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B1G 2016: Michigan State Spartans Cocktail Party Preview

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/John Cena theme plays

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

MSU came into the 2015 season after yet another offseason of smug media assertions that the window had closed. Urbz had hoisted the first-ever Georgia O'Keefe Trophy. Jim Harbaugh descended from Heaven (I always hear such nice things about the Bay Area) and led Michigan to several dozen national championships of his own, or so one would conclude listening to Detroit sports radio. James Franklin...probably recruited some guys, I don't know, do we still talk about Penn State as a dominant program?

It was a nice run for MSU, but definitely time to #scraptheprogram and bow before the undeniable superiority of our betters.

Or! Or...

About Last Year

The Good News

The Spartans came up with several years' worth of colossal moments in critical games. They opened the year with a thrilling win over an Oregon team which promptly failed to hold up its end of the bargain and remain good. They thunderstruck Jim Harbaugh's first Michigan team with a blocked/fumbled punt return for the ages. They fenced in a defending national champion Buckeye roster stacked with future pros in the Horseshoe and then stuck the landing, complete with arm windmills. And LJ Scott summitted ANFapurna to let the air out of the West Division champ and lock up MSU's second B1G title in three years.

Connor Cook justified his preseason hype, piling up stats and showing a penchant for the back-breaking throw into tiny windows in high-pressure moments, even if the screen pass continued to elude him. Oh, and apparently we care about a quarterback being a nice guy now, so that was a thing on draft day. Aaron Burbridge became the latest Spartan wideout to emerge from obscurity into stardom, and Jack Conklin solidified himself as the conference's best lineman en route to a top 10 NFL selection.

The run defense was stout, Malik McDowell has lived up to his 5-star billing, and the linebacker play was generally quite good even with an All-Conference talent in Ed Davis shelved for the year with injury.

The Bad News

Injuries on the offensive line caused constant disruption in the run game, and given the talent and experience in that group, the unit never dominated the way one might have expected. Cook's unresolved footwork and accuracy on short, theoretically easy throws removed what should have been elemental constraints, like screens, from the playbook. Overall, though, it was hard to fault the offense, even if they couldn't match 2014's record-setting output.

The defense, especially in the backfield, was reamed by injuries as well, and it showed, as the pass defense gave up numerous big plays to the few teams on the schedule equipped to test them deep.

For a season which was great on paper, there were a lot of close calls and unnecessarily tight escapes against inferior competition, as the defense and special teams each struggled in turn at times. Injuries caused some of those issues, and everything finally added up in an infuriating loss to a thoroughly middling Nebraska team.

And...yep, that's the only bad thing that happened, definitely. What about New Years Eve? I had a fine time with cherished friends, why, did something else happen that night, I certainly don't recall any such thing.

About the Offense

The Good News

A running back group that showed some serious potential at times returns entirely intact, led by sophomore-to-be LJ Scott. I expect good things from complement Gerald Holmes, whose running style reminds me a bit of Marion Barber III, and Madre London can be way more than a change of pace type. Brian Allen is the natural successor to lead the offensive line, and the tight end combo of Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles should offer solid play both in-line and down the field. With some experience departing on the flanks, it's also a good time for what could be MSU's best receiving class ever to show up on campus.

The Bad News

Cook, the 3-year starting QB and first multiple-time winner of the B1GCCG MVP, is off to the NFL, and both the receiver and offensive line groups lose multiple standouts as well. Oddly enough, QB may be the unit of the three where MSU is best off, as senior-to-be Tyler O'Connor got some big-game experience standing in for Cook last year. But the OL group will need some career backups or young players to assert themselves, and the receiver group will likely need input from some freshmen.

About the Defense

The Good News

The linebacker group should be great even without Darien Harris, as Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke lead a group that (hopefully) welcomes back Ed Davis for a 6th year. Essentially the entire depth chart in the secondary minus Arjen Colquhoun returns, and they almost can't help but be better. Up front, Malik McDowell will command double-teams every snap he plays, presumably before an early draft entry and possible first-round selection.

The Bad News

Truthfully, a unit that was rather vulnerable and fortunate to avoid playing many potent passing attacks loses a number of its best players. The line in particular suffered a serious talent drain due to graduation and dismissals, and will need its touted incoming freshmen class to be ready to go right away. Bullough and Reschke were great against the run, but sometimes showed vulnerability against the pass.

And the secondary? Yes, they were very injured. Yes, they therefore had to play guys who weren't ready. And as a result, they were often very bad. But the likes of Demetrious Cox, Darian Hicks, and Montae Nicholson aren't kids anymore, and there's no excuses left to offer: they have to be better.

About the Special Teams

The Good News

Whatever the shortcomings on these units over the course of the season, they certainly came up aces when it counted most. Rangers, the all-11 punt block call against Michigan, is the obvious signature play of the season, arguably across all of college football. No less important was Michael Geiger draining the game-winner in Columbus as time expired. Therefore, because of 2 enormous special teams plays, MSU won two games that they led for zero combined seconds. Hard to complain about that, all things considered.

Of those units, Geiger is back for his senior season, punter Jake Hartbarger also returns, and kick-returner RJ Shelton has one more year, as well.

The Bad News

Moving past the highlight reel plays, MSU's special teams really struggled at times in both coverage and kicking. Geiger missed a string of field goals through the middle of the season that might have put a couple close games away quicker; Hartbarger struggled so badly at not outkicking his coverage that backup QB Tyler O'Connor took a few punts in the middle of the season as well. And, as big as the coverage unit came up as time expired, one can easily argue that the only reason Michigan was in a position to win that game to begin with was because of the atrocious special teams erasing MSU's advantages from scrimmage.

Who They Got? (Note: Predictions Discussion to Occur Later This Week)

vs Furman, Friday, Sept. 2, 7:00, BTN

BYE

@ Notre Dame, Saturday, Sept. 17, 7:30, NBC

vs Wisconsin, Saturday, Sept. 24, TBA

@ Indiana, Saturday, Oct. 1, 8:00, BTN

vs BYU, Saturday, Oct 8, TBA

vs Northwestern, Saturday, Oct. 15, 3:30

@ Maryland, Saturday, Oct. 22, 7:30, BTN

vs Michigan, Saturday, Oct 29, TBA

@ Illinois, Saturday, Nov. 5, TBA

vs Rootjars, Saturday, Nov. 12, TBA

vs Ohio State, Saturday, Nov. 19, TBA

@ Penn State, Saturday, Nov. 26, TBA

Talking to a Michigan State fan? DO Mention...

Rangers, Michael Geiger Infinite Arm Windmills, LJ Scott reaching over the goal line, two B1G titles in 3 years, finally getting an offensive lineman drafted, the MSU Dairy Store product's superiority over your school's rancid froth, the continued presence of Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo, the incoming basketball class

DON'T Mention...

Illegal catches made after leaving the field of play under your own power, the 2016 NCAA basketball tournament, Deyonta Davis' unfortunate draft night, the fact that Dantonio and Izzo probably won't coach forever, the baseball team getting jipped out of a tourney spot again. Hm? Alabama? Why do you keep bringing them up, we haven't played them in years?

The champs are here, everybody. Genuflect appropriately, for the failure to show appropriate respect only makes us stronger.