Michigan's Bell leaps for extra yardage between Celek and Georgia's Washington during the Outback Bowl NCAA college football game in Tampa

CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 14 Michigan State

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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)

Schedule: [view]

Roster: [view]

2011 statistics: [view]

The Good
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.

The Bad
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.

The Unknown
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.

Return to CFT’s preseason Top 25

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Nebraska won a bidding war with Arkansas to hire Bob Diaco

PROVO, UT - OCTOBER 2: Head coach Bob Diaco of the Connecticut Huskies watches his team practice before they play the Brigham Young Cougars at LaVell Edwards Stadium on October 2, 2015 in Provo Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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Nebraska and Arkansas have met just once on the field, in the 1965 Cotton Bowl. But the Huskers and Hogs have now met twice in the only college athletics competition more cutthroat than the actual games — hiring coaches.

Arkansas famously held off Nebraska for Houston Nutt‘s services in 2004 (before you scoff, Nutt led the Hogs to the 2006 SEC West title, and Nebraska wound up hiring Bill Callahan) and now the Cornhuskers have returned the favor.

Nebraska hired Bob Diaco as its defensive coordinator this week, nabbing the former Connecticut head coach and Notre Dame defensive coordinator after he’d finished an interview with Arkansas. Sean Callahan of Husker Online explains from here:

Head coach Mike Riley said they stopped Diaco’s plane in the air on his way back from Arkansas and got him to fly to Lincoln last Thursday from Chicago. Riley said from there, they weren’t letting Diaco leave Lincoln until he accepted the job.

The money didn’t hurt. Nebraska handed Diaco a 2-year contract worth $1.7 million in total, making him the highest-paid assistant in program history.

Report: Auburn offensive coordinator search getting thorny

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 08:  Head coach Gus Malzahn of the Auburn Tigers reacts during the game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Auburn does not have an offensive coordinator yet, which is odd. The Tigers have an explosive offense with a lot of returning parts. They have Jarrett Stidham coming in to play quarterback. They have a boatload of money. And they have a boatload of money.

According to a report from James Crepea of AL.com, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and “people with influence over the program” can’t agree on who should replace Rhett Lashlee.

Malzahn is said to prefer Florida Atlantic offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, Arizona State offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz. Lindsey and Drinkwitz worked for Malzahn previously, and Malzahn has built a working relationship with the Briles family — Stidham and running back Kam Martin transferred from Waco to Auburn, and Art Briles visited a Tigers practice this season.

But Auburn donors, Crepea writes, have nixed those choices, saying Briles is too inexperienced and Lindsey and Drinkwitz are too close to Malzahn.

Instead, donors preferred Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone (who has already been crossed off the list) or Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich (ditto). Mark Helfrich does not seem like a viable option at this time.

With less than two weeks until National Signing Day, the urgency to bring someone to the South Plains only grows stronger.

Forza Blu? Michigan reportedly planning spring practice in Italy

EAST LANSING, MI - OCTOBER 29: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines directs a drill during warm ups prior to playing the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on October 29, 2016 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Undeterred by recent NCAA legislation, Jim Harbaugh is reportedly going international.

As noted by the Detroit Free Press, a post on Rivals affiliate TheWolverine.com reports that Michigan is planning to spend the final week of football spring practice in Rome, Italy. The team would not only practice several times on Italian soil, but would allow the team to visit the sights in the area and even leave players in Europe to study abroad for a semester.

The move would no doubt ruffle even more feathers in the football and NCAA communities after Harbaugh famously took the Wolverines to the IMG Academy down in Florida for spring practice last March. That prompted recent legislation that was passed at the NCAA convention in Nashville this week — a Harbaugh Rule if you will — that prohibited off-campus practice during a vacation period outside of a playing season.

While it would seem that would rule out trips away from Ann Arbor for spring football practices, it appears the Michigan athletic department is going to push forward by exploiting a slight loophole in the language of the rule. While vacation periods may be off limits like spring break, it appears the Wolverines would be looking to leave town at the end of April, which would be after the semester ends  and does not fall into any scheduled vacation time.

We’ll see if anything becomes of this report and if Michigan indeed announces such an unprecedented trip. While foreign tours are common in sports like basketball at the NCAA levels, it really hasn’t happened in football aside from occasional games overseas so it will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend, or is just another case of Harbaugh being Harbaugh.

Wisconsin extends head coach Paul Chryst’s contract through 2022

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 2: Corey Clement #6 of the Wisconsin Badgers points toward head coach Paul Chryst  as the two celebrate following the 81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on January 2, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. Wisconsin defeated Western Michigan 24-16. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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Winning a New Year’s Six bowl and outperforming nearly every preseason expectation typically results in a nice boost to a head coach’s bank account and that is the case at Wisconsin this year.

The Badgers announced on Friday that the school’s athletic board had extended head football coach Paul Chryst another year, running through January 31, 2022. Additional contract terms such as a potential raise or incentives were not announced, meaning this was likely just tacking another year onto the former Wisconsin quarterback’s original deal in Madison.

The move isn’t new for the program, which pulled the same extension almost to the day a year ago after Chryst led the Badgers to a 10-3 year in 2015 that was capped off with a Holiday Bowl victory over USC. The coach one-upped that performance in 2016, winning the Big Ten West title and getting selected for the Cotton Bowl, which the team won over previously undefeated Western Michigan.

Chryst’s original contract he signed two years ago was for a term of five seasons through 2020. He originally made around $2.3 million a year but should be hitting the $2.5 million mark heading into 2017 with various increases incorporated.