- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Week 3: Sept. 15 at Michigan State (at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.)
Time/TV: 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Series: Notre Dame leads all-time, 46-28-1
2011 record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten; first place, Legends Division)
Head coach: Mark Dantonio (44-22, five years)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2
QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR Keshawn Martin, WR B.J. Cunningham, TE Brian Linthicum, DT Jerel Worthy, S Trenton Robinson
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Le'Veon Bell* (948 yards)
Passing: Kirk Cousins (3,316 yards)
Receiving: B.J. Cunningham (1,306 yards)
Tackles: Max Bullough* (89)
Sacks: Denicos Allen* (11)
Interceptions: Isaiah Lewis* and Trenton Robinson (4)
Three questions for ... Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg:
Their in-state rivals seem to be generating most of the hype this summer, but the Spartans bring back an awful lot from a division-title team last year. Is Michigan State the team to beat in the Big Ten?
Adam Rittenberg: I believe so. Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin enter the season as the potential favorites, but I like Michigan State because of its defense, which I believe to be the single best unit in the Big Ten right now. Despite losing standout tackle Jerel Worthy, the Spartans return a lot of talent. They're headlined by defensive end William Gholston, a bona fide All-America candidate who ended last season with a breakout performance in the Outback Bowl. Junior linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen also return, and the secondary could be the strongest part of the unit. Michigan State was a top 10 defense last year, and even in its loss to Notre Dame, it held the Irish offense mostly in check.
The bigger questions marks come on offense, as almost every valuable skill player departs.
How good is Andrew Maxwell, and, perhaps more importantly, can he be the kind of leader that Kirk Cousins was?
AR: Some are saying Cousins is the greatest quarterback in team history, so Maxwell certainly has some big shoes to fill. The good thing is he has had time to prepare for this role. This isn't a true freshman being thrown to the wolves. Maxwell has been Cousins' backup the past two seasons and has a lot of similar personality traits to his predecessor. The coaches really like what they've seen from him in practices and scrimmages, but he certainly needs to prove himself in the spotlight. He missed the second half of spring ball with a knee injury but is back to full strength. It's really important he builds chemistry with a new look receiving corps that includes Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett.
Maxwell's role is important, but Michigan State undoubtedly will be much more of a run-first team in 2012. An offensive line that struggled at times last season returns almost fully intact, and junior running back Le'Veon Ball also is back in the fold. Bell has the potential to be a superstar, and he'll see his carries load increase.
What's the ceiling on this defense, which returns eight starters and plenty of more young talent?
AR: This defense can be at least as good as it was last season, if not better. Sure, Worthy is a big loss, but defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said Worthy and Anthony Rashad White, who returns, were virtually interchangeable at the end of last season. If several young players step up on the D-line, Michigan State should be strong there. The secondary appears to be the defense's strength, and cornerback Johnny Adams, a likely high draft pick next April, leads the way. There's also a lot of excitement about Bullough and Allen at linebacker. Michigan State will have to lean on its defense, particularly early in the season with so many changes on offense, but the unit looks ready to answer the bell.