No. 14: Michigan State

The wise guys in college basketball will tell you that the safe bet during the NCAA tournament each year is to back a Tom Izzo--coached team in March. That didn't hold up last season, of course, as the No. 2 Spartans were bounced in the first round by No. 15 Middle Tennessee State.

But in most cases, it has been wise advice.

In football, the teams coached by the Spartans' Mark Dantonio have produced similar results. A year ago the Spartans won AT Michigan and AT Ohio State. And, they also beat an Iowa team, which was ranked in the Top 5, in the Big Ten championship game. [membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

The Spartans made it to the Final Four before eventual national champion Alabama shut them down.

The early word is that Michigan (under Jim Harbaugh) and Ohio State (under Urban Meyer) are again the class of the Big Ten East and that Iowa will continue to reign in the Big Ten West.

Which leaves Michigan State where?

Let's start with HOME games against Michigan and Ohio State

That does not mean there is not talent ready to play bigger roles. Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry took over at QB when Cook was hurt and helped the Spartans beat Ohio State. LJ Scott looks ready to become the primary running back after scoring 11 TDs and gaining almost 700 yards in a rotation role last season. A linebacker like Riley Bullough is a star in waiting and Dantonio had arguably his best recruiting class.

On paper, it looks like this will be a transition season for the Spartans as they adjust to new faces. But recent history---only one of six Power 5 conference schools with a winning percentage of better than .800 since 2010--suggests the Spartans will be a factor in November, December and maybe even January.

 The countdown: No. 16 Pepper Hamilton (Baylor), No. 15 Georgia[/membership]