No. 14: Michigan State

Here’s the big question about Michigan State: If Ohio State and Michigan are going to be as good as advertised, where does that leave Sparty?

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The ceiling tends to be limted for teams that finish third in their division. There’s a limit to Jim Delany’s genius.

I’m not completely convinced, though, that Michigan State will finish third in the Big Ten’s Eastern juggernaut. The Spartans, who won in Ann Arbor and Columbus last year, get both of those opponents at home this year.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

All three of these teams are breaking in youngsters who will need to prove themselves. There are just a few more questions about Michigan State than the other two.

What that means is, this is a great opportunity for Mark Dantonio. I can never decide whether he’s under-appreciated or over-rated.

The guy has won at least 11 games five times in the last six years, with a 65-16 record. He’s 2-1 in the Big Ten championship game, with a win in the 100th Rose Bowl and a berth in the first College Football Playoff.

But that 38-0 loss to Alabama in the CFP semi-final was no way to ring in the New Year.

And with Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer seemingly poised to put on the greatest Big Ten show since Bo and Woody, where does that leave Dantonio?

With, as I said, a great opportunity.

If he can keep Sparty in the mix, we will have to start giving the 10th-year Michigan State coach more credit.

The most experienced team in the Big Ten a year ago, the Spartans are one of the youngest this year. Four starters are back on offense and six back on defense.

The retooling defensive line will feature 6-6, 280-pound tackle Malik McDowell, but needs some newcomers to step in strong. Linebacker and the secondary also are decently stocked.

Sparty was sixth in scoring offense (29.8) and defense (21.7), but led the Big Ten in turnover margin (plus-14) last year. Teams that win the turnover battle tend to win the game, but that also can be a bounce-of-the-ball stat.

On offense, Michigan State moves from Connor to O’Connor. Quarterback Connor Cook, who won 34 games and two Big Ten titles in three years, will be succeeded by fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor, who guided Michigan State past Ohio State last fall when Cook was injured.

Michigan State’s three leading rushers are back. So are senior tight end Josiah Price and senior wideout R.J. Shelton. True freshman Donnie Corley will have a chance be an early-impact player.

If you put all of those pieces around a veteran ``rookie’’ quarterback, it could work.

The other question is the schedule. The Spartans play their second game at Notre Dame, and then face Wisconsin at home on Sept. 24.

They’ll need to play well in those two games. If they do that, they’ll give themselves a chance to give Michigan and Ohio State things to think about.

And if Michigan State has a really big year, Dantonio will give the experts a lot to think about.

Herb's Countdown so far: No. 16: Georgia, No. 15: USC[/membership]