Michigan State represents a lot of what the public views as a true Big Ten team: true under-center quarterback, power running game, and dominant defense. That formula was enough to take down Urban Meyer's undefeated Ohio State squad in the 2013 conference championship game, as well as the favored Stanford Cardinal in last year's Rose Bowl. The Spartans lose some key players in Darqueze Dennard and Max Bullough, but plenty of pieces return (especially on offense) for a repeat run to the Big Ten title game.
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (8th year)
Key returning players: QB Connor Cook, DE Shilique Calhoun, RB Jeremy Langford
2013 Record: 13-1 (8-0 B1G)
The 2013 Spartans are a model of what Rutgers would like to become - all-world defense, powerful running game, and a QB who doesn't need to be anything more than a decent passer (Cook was worse than this at times and better at other times). For 2014, the strategy is still the same; rely on a strong defense to put the offense in a position to score. Connor Cook looked very sharp in the opener against lowly Jacksonville State, with only one incompletion in his one half of play. The running game produced 211 rushing yards, with Langford as the leading rusher with only 57 yards. And the secondary came away with three interceptions, albeit while giving up 222 passing yards.
It's hard to complain about that performance when most of the starters were relieved in the second half, and we'll know more about just how good the Spartans are this season when they travel to Eugene to take on national title-hopeful Oregon on Saturday night. Whether it's fair or not, Michigan State will be carrying the conference banner now that Wisconsin pooped the bed last weekend with a healthy lead against LSU, and it'll be interesting to see whether a historically not-quite-elite program can handle the spotlight, even with a win against the Ducks.
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Regardless of what happens this season, Michigan State is in position for great success moving forward. They have a head coach who fits perfectly with their program in Mark Dantonio, and he doesn't seem to want to leave anytime soon. It'll be interesting to see if he'll be just as successful without Broyles Award winner Pat Narduzzi leading his defense, as it's pretty likely Narduzzi will leave for a head coaching position within a couple of years. There's always a chance he becomes the Bud Foster type, staying until he gets a crack at the top position in East Lansing, but I think it'll be hard for him to pass up a great opportunity. Nevertheless, it's definitely more interesting to have someone besides the Buckeyes or Wolverines leading the conference.