Way-too-early 2016 look: Michigan State
Who: Michigan State
Coach: Mark Dantonio (10th season, 87-33)
2015 record: 12-2 (7-1 in B1G)
Biggest losses: Connor Cook, QB; Shilique Calhoun, DE; Jack Conklin, OT
Biggest returners: Riley Bullough, LB; Malik McDowell, DT; L.J. Scott, RB
2016 recruiting class ranking (247sports): No. 14 (4th in B1G)
Top rated 2016 recruit: Four-star defensive end Josh King
2016 strength: Linebackers
Assuming Ed Davis is granted his sixth year of eligibility, this unit will return three guys that could wind up on All-B1G teams. Davis’ return would help in replacing Darien Harris, who was one of the more underrated defenders in the conference. Even if for some crazy reason Davis doesn’t get that sixth year, the Spartans still have leading tackler Riley Bullough back. The second-team All-B1G selection is the epitome of a player all great defenses have to have in the middle of it.
His emergence was a major reason why the Spartans were one of the top units in the country in the last month of the regular season. He’ll allow Jon Reschke to do what he does best, which is get after the quarterback. That trio should not only be one of the B1G’s best, but they should be one of the nation’s best as well. They’ll need to be the backbone of this group after losing the likes of Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas from the defensive line.
2016 weakness: Passing Game
That just feels weird to type. Mark Dantonio has made a living on churning out NFL quarterbacks and developing them in his system. Without MSU all-time wins leader Connor Cook, the offense is obviously going to have a much different look. There will be a quarterback battle between Tyler O’Connor and Darion Terry. The offense will look very different if Terry gets the nod. He would give the Spartans a dual threat option, but he’s more of a runner than a passer.
O’Connor will always be remembered for leading the Spartans to a victory in Columbus. But he’s never had to beat a team with his arm. Both guys are more mobile than Cook, so it’ll be interesting to see how that effects MSU’s play-calling. Considering the Spartans lose three key offensive linemen and their All-B1G receiver, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the passing game take a back seat, especially with what the Spartans return in the backfield.
Way-too-early 2016 projection: 9-3 (7-2 in B1G)
The toughest teams to project are the ones with major turnover. If there was ever a team with an unfair way-too-early projection, it’s Michigan State. Part of that is personnel-based. We have no idea how MSU will adjust to major turnover on both the offensive and defensive lines. We don’t know who will start at quarterback or what kind of talent they possess. And two of MSU’s toughest three opponents (Notre Dame and Ohio State) are dealing with a major transition phase themselves. The Spartans don’t have a very forgiving schedule. BYU is no slouch, and neither are the two B1G West teams they’ll face that won double-digit games last year. MSU does benefit from hosting both Michigan and Ohio State. Once again, that could ultimately determine whether or not MSU makes it back to Indy.