You find yourself at the sort of late-summer barbecue/work party that makes you remember why you endure Midwestern winters. It's probably in one of the nicer Detroit or Chicago suburbs. That guy you can't stand from the Grand Rapids office won't shut up about wanting to throw down in bocce ball, so you drown him out with a gallon or so of Oberon, which gives you an excuse to escape him in search of the bathroom. While wandering the house, you come across it: Little Sparta.
Framed pictures of the '88 and '14 Rose Bowls, and of your boss shaking hands with Tom Izzo. A signed Mateen Cleaves jersey. A Sparty doll standing watch over the desk. Kyler Elsworth stuffing Ryan Hewitt on the computer's background. And your boss, the Spartan he is, rummaging through his (or her, but let's be real, probably his) liquor cabinet, hears you come in and straightens up to see you eyeballing the swag.
"Ah, McJimmers!" he says jovially (your name is not McJimmers, but this is life for you at the firm right now). "I see you've found my little smoking room. Wouldn't happen to be a Spartan fan, would you?"
Opportunity knocks. Make a splash here and you'll be ditching work for Friday afternoon tee times with the partners in no time. Here's what you need to know.
But seriously, it went better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Coming off a tepid 2012 and a halting start to 2013, Connor Cook took over at QB, the offense un-trainwrecked itself, and the galaxy-swallowing defense strangled one opponent after another en route to the first 9-0 conference season in B1G history, with all nine wins coming by at least ten points. Highlights included the program's first win over Nebraska and a domination of Michigan to make it five wins in the last six Battles for the Paul Bunyan Trophy en route to Indianapolis and Pasadena.
It wasn't exactly Florida State's wire-to-wire dominance, but a generally steady upward trajectory put MSU in position to turn in its two best games in its two biggest opportunities: the B1GCCG against Ohio State and the Rose Bowl against Stanford. It took seven years, but Mark Dantonio finally led Spartan Nation out of the wilderness and back to the promised land- and, in a twist for a B1G team, actually won there.
The first thing you'll notice is a whole lot of dudes are coming back. Going into his redshirt junior season, QB Connor Cook will have all of his targets except Bennie Fowler back, as well as the full complement of backs, led by last year's surprise 1,400-yard runner, Jeremy Langford. Fowler's redzone proficiency will need to be replaced, but there's no shortage of options, and the experience returning will rival the standout 2011 group. Senior-to-be Tony Lippett went from being utterly stone-handed in 2012 to a clutch 3rd down option in 2013, so if anyone's going to have a B.J. Cunningham type of year, my money's on him. TE Josiah Price could press for all-conference recognition if he continues on the trajectory of improvement he was on over the second half of 2013, and FB Trevon Pendleton has two more years on campus as my favorite dumptruck-like object.
The one concerning area would be the offensive line, where LG Blake Treadwell, RG Dan France, and RT Fou Fonoti must be replaced. However, Walrusball guru Jim Bollman made a point to rotate eight offensive linemen last season, so there's plenty of experience coming back, as well as some promising youngsters like Kodi Kieler pushing for PT. OT Jack Conklin and G/C Jack Allen will be starters; after that, trying to figure out who of the 6 or 7 candidates ends up starting and where is a total crapshoot. Overall, it's not unreasonable to expect similar, good-but-not-exceptional play once the top group sorts itself out.
Last year's defense represented the ultimate confluence of talent, experience, and scheme, and the results were nothing short of stellar. However, a lot of bodies need replacing, as 6 starters and 2 significant reserves graduated, a Jim Thorpe winner and four 3-year starters among them. Thus, the general expectation is for a step back, at least at first.
Currently, Ed Davis looks like a safe bet to replace Denicos Allen at WLB. Taiwan Jones has slid over from SLB to MLB for his senior year, with Darien Harris taking his old spot. R.J. Williamson will probably end up taking Isaiah Lewis' SS spot. Darian Hicks and Arjen Colquhoun are jockeying for Darqueze Dennard's CB spot. The DT spots are a little more up in the air, but expect Joel Heath, James Kittredge, Damon Knox, and potentially a freshman or two to rotate in there.
The one thing all those new names have in common? None of them, other than Hicks the true sophomore, is younger than a redshirt junior.
Overall, I believe this group could eventually end up being better than last year's, because at almost every position, there are more impressive athletes on the field. It's all a matter of how quickly they can pick up the scheme, but because many of these guys played substantial reserve snaps last season, I'm optimistic about the learning curve going forward. Still, it's hard to imagine this group being as good as last year from the word go, and an Oregon team helmed by Marcus Mariota will likely provide a baptism by fire in week 2.
Brave New Division
Having won two of the three Legends division titles that were ever and will ever be awarded, MSU must now adjust to life with the bluebloods of the East Division. Whether this program can evolve into the sort of household name that OSU, PSU, and UM are remains to be seen, but for the moment, the target is squarely on the Spartans' back. It'll be interesting to see how they function as the hunted, as this program has not historically handled success at all well. MSU has been ranked in the preseason top 15 six times before, and all six times ended the season unranked. A top offseason storyline has been whether they can handle the combination of pressure and success. But the good news is the arrival of MSU week means we're getting so, so close to finding out.
P.S.- I'm not a new writer, I just ditched the screen name in favor of my real one. I'm keeping the picture though, since it's basically what I look like at 26 anyway. Law school was rough, man.