After a strong 11-2 season that concluded with a dramatic victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, Michigan State has some buzz around the program with expectations reaching as high as a Big 10 championship and playoff berth prevented by two obvious obstacles.
First, while the Spartans return a serious amount of talent and experience in the middle of the field with QB Connor Cook, LB Ed Davis, and several experienced players on both lines, they are going to have to replace a lot of skill talent.
On defense they are going to have to reconquer the "no-fly zone" without free safety Kurtis Drummond or cornerback Trae Waynes and may also want to upgrade the field corner position from Darian Hicks who struggled in 2014 while attempting to help replace the tremendous production of Darqueze Dennard.
Perhaps more daunting, on offense they have to replace both the top two rushers and the top two receivers, four players that combined to account for 60% of the offensive touches last year, 63% of the yardage, and 67% of the touchdowns.
The second obvious obstacle is their schedule, which has three noticeable landmines. In their preconference slate they get a rematch against the Oregon Ducks who ripped them last year, then they have road trips in their Big 10 schedule to face Harbaugh's Wolverines and Urban's Buckeyes. You can be sure that Harbaugh will invest a great deal of program capital into finally getting out from under the heel of Dantonio's Spartans. The Buckeyes meanwhile are a consensus favorite to repeat as national champions as they return most of the winning ensemble from a year ago.
The Spartan defense will probably be just fine and are tweaking their approach some in the wake of losing Narduzzi and getting blasted by the murderer's row of spread offenses they faced in 2015. However, the Spartans have another strategy to help themselves elevate over the scheduling obstacles.
Just score lots of points.
There's a chance this Michigan State offense will be one of college football's finest. They finished 10th in offensive S&P in 2014 with a unit that was equally strong on standard or passing downs thanks to a balanced attack. The Spartans have a formula to replicate that success in 2015 that could prove decisive.
The offensive frastructure
While running back Jeremy Langford and leading receivers Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey are all moving on, the infrastructure that set them up for success last year all returns to catapult some new faces into the top of the statistical categories.
Perhaps the most important foundational piece is QB Connor Cook, coming off his second year as a starter in which he threw for 3214 yards at 8.8 yards per pass with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Cook has a lot of positive attributes, which is why he's considered a potential first round draft choice in 2016.
The most important quality for any QB is accurately throwing the ball where it's supposed to go in the face of pressure and defensive disguise, but in addition to that fundamental competency, Cook has the ideal arm strength to make a pro-style/power-run oriented offense exceptionally difficult to stop.
On this play he completes a hitch route to the wide side of the field against tight coverage from Ohio State's Doran Grant, who is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cook's ability to hit tight windows outside the hash marks make it very difficult for opponents to gameplan ways to get numbers in the box to stop Sparty's power run game.
Cook also frequently helps his receivers look good with after the catch opportunities thanks to his accuracy such as on this quick out route:
Cook's ability to make reads and good throws in their ball control passing game can help their receivers look good or allow them to be successful even when they can't generate much separation.
It's fitting that Michigan State should excel in the trenches, the aspect of football most similar to the ancient style of fighting for which the classic Spartans are famous for demonstrating excellence.
The 2015 Michigan State offensive line from left to right:
The only player here without a wealth of starting experience is Brian Allen, who dominated as a true freshman playing spot duty in 2014 with 25.5 knockdown blocks while only allowing a half sack in 316 snaps.
With Allen in place the team is now particularly intimidating when running gap schemes to the left side of the formation, pulling big bad Clark over from the right side to execute trap or lead blocks while Conklin and the Allens cave in the left side.
This is a mauling group they've assembled in Lansing that are going to pave the way for someone to run for 1k yards, even if we don't yet know who that will be.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the returning Spartan personnel is the quality and versatility evident in their starting tight end Josiah Price and fullback Trevon Pendleton. As seen above, both are active and effective blockers that give the Spartans a lot of versatility in how they draw up their various power and gap schemes since neither are guys that need to be hidden with easier assignments.
But in addition to being a good blocking tight end, Price is a great receiver as well that can run routes in the seam, flex out wide, or even join the backfield as a pass protector. Between these two and some other good tight ends on campus, Michigan State can run a wide variety of different formations and be balanced in heavier, traditional run-blocking sets like the Pro I-formation.
Creating new heroes
With this foundation, the Spartans have a relatively simple task to find new heroes to be the beneficiaries and replace all the lost production.
Filling in gaps in the running game should prove simple enough as the combination of Cook's arm throwing outside and the tremendous blocking in the middle of the field should put defenses in too much of a bind to stop a reasonably capable back from doing a lot of damage.
Redshirt freshman Gerald Holmes seems to be a reliable option with the feet and physicality to get things done in the Spartan run game. Madre London is a home-run hitter that could also see a chance to be the man.
The Spartans will set these guys up for success in other ways besides fielding great blockers. State will often execute their trap schemes from spread sets they normally use for passing concepts, you just never know from the formation whether they are going to throw it or try to ram it down your throat:
This play essentially works the same as a "slice" inside zone play only instead of using an H-back or fullback to trap the unblocked defensive end they pull a guard. The effect is even more pronounced, at the point of attack they get a big guard knocking aside the end while the left tackle and left guard double team the tackle and climb up to the playside linebacker.
The Spartans aren't straightforward or simple with their passing game either and will always scheme to put their best players in position to run routes against a defense's weakest defenders. They'd often line up Tony Lippett as the slot receiver to the boundary, sometimes in empty sets, where he'd often draw the defense's worst coverage player in the back seven.
The Spartans would set up Lippett (the star here) with combinations like this, with a spacing concept to the three receiver side designed to create horizontal stress on the defense, a couple of deep alert routes to allow the QB to take a deep shot if he likes the match-up, and then Lippett lined up on a weakside underneath defender running an option route. If he can win inside across that defender's face he will but he could also break back outside.
The Spartans would regularly line Lippett up in this slot and have him run option or vertical routes that are hard for good coverage players to defend, much less the types of defenders he'd often see across from him in this alignment. As talented as Lippett was, it's easier to look good when your system creates easy leverage and match-ups for you.
The Michigan St offensive staff would use a variety of methods to help their receivers get open including bunch and stack alignments for their receivers, a wide variety of formations, and of course play-action.
Besides tight end Price, the Spartans return slot receiver RJ Shelton, Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings, and DeAnthony Arnett to serve as targets for Cook in 2015. They shouldn't struggle to execute their ball-control concepts with this crew, which includes several shifty athletes, but whether they have guys that can force defenses to drop safeties deep remains to be seen. Even if they don't, this staff has demonstrated they know how to attack defenses and scheme opportunities to land punches in the passing game.
Don't be surprised if some of their younger receivers end up showing some exceptional talent once they're plugged into these schemes and supported by the Spartan infrastructure, and don't be surprised if Michigan State doesn't let Ohio State just walk away with the Big 10 title either.
If they still can't shut down the Buckeye offense that doesn't mean they still won't outscore it.