2014 CFN Preview - Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Posted Jul 28, 2014

Preview 2014 - Was 2013 a culmination for MSU, or was it just the beginning? (Getty Images)

Michigan State Spartans

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak 

- 2014 Michigan State Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Mark Dantonio
8th year: 64-29
11th year ovarall: 82-46
Lettermen Returning
Off. 24, Def. 20, ST 3
Lettermen Lost; 21
Ten Best MSU Players
1. DE Shilique Calhoun, Jr.
2. FS Kurtis Drummond, Sr.
3. RB Jeremy Langford, Sr.
4. QB Connor Cook, Jr.
5. CB Trae Waynes, Jr.
6. P Mike Sadler, Sr.
7. DE Marcus Rush, Sr.
8. LB Taiwan Jones, Sr.
9. C Jack Allen, Jr.
10. DT Malik McDowell, Fr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Jacksonville State
Sep. 6 at Oregon
Sep. 20 Eastern Michigan
Sep. 27 Wyoming
Oct. 4 Nebraska
Oct. 11 at Purdue
Oct. 18 at Indiana
Oct. 25 Michigan
Nov. 8 Ohio State
Nov. 15 at Maryland
Nov. 22 Rutgers
Nov. 29 at Penn State

Was this the end of the long journey for Michigan State, or was the run to the 2013 Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory the start of something bigger?

Head coach Mark Dantonio had been fighting and fighting and fighting to get his program to an elite level, coming achingly close to winning the Big Ten title in 2011 after the fantastic 2010 team went 11-1 - before getting obliterated by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl - and then last year the dream came true. It was the season Spartan fans have been waiting for since winning the 1987 Rose Bowl, and now the expectations are there to do it again. This can’t be a one-off.

There aren’t any excuses for the 2013 success – last year’s team was fantastic, especially defensively – but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It’s not like the Spartans received a slew of big breaks, but now they need to make their own good fortune again.

It continues to help the cause that Michigan is wheezing and coughing its way through the seemingly never-ending transition. It was super of Urban Meyer to stop giving Carlos Hyde the ball in the Big Ten championship, and it wasn’t a negative that Wisconsin wasn’t on the schedule.

There was just one decent non-conference game, and the Spartans gacked away the chance against Notre Dame. You and ten friends could’ve shut down Western Michigan and South Florida’s offenses. The teams on the slate that could actually move the ball – Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State and Stanford – all came up with over 300 yards of total offense, and …

Whatever. Michigan State was due, and it came through.

That’s life in the Big Ten at the moment. Wisconsin made regular recent trips to Pasadena thanks to weak slates and one big win getting the job done, and Ohio State started out 24-0 under Meyer thanks to its relatively soft schedule. Michigan State was the real deal and could’ve battled and held up against anyone – it would’ve been really, really interesting to have seen that defense deal with Auburn – but again, now it’s about continuing the success and showing the staying power to remain among the elite of the elite. That's one break Sparty didn't get - if the 2013 season was this year, there would've been a spot in the College Football Playoff. 

2013 can’t be an aberration, but with the Spartans being put in the nasty Big Ten East along with an improved Ohio State and a can’t-be-that-bad-again-defensively Michigan, is it possible that last season was simply charmed? Does Dantonio have the talent in place to do it all again?

The offense that struggled so much early on has to replace three starters up front, and it could stand to find a receiver or two who’ll keep defensive coordinators up at night, but QB Connor Cook has the look of a burgeoning star, and Jeremy Langford would’ve been hailed as one of the nation’s best running backs if he wasn’t in the same league as Carlos Hyde, Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah.

The Spartan defense lost heart-and-soul types Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, along with several key parts of the rotation, but replacing six starters might not be as impossible as it seems on the surface with DE Shilique Calhoun an All-American at one end, Marcus Rush a dangerous pass rusher at the other, and Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes heading another great secondary. Along with one of the best kicking games in America with all-star punter Mike Sadler and air-tight kicker Michael Geiger returning, don’t assume Michigan State is going anywhere quite yet.

Can the Spartans handle being everyone’s circle game? Fortunately, the pressure is squarely on Ohio State to win the East, and the vice is tightening on Michigan after all the issues of last season, but it should be okay to blow up the cliché – for Dantonio, staying on top of the mountain might really be easier than getting there.

What to watch for on offense: Will the passing game keep up the momentum? The offensive line might seem like the biggest concern after losing three starters and with some reshuffling to be done, but it’ll be fine – the production won’t slip once the coaching staff decides on the starting five. The backfield is set and should be outstanding, but the key should be keeping Connor Cook hot and for the receivers to do even more.

Granted, last year was far better than 2012, when an absolutely awful season from the receiving corps and a 114th-ranked attack in passing efficiency killed the campaign, but it’s not like MSU’s receivers blew up. With the ground game and the great defense, and with Cook needing a while to get his feet wet, there was no real reason to bomb away, but Macgarrett Kings and Tony Lippett were just okay and the offense didn’t really click through the air until it had to. The leading yardage target, Bennie Fowler, is gone, but everyone else is back, and Cook should be a more mature passer who makes everyone better. After cranking out 636 yards through the air in the final two massive games against Ohio State and Stanford, there could be a lot more where that came from.

What to watch for on defense: It all depends on how quickly the reloading job can be done at tackle. The outside is set with ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ready to wreak more havoc, and the corners are sound, but Max Bullough is done at middle linebacker – Taiwan Jones will likely move from the strongside in. Tackle isn’t going to necessarily be a soft spot, but the spotlight will be on without Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds holding things down.

Damon Knox isn’t a massive nose tackle, but he’s fine at either spot inside, and Joel Heath is big and has excellent upside. The hope is for super-recruit Malik McDowell to be just that good and impossible to keep off the field. If Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge is solid, and Brandon Clemons can rotate in on the nose, all of a sudden, MSU has rebuilt the interior without missing a beat.

The team will be far better if… the offense doesn’t have to throw to win and the mistakes come from the other side. Michigan State had a negative turnover margin just four times last season with a -1 against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Stanford – the three happened to be the three teams it faced that ended up ranked at the end of the season – and Indiana. The loss to the Irish and the battles against the Buckeyes and Cardinal were also the team’s three-worst rushing games of the season. Connor Cook needing to throw 76 times in the two wins over Stanford and OSU, but he also threw two key picks, and the passing game was abysmal in the Notre Dame loss. Cook can throw, and the passing game will be great, but if it doesn’t have to be, and if the running game and defense are controlling the tempo, there shouldn’t be any problems.

The Schedule: There's no Notre Dame on the slate and the non-conference schedule is nice and easy with Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming coming to East Lansing, but it all comes down to the road game at Oregon. If the Spartans win that, there's no excuse to not come up with another special season.

The East might be the tougher of the two divisions, and playing Nebraska is never easy, but the interdivisional game with the Huskers is at home – the other game with the West is at Purdue. The huge showdowns against Michigan and Ohio State are at home – with a week off between the two games – and the final run isn't bad going to Maryland, hosting Rutgers and finishing up at Penn State.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Jeremy Langford. QB Connor Cook is probably going to be the team’s best and most important offensive player by the end of the year, and there should be a decent rotation at running back, but Langford is the relatively unsung – at least nationally – key part to the entire operation. A workhorse who can handle the ball 20+ times, he’s strong, quick, and showed he could carry the offense at times. Great around the goal line and a solid receiver as an outlet target, he can do it all. This year he won’t have to.

Best defensive player: Junior DE Shilique Calhoun. Human beings with his size and his athleticism and his skills should be making millions of dollars at the next level. He put off his pro life for another year and now should get the hype and the spotlight as the signature All-America-caliber superstar on one of the best defense in America. One of the team’s top offensive weapons early on – scoring three times on the defensive side on two fumble recoveries and a pick six – he made a big splash, and then showed what he could do as a dominant pass rusher. With the attention being paid to Marcus Rush on the other side, and to Calhoun, offenses are going to have to pick their poison.

Key player to a successful season: Senior LB Taiwan Jones. He’s a good one and he was one of the team’s top tacklers last season, but he got to work at the MSU Star position. Built more for the middle, he has the size to hold up and be fantastic against the run, but can he come close to replacing Max Bullough’s leadership? With new defensive tackles up front, and with a little bit of shuffling around in the linebacking corps, the emergence of Jones inside will be the one piece of the puzzle that has to fit, otherwise it’ll be prime time for promising redshirt freshman, Jon Reschke.

The season will be a success if ... the Spartans make it two straight Big Ten championships. Even with all of the big replacements on the defensive side and on the O line, the core is still there to be every bit as good as last season. With Ohio State and Michigan at home, as well as the key interdivisional date with Nebraska, MSU can’t ask for anything more. After all that happened last year, 10-2 with losses to Oregon and Ohio State might be acceptable, but they’ll feel tremendously disappointing if they turn out to ruin championship hopes. More than good enough to get into the inaugural College Football Playoff, anything less than a Big Ten title, and a spot in the big tourney, will seem flat.

Key game: Nov. 8 vs. Ohio State. Now the two are in the same division, and if all goes according to plan, this might be the real Big Ten championship. The Oregon game will be the tone-setter – win that, and the playoff talk will kick in full force – and beating Michigan is always a must, but the Spartans probably can’t get to and win the Big Ten title without taking out the Fighting Urbans of Columbus. Fortunately, there’s a week off to prepare while Ohio State will be coming off three straight games and a date with Illinois.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Second Half Scoring: Michigan State 212 – Opponents 72
- Fourth Down Conversions: Michigan State 9-of-14 (64%) – Opponents 6-of-19 (32%)
- Time of Possession: Michigan State 33:19 – Opponents 26:37
- 2014 Michigan State Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players