Our college football 2019 season preview issue is here, which means we're checking in with all 25 teams from SI's official preseason Top 25 ranking. What do you need to know about each of this year's top contenders, from top-ranked Alabama down to Stanford? We'll be rolling out scouting reports for each team over the next two weeks, all of which are being collected here. Next up, it's No. 21 Michigan State.
THE BIG STORY
Bruising defenses have been a Spartans staple under Mark Dantonio, and last year's unit was one of the finest of his 12-year tenure: Michigan State led the country in total D and rushing yardage. The bad news: The offense was the worst Dantonio has ever had, ranking 116th in the FBS. With nine starters back, the defense will be elite again—but it won't matter if the offense doesn't improve. Just a little balance would go a long way in East Lansing.
Four years ago, Kenny Willekes was a walk-on linebacker who had no D-I offers. Now he's the reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year, and if not for a leg injury during a 7–6 loss to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl, he would be in the NFL. The high-motor end was a big reason the Spartans allowed just 77.9 yards rushing per game—the lowest non-Alabama average since 2009.
How much of last year's futility on offense could be attributed to injuries, which caused 10 starters to miss 48 games? The receiving corps was hardest hit: Three starters sat out a combined 12 games. All three are back—and healthy.
With the team's struggles last season, quarterbacks coach Brad Salem has taken over as coordinator. Salem is replacing a slow-huddle, two-back approach to a more up-tempo one to open up the vertical passing game, after the team posted its worst scoring average (18.7 points a game) in 12 years. Whether senior quarterback Brian Lewerke is a good fit for the system remains to be seen. Last season he threw 11 interceptions to go with only eight TDs—but he was also battling a shoulder injury. Lewerke is healthy now and just two years removed from throwing for 2,793 yards and 20 TDs. A new system could be just what he needs to regain his form.
OVER OR UNDER?
Under 7.5 wins. Trips to Columbus, Madison and Ann Arbor present big challenges—not to mention a home date with Penn State. The Spartans will be a better team than they were last year, but their win total is unlikely to increase.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Dantonio is as well entrenched as any coach in the country, but over the last three years his Spartans are just 20–18. Another lackluster season, and he could find himself on the hot seat.