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B1G 2015 // Michigan State Cocktail Party

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Flush with senior talent and a playoff-worthy schedule, MSU takes another crack at the big prize

If you don't engage the rusher's arms, your pass is gonna get dunked on
If you don't engage the rusher's arms, your pass is gonna get dunked on
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It's a lovely day on the links on this balmy fall afternoon. The annual office golf outing is a source of both great hope and anxiety. Hit a few decent tee shots, showcase a little microbrew knowledge, drop in a few well-timed jokes, and you're well on your way along the yellow brick road of career advancement. But the perils are legion. Duff your way into too many bunkers, ask for a Zima to douse your flop-sweat, or misjudge your coworkers' tolerance for racist humor (if you have to check for people of other races within earshot, keep the joke to yourself) and you become the object of water-cooler ridicule at best.

And now, the most delicate maneuver of the afternoon: face time with the boss. Follow him around for too long, and you'll appear too eager of a sycophant; keep your distance entirely, and you miss a prime opportunity for rapport-building. You make your approach, and...

Spartan helmet club cozies. White polo shirt with green Spartan emblem on the pocket. White visor with Rose Bowl Champions stitched across it. Golf tees and balls emblazoned with the block 'S.'

We've got a Spartan fan, it appears, you think astutely. Those tees must be old, the AD moved away from the block S brand-

"Ah, O'Callahanerson! Ready to tee off?"

The boss addressed you, albeit incorrectly. Say something. Say anything. Wait, no, not anyth-

"Of course, sir. Hey, did you hear the one about the imam, the rabbi, the Southern Baptist preacher, and the truckload of prostitutes?"

"Did I...what?"

ABORT ABORT ABORT say something else for God's sake why did you immediately reach for the most offensive joke you know in front of the man who signs your paycheck why did you not simply read OTE's B1G 2015, you could have steered any conversation towards B1G football which would have protected you from this imminent demotion to the mailroom

Your boss is still looking at you. He's still holding a beer in a Spartan helmet beer cozy.

You can still pull this off, future you, if you simply read on.

About Last Season

The Good News

Post-Rose Bowl hangover wasn't really a problem, as MSU followed up its breakthrough 2013 with 11 more wins. The season ended with a thrilling, come-from-behind victory in a New Years' Six Or Whatever We're Calling Them Cotton Bowl against Baylor. MSU retained all three trophies it played for, which naturally included another thumping of rather strongly disliked Michigan (miss you already, Brady) to make it 6 out of the last 7 for MSU in that series.

The Bad News

11 wins notwithstanding, the retooling defense struggled badly against the three elite up-tempo spread-ish offenses it faced in Oregon, Ohio State, and Baylor. Given the way those games were spread over the season, it didn't appear adjustments to cope were possible with the personnel on hand. 11 wins confirmed MSU isn't fading back into obscurity, but in 2 of the 3 opportunities to score big wins, MSU came up short.

On the Offensive Side of the Ball

The Good News

Connor Cook returns after a successful junior campaign running a considerably more wide-open offense. A strong campaign would make him the undisputed most-accomplished QB in school history, as well as a probable early-round selection in the NFL draft.

He has what should be a great offensive line in front of him, headlined by national award candidates in LT Jack Conklin and C Jack Allen. Conklin could be another unranked-recruit-to-first-rounder story for MSU next May if he continues his meteoric improvement. The depth developed on the line by Jim Bollman and Mark Staten, as compared to a few years ago, should once again be excellent in the inevitable event of injuries.

Josiah Price leads a potentially deep group of tight ends, and most importantly, fullback Trevon Pendleton has one more season of trucking dudes as a lead blocker.

The Bad News

In 2014, Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey accounted for 91 receptions, 1,693 receiving yards, and 14 TDs between them (Lippett generated most of that production). Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill represented 383 carries, 2,144 rushing yards, and 31 TDs on the ground. All four of those guys are gone now, three of them NFL draftees, leaving a huge production void at the skill positions.

The running back picture figures to be a play-by-ear thing. Presumptive starter Delton Williams was suspended for most of the offseason and taken off of scholarship due to an arrest on a gun charge, but does remain with the team; still, it's unclear what his role will be. Untested backups Gerald Holmes, Madre London, and incoming freshman L.J. Scott would all get some work even if Williams returns, but until Delton's status is clarified, it'll be hard to guess what the picture looks like at RB until kickoff. Scott is a tremendous talent, though, so it may be hard to keep a redshirt on him even with 3 more experienced backs ahead of him.

The receiving picture is a little clearer and is dominated by seniors. Aaron Burbridge, MacGarrett Kings Jr., A.J. Troup, and DeAnthony Arnett, along with juniors R.J. Shelton and Monty Madaris, probably represent the bulk of the receiving options, but none of them has occupied a role as large as Lippett did last year. Someone's got to become a #1 option on the outside for this offense to reprise last year's form.

On the Defensive Side of the Ball

The Good News

Up front, things should be salty. The Spartans' third potential first-rounder, DE Shilique Calhoun, headlines a defensive line with a great mix of veterans and talented younger players; 3 seniors will start on the front, but sophomore Malik McDowell and a wave of redshirt freshmen should provide constant pressure even if the frontliners need a break.

The linebackers should be pretty good as well. Senior Ed Davis returns as a run-stopping, pass-rushing dynamo at the SAM (7 sacks in 2014), junior Riley Bullough should provide an athletic upgrade as the apparent starter in the middle, and senior Darien Harris returns at the coverage-heavy STAR.

The Bad News

A storyline which doesn't appear to be getting its due is former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's departure for a head coaching job. Former assistants Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett are now co-coordinators (more on that and the new staff addition in tomorrow's Personnel Files), and MSU fans will finally find out how much of the defense was Narduzzi's creation and how much was Dantonio's influence. But assuming that the defense won't miss a beat without Narduzzi is a potentially dangerous thing to think.

MSU's secondary, and in particular the cornerbacks, need a lot of offseason work. Trae Waynes' NFL exit and Darian Hicks' late-season benching leave the future of the position unclear, though there's no shortage of candidates. Despite losing Kurtis Drummond, the safety spots appear stable with R.J. Williamson and Montae Nicholson as presumed starters; improved play from the safeties in coverage against slot receivers will be vital against the Ducks and Buckeyes. For MSU to achieve all of its goals, the entire back seven has to be better both before and after the snap against elite offenses.

On Special Teams

The Good News

Primary return men MacGarrett Kings Jr. (punts) and R.J. Shelton (kicks) are both back, as well as placekicker Michael Geiger. Geiger had accuracy problems, even on makeable attempts, as a sophomore after a brilliant freshman year. His true ability probably lies somewhere between those two seasons.

The Bad News

Four-year stalwart starter, Twitter luminary, and presumed 2016 Nobel Prize for Economics winner Mike Sadler moves on. New punter Jake Hartbarger was well-regarded as a recruit, but he's coming off a redshirt, so who knows what he's actually capable of.

On the Schedule

Date Opponent
9/4/2015 at Western Michigan
9/12/2015 Oregon
9/19/2015 Air Force
9/26/2015 Central Michigan
10/3/2015 Purdue
10/10/2015 at Rutgers
10/17/2015 at Michigan
10/24/2015 Indiana
11/7/2015 at Nebraska
11/14/2015 Maryland
11/21/2015 at Ohio State
11/28/2015 Penn State

The Good News

The early-season rematch against Oregon, with a new-look defensive secondary and coaching staff, is at home. The rest of the noncon should offer enough of a challenge to sort out what this team will look like without offering any real upset threats, though a triple-option team is always worth keeping an eye on and Western Michigan has piled up impressive talent for a MAC team. Still, outside of Oregon, MSU should be strongly favored in all of its home games.

The Bad News

The three conference games which figure to be the toughest are all on the road- @Mich, @Neb, @OSU. That last one, in particular, should have a very high-stakes feel to it.

If You're Talking to a Michigan State Fan, Don't Mention:

Marcus Mariota, South Bend officiating, safeties in deep coverage, basketball recruiting's underhandedness, another fluff story about Jim Harbaugh, Duke

Do Mention:

Dantonio turning scruffy, unwanted high schoolers into NFL standouts, Tom Izzo and his Final Fours, #RoseBowl, 6 of 7, Paul Bunyan's permanent residence in East Lansing, Tony Lippett's outstanding warrant for kicker murder

B1G 2015: Michigan State Week

MONDAY - Cocktail Party Preview

TUESDAY - Personnel Files/Smartest Guys in the Room

WEDNESDAY - Michigan State Potluck

THURSDAY - Wildcard

FRIDAY - Hate or Get Real