If the passing game develops, the balanced Spartans will make a run for the Rose

The Skinny

KIRK COUSINS won more games (27) than any other MSU quarterback, but he never led the Spartans to a Rose Bowl. Now it's Andrew Maxwell's turn to try. The first-time starter has earned his teammates' trust with a cannon arm and attention to detail. He'll benefit from playing behind an experienced offensive line and in front of bulldozer Le'Veon Bell, who will be the feature back this fall after notching 948 rushing yards while splitting carries with Edwin Baker. On defense, Michigan State suits up an SEC-caliber unit, with eight starters back from a group that ranked sixth nationally. Corners Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard anchor a hard-hitting secondary, but freakish athlete William Gholston and the sack-happy line form the heart of the Spartans' D.

Key Recruit

DEMETRIOUS COX Coach Mark Dantonio called the 2012 recruiting class the best of his six-year Michigan State tenure, and Cox put it over the top. The four-star safety from Jeannette (Pa.) High picked MSU over a trio of Big Ten rivals and will play early.

Breakout Player

DION SIMS Injuries have hampered Sims throughout his career, but Dantonio has identified the junior tight end as a linchpin. At 6'5" and 285 pounds, Sims is the kind of big, dependable target who will prove invaluable for a developing passer like Maxwell.

Final Analysis

MICHIGAN STATE is on the cusp of national contention, but like Wisconsin, its likely 2012 path veers closer to Pasadena than its does Miami. Maxwell will need a go-to receiver to emerge from an inexperienced group that includes Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett and converted cornerback Tony Lippett, but the veteran running game and stout defense will give the passing attack time to develop. They have until late October, when the Spartans play back-to-back games at Michigan and Wisconsin that will likely define their season.

THE VITALS

Coach Mark Dantonio (6th year)

44--22 (27--13 Big Ten)

2011 Record 11--3 (7--1, 1st in Legends)

Final AP Rank 11

Returning Starters Offense 4, Defense 8

2011 STATS

Total Offense (FBS Rank) 390.4 YPG (56)

Rushing Offense 137.9 YPG (78)

Passing Offense 252.5 YPG (41)

Total Defense 277.4 YPG (6)

Rushing Defense 100.5 YPG (9)

Passing Defense 176.9 YPG (11)

TELLING NUMBER 12

Receptions by tight end Dion Sims in 2011, the most by any returning Michigan State receiver.

TOP PLAYERS

Offense

RB Le'Veon Bell

Jr. 6'2", 244 pounds

948 YDs, 13 TDs

QB Andrew Maxwell

Sr. 6'2", 212 pounds

171 YDs, 1 TD

WR Tony Lippett*

Soph. 6'3", 190 pounds

4 RECs, 44 YDs

Defense

CB Johnny Adams

Sr. 5'11", 177 pounds

51 tackles, 3 INTs

LB Denicos Allen

Jr. 5'11", 225 pounds

83 tackles, 11 sacks

DE William Gholston

Jr. 6'7", 278 pounds

70 tackles, 5 sacks

Special Teams

K Dan Conroy

Sr. 5'10", 186 pounds

17/23 FGs, 48/48 PATs

*Started at CB in 2011

PHOTOSCOTT BOEHM/GETTY IMAGES (GHOLSTON)Gholston was second-team all--Big Ten as a sophomore and will be one of the country's top defensive ends this year. PHOTOMICHAEL HICKEY/GETTY IMAGES (SIMS)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)