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2010 NCAA Preview – Michigan St. Spartans


Michigan St. is an intriguing team for 2010. After the John L. Smith era ended in East Lansing, the Spartan administration wanted an old school disciplinarian to take over the program and hit a HR with Mark Dantonio. Dantonio spent 6-years as DB Coach for Michigan St. when Nick Saban worked his magic in East Lansing. Dantonio would then go on to be DC for Ohio St. from 01-03 before taking a HC job at Cincinnati. He led the Bearcats to 2 bowls in 3 seasons before taking over at Michigan St. Dantonio is now in his 4th year and most likely has the best team he’s had since arriving.

The 2009 season in retrospect was one of heartbreak for the Spartans. They went 6-7, but finished 6-6 and gained bowl eligibility. An Alamo bowl loss to Texas Tech 31-41 ended Michigan St.’s season, but it was worse than 6-7 would indicate. Two early season close losses to Central Michigan & Notre Dame derailed the season followed by a loss to Wisconsin making MSU 1-3 to start. MSU would rebound and win 3 straight but lost to Iowa on the final play of the game and then didn’t show up against Minnesota. In all reality Michigan St. had 2 legitimiate losses on the season and were THIS CLOSE to being 10-2 instead of 6-6. Michigan St. has quite a bit coming back which means expectations are high in East Lansing.

Offensively the Spartans should be better than they were last season and last season they averaged 30ppg! They lose their top WR in Blair White, but return every other skill position player. Last year Michigan St. had new starters at RB, QB, & TE. Those positions now have some experience and should be a lot better. White will certainly be missed but I think BJ Cunningham along with Keith Nichol, Mark Dell, Keshawn Martin, & Charlie Gantt should be more than enough to step up and fill the void. Martin & Dell could be key possession receivers and I think Gantt is going to be a major part of the offense acting as Cousins’ safety valve. Michigan St. is deep & talented at tailback although fairly young. If the young runners come along this offense becomes incredible

Defensive the Spartans got a huge boost with 1st Team All American LB Greg Jones decided to return, but they also return Eric Gordon and should have a great linebacking corps. It’s one of the best LB crews in the nation but possibly just a tick behind Ohio St.’s crew with Ross Homan & Brian Rolle. DT Jerel Worthy looks good at DT and the Spartans have CB Chris Rucker & FS Trenton Robinson. Rucker is a ball hawking type of corner with good size at 6-2/195lbs. The really interesting part of Michigan St. is their young players who could be developing. DEs William Gholston & Tyler Hoover have amazing size at 6-7/260lbs. That combination could provide Michigan St. with a absolutely NASTY pass rush in the years to come. The Spartans also have very good young LBs like Chris Norman & Max Bullough could be special in time. DB Mylan Hicks could also play a significant role. The development of the young guys will be very interesting to watch. Either way, Michigan St.’s defense should be better than last season.

The schedule isn’t too bad for Michigan St. They miss Ohio St. They get home games against Notre Dame & Wisconsin, but have to travel to Michigan, Iowa & Penn St. The non-conference slate is fairly easy with 4 games all at home and MSU should have no problems going 3-1 at the very worst. They always play Notre Dame well so they could get a win here with ND being in transition. For the most part Michigan St. needs to hold serve. If they can win their homes games then they’ll most likely be 9-0 with games against Wisconsin, Iowa & Michigan determining their season. I think the early season game against Wisconsin will be pivotal. If they can somehow beat Iowa then Michigan St. could easily wind up playing in the Rose Bowl.

BOTTOM LINE: Best case scenario is 11-1 for me. I think if they defend homefield they can make some serious noise. The one game I don’t see them winning is the road game against Iowa. I don’t like the matchup for Michigan St. really and Iowa should be simply dominating this season. It certainly helps missing Ohio St. Michigan St. has the horses to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor. Worst case is 7-5. The 5 losses are to Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin & Penn St. I thought hard about giving them a loss with a loss at Northwestern. I don’t see it if Mike Kafka is gone which he is so MSU should have an advantage there. To me MSU going 7-5 would be a major disappointment, but right now nobody has them winning the Big 10. Splitting the difference gives them a 9-3 record which would probably be a good for Michigan St. although they are better than this. If the luck goes their way in 2010 like it did against them in 2009, Michigan St. could be in for a great year. They are my dark horse candidate to win the Big 10 championship

Head Coach: Mark Dantonio: 22-17 at Michigan St.; 4th season as HC
Last Season: 6-7 (T6 in the Big 10)
Bowl Game: Lost to Texas Tech 31-41 in Alamo Bowl
Last 3 Seasons: 22-17
Last 5 Seasons: 31-31
Last 10 Seasons: 60-62
Last 5 Bowl Games: 1-4
AP/BCS National Championships: 0
Experience Level for 2010: #7 experienced team in Big 10 (#70 in NCAA)
Turnover Margin: -6
NFL Draft Choices: 1 (CB Jeremy Ware-7th Rd)

It’s weird how you become fans of different teams. One of my family medicine professors that I really like went to Michigan St. for medical school and was the team doctor for the basketball team during the Magic Johnson years. I constantly talk trash about how terrible Michigan St. is compared to Michigan, but now I somewhat root for Michigan St. because I really like the guy and he’s fun to be around. I don’t root for them when they play Indiana or Notre Dame, but I like to see Sparty win.

Michigan St. is an interesting program. I think they should be a lot better than they are and they’ve always been a Big 10 school that has recruited very well. If anything the Spartans have never really realized expectations and that is somewhat the prism in which to view Michigan St. To get an even better idea is to think about the John L. Smith years. Smith coached from 2003-2006 and Michigan St. went 22-26. In a conference with Ohio St., Michigan & Penn St., I can understand that you won’t win championship every season, but there is no way on God’s green earth Michigan St. should be a sub-.500 team. There was sentiment within the program that what the Spartans needed most is a disciplinarian to bring mental focus, toughness and a hard knocks way of football.

Enter Mark Dantonio. Dantonio comes from the Nick Saban tree of coaching which is a helluva tree to be from. He was a DB coach for Saban for 6 seasons before moving to Ohio St. to be the defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel from 01-03. Ohio St. won the national championship in the 2002 season After the Ohio St. gig he went to be HC at Cincinnati. At Cincinnati he went 19-17 including 2 bowl wins before moving on to East Lansing.

Dantonio took over for John L. Smith after Smith led Michigan St. to 3 straight losing seasons. The 3-year record before Dantonio took over was 14-21. In the 3-years Dantonio’s been on the sidelines the Spartans have gone 22-17 with 3 straight bowl appearances. He hasn’t won a bowl game yet at Michigan St. but he’s been to back-to-back January bowls which hasn’t happened at Michigan St. since the 88-89 season. Obviously things are taking a big time turn for the better in East Lansing with Dantonio at the helm. That things are spiraling out of control in Ann Arbor only make things even sweeter for the school that is starting to become the flagship institution for the state of Michigan in the sports world.

Heading into 2009 expectations were pretty high for Michigan St. They were coming off a 9-4 season in 2007 and brought back 15 starters. Their average point margin in 2008 was +3.0 so people were thinking a veteran Michigan St. squad could get even better. However, Michigan St. never really got over the hump in 2009. Despite a lot of returning starters in 2009, two positions the Spartans weren’t returning were QB & RB. Kirk Cousins & Keith Nichol were battling it out for QB1 until Cousins took control and finished as an Honorable Mention All Big 10 player. Nichol backed up and is now moving to WR. RB Larry Caper led the team in rushing, but wasn’t outstanding at 3.9ypc. The defense took a big step backwards too. In 2008 they allowed 22.1ppg and despite a 1st Team All-American performance from LB Greg Jones, MSU’s defense regressed to allowing 26.3ppg. The offense was better, but because of the defense the average point difference in MSU games was +3.4. Basically Michigan St. was the same as 2008 but without the luck and finished 6-7.

The season got off well with a 44-3 blowout win over Montana St., but disaster struck in Week 2 when Central Michigan game to town. Michigan St. was up 27-20 with 40-seconds to go. Central Michigan scored 9 points to win 29-27. CMU missed a 47-yard FG to end the game but MSU was offsides and CMU then hit a 42-yarder to win 29-27! Then next week at Notre Dame, the Spartans were down 30-33 with 57 second to go on the ND 4-yard line, but had a pass intercepted cementing the Irish victory. Next week at Wisconsin was a disaster but then MSU got a win over Michigan, Illinois & Northwestern. The next week Michigan St. hosted Iowa and led 13-9 when Iowa scored a TD on the last play of the game to win 15-13! At this point Michigan St. was 4-4 and had every right to be 7-1 instead.

The Spartans would lose to Minnesota in a lopsided game which they shouldn’t have lossed before beating both Western Michigan & Purdue. Penn St. blew them out in the season finale and MSU finished 6-6. In reality Michigan St. could have seriously felt like a 10-2 squad with losses to Wisconsin & Penn St. If that happens and the Spartans are 10-2 then things change quite a bit. In that scenario MSU is 6-2 in the Big 10. Iowa is 5-3 and now it’s between Michigan St. & Penn St. as to who goes to the Orange Bowl to play Georgia Tech. Maybe it’s Michigan St.? Although it seems doubtful because Penn St. drummed them in the season finale. But if they take Penn St.’s place, they get the Capital One Bowl against LSU instead of the Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech. Sparty lost to Texas Tech 31-41 so it doesn’t matter and they actually do wind up 6-7, but how close were they to 10-2 and a possible 11-2 record and top-10 status? I’d say right on the edge.

And that’s where we are with Michigan St. They enter Dantonio’s 4th season and the team is certainly buying in to his philosophy. They are much more settled at the offensive skill positions this season and should be explosive offensively. Greg Jones came back to school for his senior season and MSU’s defense should be stout. It might be time for a breakout.


Returns: 72.9% of rushing yards, 100.0% of passing yards, 68.3% of receiving yards
PPG: 29.7 (2nd in Big 10)
Rushing Offense: 137ypg (6th in Big 10)
Passing Offense: 269ypg (2nd in Big 10)
Total Offense: 406ypg (3rd in Big 10)

Starters Lost

WR Blair White: 70rec, 990yards, 9TD
OC Joel Nitchman: 11 starts, 2nd Team All-Big 10
RG Brendon Moss: 13 starts
LT Rocco Cironi: 13 starts

Starters Returning

QB Kirk Cousins/JR: 60.4%, 2,680yards, 19TD, 9INT, 60 rushing yards, 1.9ypc
RB Larry Caper/SO: 468yards, 6TD, 3.9ypc, 3rec, 47yds
WR BJ Cunningham/JR: 48rec, 641yards, 4TD
TE Charlie Gantt/SR: 22rec, 348yards, 2TD
LG Joel Foreman/JR: 12 starts, Honorable Mention All Big 10
RT DJ Young/SR: 11 starts

The Spartans lose just 4 starters from an offense that put up 30ppg in ’09. Blair White was a 1st Team All Big 10 receiver so that loss is going to be pretty hard to compensate for. He had great production on the outside and definitely was Cousins’ go to receiver. At 6-2/205lbs, White had good size to go along with his ability. There were no other losses at the skill positions but the Spartans do lose 3 starters on the O-Line including 2nd Team All-Big 10 OC Joel Nitchman. Nitchman actually didn’t allow a sack all season. Moss & Cironi aren’t huge losses although Cironi was a 2-year starter so his presence will be missed. The Spartans are doing some flip flopping on the O-Line to compensate for the losses. The O-Line play in 2009 was significantly better than it was in 2008 so the returning players have to keep building on that momentum.

The biggest returning player for Michigan St. is obviously QB Kirk Cousins. The more I watched Cousins the more impressed I came away with this play. He was a first year starter as a 3rd-year sophomore for the Spartans and managed to beat out Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol for the starting job. He didn’t disappoint either making 12 starts, completing 60.4% of his passes with a 19TD/9INT ratio. He’s a 4th-year junior with a season of starting under his belt which should be a big positive for an already solid Spartans offense. Despite losing Blair, Cousins isn’t without weapons to use. WR BJ Cunningham steps into the #1 WR spot. Cunningham was a solid WR last season and is just as big as Blair. Nichol moves to WR and he’s a 6-2/220lbs target for Cousins to hit with good athleticism. Keshawn Martin looks to be the 3rd WR in the system. He’s a 5-11/185lbs speedster who also doubles as MSU’s kick and punt returner. TE Charlie Gantt was an Honorable Mention All Big 10 player last season and has fantastic size at 6-5/260lbs! Gantt should play a major role offensively. Don’t forget about Mark Dell either. The 6-2/197lbs senior will get plenty of looks. He was the 3rd leading receiver in MSU’s offense last season.

The one area of the offense that is a question mark is the running game. Last season Larry Caper & Edwin Baker carried the load. Neither was fantastic, but both were highly touted true freshman running backs. This year Dantonio brings in two more RBs in Nick Hill & Le’Veon Bell who could also have opportunities to carry the ball. Last season MSU was about as young as they could be in the backfield, but Caper & Baker have some experience now. They are still extremely young but should be more productive. As for the O-Line, Dantonio is going to mix it up a bit. They lose LT Rocco Cironi, but returning starter RT DJ Young is going to move to LT. He’s got good size at 6-5/315 and replacing him at RT is senior J’Michael Deane who is 6-5/312. Joel Foreman returns at LG. The Spartans have losses at OC & RG but John Stipek/SR & Antonio Jeremiah/JR fill in those spots respectively with lots of experience if not starts.

All in all it’s difficult to tell a team who scored 30ppg last season they are going to be very improved, but that is what should happen with Michigan St. The O-Line has a 3SR/2JR mix and everyone save one WR is back at the skill positions. This team has a lot more experience on the offensive side of the ball heading into 2010 than it did in 2009 which should point to better offensive output.


Returns: 62.4% of tackles, 71.6% of sacks
PPG: 21.8 (4th in Big 10)
Rushing Defense: 88ypg (1st in Big 10)
Passing Defense: 217ypg (5th in Big 10)
Total Defense: 306ypg (4th in Big 10)

Starters Lost

DE Trevor Anderson: 45tkl, 4sks, 3.5tfl
DT Oren Wilson: 18tkl, 1sks, 0.5tfl
LB Brandon Denson: 68tkl, 2.5sks, 1.5tfl, 1pbu, 1int
CB Jeremy Ware: 52tkl, 2sks, 1tfl, 5pbu, 1int
FS Dan Fortener: 54tkl, 2.5tfl, 3pbu, 1int

Returning Starters

DE Colin Neely/SR: 24tkl, 3sks, 4tfl, 1pbu
DT Jerel Worthy/SO: 37tkl, 4.5sks, 4.5tfl, 2pbu
LB Eric Gordon/SR: 92tkl, 3.5sks, 4tfl, 2pbu
LB Greg Jones/SR: 154tkl, 9sks, 5tfl, 1pbu, 1ST TEAM ALL-AMERICAN
CB Chris Rucker/SR: 58tkl, 1sks, 2tfl, 7pbu, 1int
FS Trenton Robinson/JR: 67tkl, 2pbu, 1int

Michigan St. got a tremendous gift when MLB Greg Jones decided to come back for his senior season instead of being a 1st round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Jones returns as possibly the best defensive player in the nation so how much he adds to the defense might incalculable. Michigan St.’s defense is interesting in that it doesn’t really give up too much at any of their defensive levels. The D-Line loses two starters in Anderson & Wilson, but they aren’t huge losses. Anderson was their best edge rusher but at 6-2/259lbs he wasn’t a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and he really couldn’t take games over on his own they way you’ll see DEs be able to do in the Big 10 this season with guys like Adrian Clayborn, Cameron Heywood, JJ Watt or Ryan Kerrigan. Oren Wilson was a 2-year starter so that loss hurts but not overly so with Jerel Worthy taking his spot. The huge news on the D-Line is sophomore Tyler Hoover & true freshman William Gholston. The Spartans don’t have an athletic freak at DE but both Hoover & Gholston could definitely fit the bill. Hoover is 6-7/270lbs & Gholston is 6-7/240lbs! Colin Neely is a senior meaning in the next two seasons, Michigan St. is going to have a pair of incredible DEs on the edge that is going to cause opposing QBs nightmares. If the youngsters progress, Michigan St.’s defense gets that much better.

The Spartans are more than set at LB. Greg Jones was a 1st Team All American, but overlooked to a degree is SLB Eric Gordon. Gordon had 92 tackles last year of his own which was 2nd best on the squad. They lose WLB Brandon Denson who was the team’s 3rd leading tackler but Michigan St. should be fine. Chris Norman is a highly touted LB in his true sophomore who should step in on the weak side and be fine. The Spartans led the Big 10 in rush defense in ’09 and they should be just as tough in 2010. Worthy will be solid at DT and new DT Blake Treadwell should plug up the middle. If anything Michigan St. should be really strong up the middle.

The secondary wasn’t fantastic last season and they do lose a couple of players. CB Jeremy Ware was a solid CB who was a 7th round draft pick by the Oakland Raiders. FS Dan Fortener was an Honorable Mention All Big 10 player and Sparty loses him too. Ware & Fortner are pretty big losses to the secondary. They do return Chris Rucker at CB & Trenton Robinson at FS. Rucker is a pretty nice ball hawking CB so he should be even better now that he’s a senior. Robinson is pretty speedy. I think the defensive backfield should be helped out quite a bit because the front-7 should be pretty effective. New freshman Mylan Hicks could play a pretty nice role too in pass coverage.

Overall Michigan St. should have a better defense. They got a HUGE gift when Greg Jones decided to return, but in reality Dantonio is only making this squad better. There might be a few growing pains at DE and even CB, but the LB crew is amazing and they do have some returns in the secondary and along the D-Line. They should be solid against the run and the front-7 should be able to help out the pass defense. What I’m really excited about is the development of DE Tyler Hoover, DE William Gholston, DB Mylan Hicks, LB Max Bullough & DB Isaiah Lewis.


Western Michigan
Florida Atlantic (in Detroit, MI)
Notre Dame
Northern Colorado
@Penn St.

Michigan St.’s schedule is not too bad really. They miss Ohio St. which is probably a loss in reality but they also miss Indiana which probably would have been a victory. Their non-conference slate is pretty darn weak except for the game against Notre Dame, but the Spartans get the Irish in East Lansing and they always seem to play well against Notre Dame. Luckily for Michigan St., this year supposedly is a transition year for Brian Kelly and the Irish so they probably have a good shot at getting out of their with a win.

If Michigan St. beats ND, then they are probably 4-0 heading into Week 5 when they welcome in Wisconsin. That game will probably define Michigan St.’s season. MSU should be good against the run which is Wisconsin’s forte with John Clay banging between the tackles. Still, Scott Tolzien is a tough QB and MSU will have to stop him. Either way, Michigan St. can’t let a loss derail their momentum because after Wisconsin they travel to Michigan to face the Wolverines. On talent the Spartans should be able to beat Michigan which put even more heat on RichRod. They then take on Illinois & Northwestern in back-to-back games and they could easily be 7-1 even with a loss to Wisconsin if they stay focused.

If Michigan St. gets to 7-1 or even 8-0 then they’ll go into Iowa City to face Iowa. Iowa will have played both Penn St. & Wisconsin by this time, but both are home games. If Iowa takes care of business then we potentially have a 7-1/8-0 Michigan St. squad taking on a 7-0 Iowa squad! By this time Ohio St. will have played Miami-FL & at Wisconsin so things could be rather dicey in Big 10 play.

Either way, Michigan St. if they are playing well should be 7-1. In their last 4 games the Spartans have 2 road games against Iowa & Penn St. but two home games against Minnesota & Purdue. To me it certainly seems like Michigan St. should be a 9-3 squad. The absolute worst thing that could happen to Michigan St. is lose to Notre Dame & Wisconsin and wind up throwing their season away. If they get off poorly they could wind up losing games to Michigan, Iowa, Penn St. and possibly even Northwestern since they’ll play at Evanston.

The Spartans aren’t as good as the top-3 dogs in the Big 10, but they can play with them and beat them if those squads don’t bring their “A” game.


It’s Year 4 of the Dantonio Era and the head coach has his best team since arriving in East Lansing. It’s also pretty interesting in that the Spartans were pretty lucky in 2008, but not so lucky in 2009. That ’08 squad finishes 9-4 but the ’09 squad went 6-7. Luck certainly helps and having Michigan St. be positive in TO margin should be pretty nice for their outcomes in 2010. Things like this seem to even out over time so maybe we should have expected the Spartans to come back a bit. Still, maybe the -7 in TO margin means an uptick for Sparty in 2010.

The other odd part about Michigan St. is that despite this being Dantonio’s best team, the expectations might not be what they normally should be on a national level. They could be high in East Lansing, but for the most part, people are assuming Ohio St., Wisconsin, Iowa & Penn St. to be the best 4 teams in the conference. Some pundits even talk of a dark horse candidate to win the conference, but they don’t mention Michigan St. They instead mention Michigan. It’s interesting to say the least.

Offensively Michigan St. has a powerful offense in 2009 and they should have a powerful offense in 2010. To be honest, it certainly seems like the offense should be better. They lose 3 O-Linemen and their top receiver, but they get back all their other skill position players and despite the losses on the O-Line, Michigan St. will have an upperclassman at every spot on the O-Line. Cousins has a year of starting under his belt. The running game should be a lot better meaning there is really no weakness to the MSU offense. I’d also look for TE Charlie Gantt to play a significant role in the offense and has the size to be a match-up nightmare.

Defensively MSU should be great in their front-7. Greg Jones & Eric Gordon should be solid. I’m starting to be sold on CB Chris Rucker as a ball-hawking type of corner. I also think DT Jerel Worthy should be good as well. Michigan St. probably won’t see much of a drop off in their rush defense which is certainly a positive because it was the best in the Big 10 last year, but I’d think their pass defense could get better too if the front-7 can compensate. One thing to look for with Michigan St. is their young players. DEs Williams Gholston & Tyler Hoover have outstanding size and could be a dynamic duo on the edge for MSU in the future. LBs Max Bullough & Chris Norman could make significant impacts on defense this season as could freshman DB Mylan Hicks. Michigan St’s defense should be one of the better ones in the conference, but if the young guys come around soon, they might have a truly outstanding defense.

The schedule doesn’t set up awful for Michigan St. They miss out on Ohio St. which is a positive and get both Notre Dame & Wisconsin at home. The problem is that they get Iowa, Michigan & Penn St. on the road. If Michigan St. can hold home field advantage this year, Michigan St. has a solid shot at 11-1. The games against Wisconsin, Iowa & Penn St. will be very difficult. I also think Notre Dame will be better than people are expecting and Michigan St. might have problems with Brian Kelly’s offensive machinations. The Spartans also have to travel to Ann Arbor in a rivalry game against Michigan. It doesn’t bode well if Michigan St. doesn’t bring their “A” game.

Best case for Michigan St. is 11-1. In this scenario the Spartans hold serve at home and win all their road games except for beating Iowa. I don’t see them pulling that off in Iowa City. I don’t like that matchup for the Spartans especially on the road, but MSU should have beaten them last year. Still, i think Michigan St. goes 11-1 in a best case year with the loss to Iowa. I think the Hawkeyes D-Line will simply create too many problems. Worst case is 7-5. The losses come to Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa, Penn St. & Wisconsin. I thought there was a possibility of losing at Northwestern, but I can’t see it. Not after losing Kafka.

After a 9-4 record in 2008 it would seem like a 7-5 record in Year 4 would be disappointing, but there wouldn’t be much Michigan St. could do about it. The road is a little rocky. If you split the difference Michigan St. is 8-4 with a shot at 9-4 via a bowl win. In reality though the Spartans are being set up for a pretty solid 2-year run. If Dantonio keeps up the momentum then Michigan St. could very well be in for a run of sustained success. It’ll definitely be interesting to see how Michigan St. rebounds with Dantonio’s best team to date.

If anything, you simply can’t argue with a HC running a program in the mold of Nick Saban. He’s doing a pretty good job at Alabama.


July 3, 2010 - Posted by | Michigan St., Previews

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