2016 SI college football preseason Top 25 team preview: No. 13 Michigan State

Led by defensive tackle Malik McDowell, Michigan State comes in at No. 13 in SI's 2016 college football preseason Top 25 rankings.
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Team breakdown

Offense

Key returning starters: OG Brian Allen, RB Gerald Holmes, OT Kodi Kieler

Quarterback is the question, as senior Tyler O’Connor and junior Damion Terry battle for the job with 80 career pass attempts combined. But three tailbacks that each carried 100-plus times last year (Holmes, a junior, and sophomores Madre London and LJ Scott) will ease the transition for whomever wins the job.​

Defense

Key returning starters: LB Riley Bullough, CB Darian Hicks, DT Malik McDowell

The 6’ 6”, 280-pound McDowell (13 tackles-for-loss in 2015) can play inside and outside and be one of the nation’s dominant linemen as a junior. Senior linebacker Ed Davis (ACL tear) and sophomore cornerback Vayante Copeland (fractured vertebrae) return to bolster an already formidable back seven.

Superlatives

Leader in rushing: Scott. The bruising 238-pounder had the most carries in ’15 (146) and will be a fourth-quarter punisher.

Leader in receiving: R.J. Shelton. With the top two pass-catchers graduated, the 5’ 10” senior’s reliability (43 catches in ’15) is crucial.

Leader in tackles: ​​Bullough. He had 106 stops last year and will be at the center of the operation again as a senior.

Leader in interceptions: Nicholson. Let a 220-pound junior free safety roam behind a feral front seven and watch picks pile up.

Opposing coach's take

“You hear it all the time, but Mark Dantonio is a heck of a coach. As usual, he’s got a very physical team. They take care of the football and aren’t greedy. They’re not worried about tempo and all the flash. They just kind of beat you into submission and get you to surrender as fast as they can. They do a great job of personnel groupings and mixing their plays. They use their personnel about as well as anybody I’ve ever seen. 

That will help take some of the pressure off the new quarterback. [Senior] Tyler O’Connor started the Spartans’ upset of Ohio State on the road last season. He’s a solid passer who can run some, but no matter who starts, I’m sure Dantonio will play to his team’s strengths, which means running the ball. They’ve got three very capable backs in [sophomore] LJ Scott, [junior] Gerald Holmes and [sophomore] Madre London, but I imagine the bruising [6-foot, 238-pound] Scott will be an even bigger force this season. With their experience on the interior offensive line, it’ll be tough slowing down their ground attack.

On defense their first priority remains stopping the run. Malik McDowell [junior] is a monster who’ll be playing on Sundays next season. [Senior] linebacker Riley Bullough is a tackling machine, and having back [linebacker] Ed Davis will help. The secondary could be the best the Spartans have had since 2013.” 

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Impact freshmen

Wide receivers Donnie Corley and Cam Chambers were four-star recruits. Both have size—Corley is 6' 3" and 185 pounds, Chambers 6' 3" and 207—and both enrolled last January to get a jump on learning the offense. If even one of them can develop into a downfield threat in the early going, it will provide a vital outlet in preventing opponents from ganging up on the run. 

Key numbers

1:Maximum number of combined starts the Spartans’ offensive tackles will have going into the season after former right tackle KodiKieler moved to center for his senior year. 

43:Receptions as a junior last season by R.J. Shelton, the only returning wideout with more than two catches in ’15. 

10:Games missed last year by corner Vayante Copeland, who’s back for his junior season after a vertebrae injury.

6:Years in school for senior OLB Ed Davis, who was sidelined for all of ’15 with a torn ACL; he was third on the team in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (seven) two years ago. 

280: Weight of 6' 6" tackle Malik McDowell, the lone returning starter on a line that held opponents to 3.0 yards per carry or fewer six times in ’15. 

Schedule

Date

Opponent

Sept. 2

Furman

Sept. 17

at Notre Dame

Sept. 24

Wisconsin

Oct. 1

at Indiana

Oct. 8

BYU

Oct. 15

Northwestern

Oct. 22

at Maryland

Oct. 29

Michigan

Nov. 5

at Illinois

Nov. 12

Rutgers

Nov. 19

Ohio State

Nov. 26

at Penn State

Top 25 rankings

1

Alabama

2

Clemson

3

Florida State

4

Michigan

5

LSU

6

Oklahoma

7

Washington

8

Houston

9

Ohio State

10

Tennessee

11

Stanford

12

Notre Dame

13

Michigan State

14

Iowa

15

Louisville

16

Georgia

17

Oklahoma State

18

Washington State

19

Ole Miss

20

TCU

21

Oregon

22

North Carolina

23

UCLA

24

San Diego State

25

Boise State