Spartans have a lot to replace in bid for Big Ten repeat
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Since the start of the 2010 season, Michigan State is 56-10 with Kirk Cousins or Connor Cook starting at quarterback - and 9-6 with anybody else.
Cook was the most recent star throwing passes for the Spartans, and now they'll have to prove they can excel without him.
Michigan State took another big step forward as a program last year, winning the Big Ten and playing in college football's four-team playoff. Coach Mark Dantonio's team has now won the conference twice in the past three seasons, and the Spartans have made it clear they shouldn't be taken lightly even when they have to deal with significant personnel losses.
Quarterback, though, is no ordinary position.
''We've got to put our team in good positions and avoid the very bad situations,'' said Tyler O'Connor, the fifth-year senior who appears to be the heir apparent to Cook. ''Things are never going to be perfect - that's kind of something that's very well-known at the quarterback position - so as long as we avoid those very bad plays and plays that could beat us, I think we'll be OK. But at the same time, we're going to be asked to make plays that will win the game as well.''
O'Connor and Damion Terry were listed together atop the preseason depth chart, but O'Connor seems to have the inside track to start. He's only started one game in his Michigan State career, but it was an important one - he and Terry both played last year when the Spartans won at Ohio State with Cook injured.
Dantonio is entering his 10th season at the helm at Michigan State, and the Spartans have won at least 11 games in five of the last six. The one comparative down year (2012) came after Cousins left and before Cook established himself. That season now seems like an aberration, but 2016 should be an interesting test.
''I think you need to be consistent,'' Dantonio said. ''What we want to do is win a championship, then the next thing we want to do is prove ourselves to be consistent winners. I think we're doing that.''
Michigan State pulled off a memorable sweep of Michigan and Ohio State last year, beating both on the road on the final play of the game. The Spartans get the Wolverines (Oct. 29) and Buckeyes (Nov. 19) at home this season. Michigan State also plays at Notre Dame on Sept. 17.
Michigan State returns three players who ran for at least 500 yards last season, but the bigger question may be how much blocking they'll get. The offensive line lost three starters, including standouts Jack Conklin and Jack Allen.
The defensive line lost Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas. That leaves Malik McDowell as the top remaining candidate to cause havoc up front. He had 4 1/2 sacks last season.
The Spartans will be heavy favorites at home Sept. 2 against Furman.
Michigan State has a chance to repeat atop the Big Ten, if for no other reason than the fact that its two toughest league games are at home. But because of the uncertainty at quarterback, pencil the Spartans in a step behind Ohio State and Michigan.
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister