2011 record: 11-3 overall, 7-1 in Big Ten (1st in Legends)
2011 postseason: Big Ten title game (42-39 loss to Wisconsin); Outback Bowl (33-30 win over Georgia in 3 OT)
2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 11/No. 10
Head coach: Mark Dantonio (62-39 overall, 44-22 in five seasons at Michigan State)
Offensive coordinator: Dan Roushar (six seasons at Michigan State, two as OC)
2011 offensive rankings: 78th rushing offense (137.9 ypg); 41st passing offense (252.5 ypg); 56th total offense (390.4 ypg); 37th scoring offense (31 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: four
Defensive coordinator: Pat Narduzzi (six seasons at Michigan State, six as DC)
2011 defensive rankings: 9th rushing defense (100.5 ypg); 11th passing defense (176.9 ypg); 6th total defense (277.4 ypg); 10th scoring defense (18.4 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: eight
Location: East Lansing, Mich.
Stadium: Spartan Stadium (75,005; grass)
Last league title: 2010 (co-champs with Ohio State and Penn State)
2011 statistics: [view]
Eight starters from a defense that finished sixth and 10th nationally in total defense and scoring defense, respectively? Yeah, that’s pretty good. The Spartans also return talented experience in the backfield as well as four-fifths of its starting offensive line, which should give first-year quarterback starter Andrew Maxwell time to adjust to his new role as the triggerman of Michigan State’s offense.
Despite the returning talent in the backfield and along the line, the Spartans must still find a way to replace four of its top pass catchers in 2011, all of whom combined for a total of 202 of Michigan State’s 288 receptions last season. One saving grace for the receiving corps is DeAnthony Arnett, the transfer from Tennessee who was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. As a true freshman at Tennessee last season, the former four-star recruit caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns, so he adds some much-needed experience, limited as it is, at the position.
After four years of outstanding leadership off the field and production on it, the Spartans are entering uncharted territory in Year One of the post-Kirk Cousins Era. Exit Cousins and enter Maxwell, the top-rated quarterback in the Class of 2009 who has played sparingly since coming to East Lansing thanks to the presence of Cousins. If Maxwell would’ve made it through an entire set of spring practices this wouldn’t be as much of an unknown; unfortunately, a knee issue kept him out the last two weeks of spring and cost him valuable reps. That bump in the road aside, Maxwell certainly possesses the talent to keep the Spartans in Big Ten contention, especially if it’s in his head that he needs to be Maxwell v1.0 and not Cousins v2.0.
Make-or-break game: vs. Michigan, Oct. 20
This one’s the mother of all no-brainers, or at least an aunt. Not only are the two schools bitter in-state rivals, but both, along with Nebraska, are expected to serve as the front-runners for the Legends title, which the Spartans captured en route to an appearance in the Big Ten’s inaugural championship game. Last season at home, the Spartans came out on the winning end of a 28-14 score. This season, Michigan State must make the trek to Ann Arbor to face a team with even higher expectations, if it is to extend its winning streak to in the series to five games.
Heisman hopeful: running back Le’Veon Bell
Bell has a couple of things going in his favor. First, after being named starter in the middle of October, Bell ended up leading what up until then was an anemic Spartans’ rushing attack with 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. Secondly, with a first-year starter under center, Bell should shoulder a hefty portion of the offensive workload, especially early in the season. Add the two together, and the junior is likely to put up the type of numbers that generally grab the attention of Heisman voters.