregory gets nowhere near Cook. Punter Mike Sadler scores on a fake punt that Dantonio nicknames "Cat in the Hat," while sneering at Bo Pelini.

Three weeks later, the Spartans are back at home to face rival Michigan, which brings a 7-0 record to East Lansing. The Wolverines leave at 7-1, blown out yet again by Dantonio's crew, which once again holds Michigan to a negative rushing total. Malik McDowell records three sacks. Brady Hoke ends the game wearing long sleeves and a headset.

In the much-anticipated rematch against Ohio State under the lights, MSU delivers another gem. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi coaches the entire game from the sideline as the Spartans sack Braxton Miller six times. It's a big night for MSU's Ohioans: Cook, Marcus Rush, Drummond in a 24-13 win. Afterward, Urban Meyer finds a few cold pizzas at his locker.

MSU goes on to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, as Sadler executes a textbook flop in crunch time, drawing a penalty on Wisconsin and allowing the Spartans to run out the clock. It's a perfect regular season and offensive lineman Travis Jackson leads the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd in the "Yes! Yes!" chant.

The Spartans return to the Rose Bowl and beat Florida State before advancing to face Alabama in the national title game. It's Dantonio versus Nick Saban, his old boss at MSU. Cook rallies the offense in the closing minutes and the Spartans win 21-20. The national title is theirs.

Dantonio signs a lifetime contract. Narduzzi turns down three Big Ten head-coaching jobs to remain at MSU. Michigan drops its final five games. Cook and Shilique Calhoun return for their senior seasons.

Worst case

Same old Spartans? That phrase should be retired, but Michigan State once again crumbles under the weight of expectations.

Things go badly in Eugene as Oregon easily covers the spread and shreds Michigan State's defense. The concerns about losing Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are magnified as Mariota completes 23 of 25 passes for 385 yards and four touchdowns. The Duck runs over Sparty's foot.

Nebraska pulls off its second straight win at Spartan Stadium, thanks again to a controversial penalty call, this time on Waynes. The Huskers snuff out a Spartans fake and cash in for six, and Abdullah scores the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.

After a narrow win at Purdue, Michigan State falls behind early at Indiana, like it did in 2012. This time, the Spartans can't rally as a Cook interception seals a shocking loss. The pain worsens the following week as undefeated Michigan beats up the Spartans at the line of scrimmage, drawing four unnecessary roughness penalties in a 10-point win. A skywriter spells "Big Blue, still Big Bro" above Spartan Stadium.

The misery continues the following week as Miller dissects a defense that looks nothing like its typical form. Meyer slams on the gas in the fourth quarter and Ohio State wins by 17. Cook throws three picks.

After two less-than impressive wins against the Big Ten newcomers, MSU flat-lines in Happy Valley, falling 17-3 to Penn State. That same day, Ohio State and Michigan meet at Ohio Stadium in a matchup of the only remaining major-conference undefeated teams.

At 6-6, Michigan State heads to the Dallas area for a bowl game and falls to Marshall. Narduzzi turns down head-coaching jobs in the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 for the gig at Rutgers, ensuring he'll face MSU every season in the East Division.

Calhoun goes pro. McDowell transfers. Ohio State and Michigan both make the college football playoff. My downstairs neighbor, Tim, burns all his Spartans gear. Wrestler Daniel Bryan sues Jackson for copyright. Michigan students shave off Sparty's eyebrows.