|Michigan State's 2013 schedule|
The Big Ten title game is Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.
Can Alabama make a run at a third straight national title? Can Ohio State replicate last year's 12-0 campaign? Can Oregon maintain its standard of success under new leadership? With the college football season approaching, Sports Illustrated unveils its preseason Top 25.
The case for
The defense will be good, and it has the potential to be dominant. Six starters return from a unit that ranked first in the Big Ten in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense and scoring defense, led by hard-hitting linebacker Max Bullough and ball-hawking cornerback Darqueze Dennard (three interceptions). After limiting opponents to 16.3 points per game in 2012, the group's focus is now on creating takeaways -- and scoring defensive touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the offense has four starters returning on the line, plus its two leading receivers, Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery. Michigan State lost five games by a combined 13 points last year. Even slight improvement could push the Spartans to the top of the league.
The case against
The offense faltered in key moments last season -- and that was before it lost workhorse running back Le'Veon Bell to the NFL. Linebacker turned tailback Riley Bullough and an untested crop of freshmen will be asked to replace Bell's rushing production, which will be critical if senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell struggles again. Maxwell completed only 52.5 percent of his attempts last year, connecting on just 42.7 percent over the final four games.
Outside a trip to Notre Dame on Sept. 21, the Spartans' early slate seems manageable. That changes in November. Michigan State hosts Michigan and visits Nebraska and Northwestern in what will likely be a season-defining three-game stretch. Each of those teams beat Dantonio's squad in 2012.
91: The number of combined career starts Michigan State brings back on the offensive line, a total bolstered by the return of veterans Dan France, Fou Fonoti, Travis Jackson and Blake Treadwell. Fonoti (foot), Jackson (leg) and Treadwell (tibia) all missed significant time to injury last season.
CB Trae Waynes: Waynes filled in for injured Johnny Adams in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and tallied three tackles and half a sack in a 17-16 win over TCU. The sophomore impressed throughout the spring and enters this fall as a presumed starter.
Freshman to watch
RB Gerald Holmes: Converted running back Bullough is expected to handle a bulk of the backfield responsibilities, but incoming freshmen Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams should vie for early playing time. Holmes is the biggest of the three at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, and if history is any indication, Dantonio isn't afraid to put his trust in a young back. Bell, Edwin Baker and Larry Caper all saw significant action during their respective first-year campaigns. "I think that if there's one place a true freshman can probably play the fastest it is at running back," said Dantonio.
WR Aaron Burbridge: Though Fowler and Mumphery are more experienced wideouts, Burbridge boasts the highest upside of any member of Michigan State's receiving corps. The 6-1, 195-pounder showed flashes of his potential last year -- he reeled in eight catches for 134 yards in a win over Indiana -- and is poised to become an integral part of the Spartans' aerial attack. "He's shown how explosive he can be," said Dantonio. "He's shown how good of hands he can have. If he can bring that consistently to work every single day, then we're looking for him to be a big player for us this year."
2013 stat projections (By RotoWire.com)
QB Andrew Maxwell: 2,500 passing yards, 16 TDs; -75 rushing yards
RB Jeremy Langford: 725 rushing yards, 6 TDs; 70 receiving yards
WR Aaron Burbridge: 650 receiving yards, 6 TDs; 25 rushing yards
Coach speak: Mark Dantonio
SI: You finished fourth in the nation in total defense last year. What can you do to improve in 2013?
MD: The defense played spectacular, but what we have to be able to do is close out games, to play better in two-minute situations.
SI: How can the offense be more effective?
MD: The bottom line is we have to score touchdowns more often. I think we ended up kicking 32 field goals. It wasn't the fact that we weren't in the red zone. We got down there, but we need to score touchdowns.
SI: Quarterback Andrew Maxwell struggled as the starter. What does he bring to the table this fall?
MD: Andrew brings experience in game-time situations, which is so valuable. He's got great knowledge of our offense, and he understands who our guys are.
SI: Does the team think about all those close losses?
MD: There's no question we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. I think that when you look at us, we won four very close games and we lost five very close games. So we have to find the inches. And we have to understand that the inches count.